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Americans are obsessed with bathrooms

Published Jun. 3, 2000|Updated Sep. 27, 2005

Bathrooms have gone from useful to luxurious in the short time that we've had indoor plumbing.

Until the 1980s, one bathroom per family _ and perhaps a powder room for the convenience of guests _ appeared to be enough.

But for the past 20 years, new-home buyers have become obsessed with bathrooms: the bigger and more extravagant, the better.

It hasn't been all that long since indoor plumbing became a standard feature of the American home.

According to the 1940 U.S. Census, there were 37.4-million dwellings in the United States. Of these, 11.5-million had no running water. More than 34 percent, or 13-million houses, had no private flush toilets.

More than 40 percent, or 16-million dwellings, had no bathtub or shower. Four percent of houses had a hand pump for water, 21 percent had running water within 50 feet of the house and 5 percent had no water supply within 50 feet.

For more than three decades after the end of World War II, the typical American new house had three bedrooms and one bathroom, probably because the buyers of those houses had grown up when indoor plumbing was truly considered a luxury.

Younger buyers, it seems, have higher minimal standards than their parents. These days, two baths are a standard feature of most new houses _ that is, included in the base price. Research from the National Association of Home Builders shows that 53 percent of all new homes built last year had 2{ or more bathrooms, compared to just 15 percent in 1971.

An NAHB survey, "What Today's Home Buyers Want," showed that 47 percent of respondents overall wanted 2{ baths, and 23 percent wanted three or more. Among married couples with a child under 12, 52 percent wanted 2{ baths and 30 percent wanted three or more. Among couples with teenagers, 48 percent wanted 2{ baths and 34 percent wanted three or more.

A lot of higher-end houses have three bathrooms, or even four, and they are filled with the latest in showers, vanities, sinks and toilets. And let's not forget the bidets.

Unlike basements or bonus rooms, which can be finished anytime after a house is purchased, a bathroom costs much more to add later than during construction of the house.

According to the annual "Cost vs. Value" report published by Remodeling magazine, adding a bathroom to an existing house in the Tampa Bay area could cost as much as $11,552.

Remodeling's new bathroom is a six-foot-by-eight-foot room within the existing floor plan but convenient to the bedrooms.

Included are a cultured marble vanity top, molded sink, standard bathtub with a shower, low-profile toilet, lighting, mirrored medicine cabinet, linen storage, vinyl wallpaper, ceramic tile floor and ceramic tile walls in the tub area.

Retrofitting an existing house to accommodate a new bathroom involves opening floors and walls and locating pipes. Proximity to the soil line also can limit where the bathroom can be added.

The concern over the number of bathrooms in a house pales by comparison to the interest in amenities. The NAHB "What Today's Buyers Want" survey found that 85 percent of respondents wanted a separate shower enclosure instead of just a showerhead over the bathtub and 70 percent wanted a private toilet compartment. (Those figures are totals of people who said the feature was either "desirable" or "essential/must have.")

The survey was conducted among people who said they were thinking about buying a house or had been reading new-home publications, but were far from settling on a particular house.

That fact might have skewed the survey results, according to Gopal Ahluwahlia, director of research for the NAHB.

"It appears that there is a different response when you ask buyers what they want before a community opens than when they are there writing a check," Ahluwahlia said.

But maybe not. Mary Jo Peterson, a kitchen and bath design consultant from Brookfield, Conn., said almost half of all buyers and remodeling customers are looking for a separate tub and shower in the bathroom, a double lavatory, and whirlpool tubs. They also want makeup centers.

"They want luxury showers and accessories, as well as artlike lavatories and jewelry-like faucets, heated toilet seats, towel racks and stone floors," Peterson said.

Fifty percent in the NAHB survey said multiple shower heads were desirable or essential, 71 percent wanted a dressing/makeup area and 67 percent wanted a whirlpool.

Buyers and remodeling customers are looking for larger and unusually shaped showers, "sometimes without doors and without a raised threshold" for easier access as the homeowner ages, Peterson said.

Showers and tubs should have support rails and seats for comfort and safety. Showers should have multiple heads, body sprays and handheld sprays, she said. And there is a lot of interest in steam showers.

There also is a lot of call for water temperature control in showers. Of those surveyed by the NAHB, a full 74 percent would prefer to avoid being scalded by sudden loss of cold water _ flushing a toilet, for example.

"Consumers also are buying vanity sinks made of blown glass, pottery, concrete, porcelain or metal, often created for above-the-counter installations," Peterson said. These above-the-counter sinks are known as vessel sinks. In addition, "there is increased use of furniture-like and console installations to replace standard vanity cabinets."

Consumers want faucets made from combinations such as nickel, chrome, brass and crystal, she said. Toilets need to be at standard or raised height, with options for heated seats and personal hygiene systems such as bidets.

"Many consumers want in-wall tank toilets that permit flexibility in installation height, save floor space and provide ease of maintenance," she said.

In high-end and model houses, master baths often include his and her showers as well as refrigerators in drawers to hold medicine that needs to be kept cold, a coffee bar, and cable-ready television for watching the morning news while shaving or bathing.

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