Bathroom dilemmas: doing up a bathroom in a rented flat

Here’s the dilemma of the rented flat-dweller: how much do you do yourself, and how much do you leave to the landlord? We figured, there are times when there’s just no point in expecting other people to sort your life out for you. But obviously, under the circumstances, we wanted a nice living environment for as little as we could possibly spend. So, how to sort out our horrible old bathroom without leaving ourselves too far out of pocket?

Fortunately the fittings weren’t too bad – a little old-fashioned maybe, but looked at another way they could be seen as pleasantly retro. And in white, which was half the battle. The main problem was the general grottiness of the décor. Luckily we’re not too bad at DIY so we decided to have a crack at it. First step was to take away all the redundant, knackered towel rails and cabinets which were dotted round the room and which weren’t serving any useful purpose – except providing opportunities for tall people to hit their heads every time they got in or out of the bath. In the bin with those. Next was to swap the rotten shower curtain for a new one – an investment of less than a tenner – and to screw the rail into the wall properly so it no longer hung at half mast.

Decorating was an essential and peeling off the vinyl wallpaper revealed the first nasty shock – the reason for all its strange lumps and bumps was that it had been put on straight over the top of a heavy textured hessian paper. That’s right: someone had hung a new paper straight over the top of this excrescence without bothering to strip it off first. And I could almost see why when I started to try to remove it. Getting this horrible old paper off was quite a challenge – it was far too rough and tough for a wallpaper steamer to handle and resorting to good, old-fashioned elbow grease and a scraper was the only solution.

A good tip if you find yourself in a similar situation is to dissolve sugar soap in the water you use to soak it – that will give you a head start in dissolving the paste. This paper obviously had staying power – it looked like it had been there since the late 60s and was determined to stay on that wall as long as it possibly could. Of course the problem with trying to do DIY in bathrooms is that you’re often working in a confined space – not the best circumstances for tackling a difficult task at any time.

Thankfully the paper was finally stripped to reveal plaster in basically good condition – except for several large holes where various fittings, including one of those old-fashioned clothes lines that goes over the baths, had been screwed in then removed with no attempt to make good the plaster again. Lucky this wasn’t too much of a problem as the underlying surface was sound and it was easy to fill these in with patching plaster.

The next major problem was the carpet. This was the thing that really inspired us to do it up: the previous occupants’ young son had obviously had a bit to learn on the toilet training front and it smelt very nasty. Nothing would shift this – cleaning it, using deodorising chemicals – and it had that unpleasant sticky texture that comes to all old bathroom carpet in the fullness of time. I decided to cut it into strips for disposal – and then I got my next nasty surprise.

Underneath old carpet you might expect to find underlay or stretchers, right? Wrong. This carpet was just lying on top of a sheet of ancient lino – the dust was appalling – and it was obvious that, once again, I was looking at the original flooring that had been installed when the flats were built. I won’t dwell on the details of removing this, except to say that it’s amazing what you can hide away in communal bins… Oh, yes. And did I mention that someone in their wisdom had carpeted up the side of the bath and basin cabinet? No, no, no, it all had to go…

After we’d stripped out the paper and carpet we were left with a pretty decent room. A quick coat of own-brand hard-wearing emulsion in a nice, strong colour on the walls and fresh paint for the ceiling and woodwork. Grotty old tile grout and sealant are easily covered up by applying a fresh grout mixture and new sealant over the top – this is a great way to perk up tiles quickly. The floor was in good condition and we decided to lay hardboard over the boards and put down cheap, easy-care flooring tiles.

This was the most expensive bit but also the most necessary. And it can take a bit of skill and patience to lay these properly, cutting them round all the awkward angles, especially at the bottom of the loo. One useful tip is to buy non-adhesive tiles and apply the adhesive separately – this gives you much more scope to wiggle them about and get them to line up exactly before they’re stuck faster than a fly on a fly paper.

A quick fix for the bare bath and basin cabinet sides was a mosaic-patterned vinyl wallpaper – just a few quid for a roll, reasonably durable, easy to repair if it does peel off and looking really smart, especially with the stone-effect floor tiles we’d used. Then some accessories – mirrors, storage, lampshades – all of which could leave with us. Hey, presto, a bathroom nightmare turned into something habitable for not too much cash. And we got about five years’ use out of it before moving, so on the whole it was money well spent.

So, what is your worst DIY experience? And your tips for cheap and easy bathroom fixes? We’d really like to hear them too…