Bathrooms in Essex Property Trust apartments have style and staying power.

That means residents won't find ceramic or stone on remodeled restroom floors because residue from the hard water in some of the firm's West Coast markets leaves the tiles looking "real dingy real quickly," says Tom Flitsch, director of redevelopment for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based apartment REIT. And they won't see trendy or wild colors on the walls. "We're looking for an enduring value," says Flitsch, "something that's going to last over 10 years and still be stylish, still be clean, still be maintainable."

The smallest room in the apartment, the bathroom can fool renovators into thinking there's not much to do in there during an overhaul.

The bathrooms in the 618-unit Lincoln on the Green in Memphis cleaned up beautifully with new vanities, fixtures, and more.
Pat Ryan, Business Visuals The bathrooms in the 618-unit Lincoln on the Green in Memphis cleaned up beautifully with new vanities, fixtures, and more.

Yet from toilets to towel racks, this utilitarian room is giving the kitchen a run for its money when it comes to household style.

"If you [renovate] the kitchen, you pretty much have to do the same type of things in the bathrooms," notes David Nischwitz, vice president in charge of the interior renovation program at Mid-America Apartment Communities in Memphis. "If you don't complete the bath, it becomes that much more dated because the kitchen looks that much better. The two really have to go hand in hand."

And, Flitsch of Essex adds, it's important to choose bathroom fixtures, floors, and faucets that will handle under constant use and still look great when fickle renters decide they want apartment companies to flush the latest decorating fad down the toilet.

Bathrooms in the 140-unit Le Parc Luxury Apartments in Santa Clara, Calif., went from sad to sparkling with an all-white makeover.
Essex Property Trust Bathrooms in the 140-unit Le Parc Luxury Apartments in Santa Clara, Calif., went from sad to sparkling with an all-white makeover.

So it's good to tackle the job with a plan in hand, advises Karen Kossow, assistant vice president of sales and marketing for KSI Management in Centreville, Va. "You have to set a certain budget," she says. "If you go with materials that are too inexpensive, they're not going to last." Neither will trendy pieces that will make the room appear dated in the time that one resident moves out and another moves in.

Le Parc Luxury Apartments in Santa Clara, Calif.
Essex Property Trust Le Parc Luxury Apartments in Santa Clara, Calif.

The most important thing? Just do it. "The biggest mistake is not upgrading when they should," Julie Hatman, an interior designer in Chantilly, Va., says of multifamily owners. "Anything that's out-of-date or not up to par would be a definite don't."

Factors to Consider

Remodeling bathrooms, says Flitsch, "comes down to a whole bunch of factors of both location and use." So, before Essex removes an apartment's toilet, sink, countertop, and vanity–leaving the small space renovation-ready with just four walls and a ceiling–Flitsch's staff considers who might be moving in.

Many of its B-class buildings, where Essex has concentrated most of its renovation work, appeal to families with children, Flitsch says. It wouldn't make sense to install new glass sliding shower doors, because it's easier to bathe a child in a tub when a parent can push a shower curtain aside instead of squeezing past a door.

Buildings that feature mostly one-bedroom apartments are more likely to attract residents without kids and are good candidates for the glass doors, Flitsch reasons.

"It comes down to location and what other amenities we're providing on the property," Flitsch says, noting the design of this one small room depends on a slew of factors that have nothing to do with the color of porcelain.

Still, color plays a part in preening the privy. "We want some color to what we do, but we don't want to over-commit everybody's taste," notes Flitsch. "We want to make it very impressive, [not so that] you can't put your furniture in it.

To that end, Essex installs white toilets, tubs, and sinks, but interior designer Hatman says white's on its way out. "Nobody wants to see the white or the bisque," she says, suggesting instead creamier beiges that complement the earthy browns, tans, and terra cotta colors to which condo and single-family homebuyers have become partial for bathroom floors and vanity tops.

Indeed, the same granite countertops and wood floors that grace high-end kitchens are favorites in top-line apartment lavatories, notes Hatman, of IK&F and Cache Furnishing, an interior design firm in Chantilly, Va. And the rich textures and patterns of marble, slate, and terrazzo are showing up on floors and in shower surrounds.

"There are trends to make bathrooms look not so much like bathrooms," notes John Inge, a principal in the consumer marketing firm Alloy Partnership in Seattle. He points to vanities that resemble kitchen cabinets and furniture-quality armoires that substitute for built-in shelving.

Architect Mark Johnson, manager of architecture and design marketing for appliance manufacturer Whirlpool Corp., notes he, too, is seeing a concentration on nicer finishes and cabinetry in bathrooms, particularly in the urban high-rises that young professionals call home.

Privy Practicality

Still, bathroom beautification doesn't have to break the bank, notes Nischwitz.

In a mass kitchen-and-bath renovation in many of its communities, Mid-America replaced all of its bathroom sinks with white bowls and changed out clear-knob hot-and-cold faucets with brushed nickel single levers. It replaced damaged floor tiles, but scrubbed the rest until they were stain-free, and scoured the tub spotless. The final touch: smooth new showerheads, shower rods, and towel racks in brushed nickel, just like the faucet.

Township n Hampton Woods in Hampton, Va.
Robert Och, Moment in Light Custom Photography Township n Hampton Woods in Hampton, Va.

"We're not doing anything earth-shattering," Nischwitz says. "We make sure it looks sharp when it's turned."

Cindy Shepardson, vice president of operations for Western National Property Management in Irvine, Calif., agrees. "Everything should be immaculately clean," she says. "Everything should work properly. Cabinets should close."

Matching fixtures, towel bars, and other hardware create a clean look at the Township in Hampton Woods in Hampton, Va.
Robert Och, Moment in Light Custom Photography Matching fixtures, towel bars, and other hardware create a clean look at the Township in Hampton Woods in Hampton, Va.

Indeed, the finishing flair might be the hardware, an often-overlooked accessory that can add a fanciful touch to a small, simple bathroom.

"One of the trends we're seeing is that [consumers] want everything matching," says Jeff Kessler, Moen's director of strategic accounts for non-single-family residences. By coordinating doorknobs, tissue holders, towel bars, cabinet hardware, lighting fixtures, and faucets, an apartment owner can add the appearance of a designer's touch to even a cookie-cutter renovation.

Lighting helps too. Mid-America traded its old marquis-style bathroom lighting for hanging tulip sconces.

Still, designer touches aren't the only the only updates an apartment owner or manager should consider. Ultra-low-flow toilets allow a building owner to dramatically reduce water use–by as much as 25 gallons a year per family, says Gordon Wuthrich, director of marketing for Kohler's Sterling brand.

–Sharon O'Malley is a freelance writer in College Park, Md.

Bathing Beauty

Beautiful bathrooms begin with the basics: a spanking-clean tub, toilet, sink, and tile; a fresh coat of creamy beige paint; and a scuff-free, earth-tone floor. Depending on the price range and population, extras can turn a regular restroom into a mini-oasis. Here's what you need to know to turn your bathrooms into bathing beauties for any property profile.

Affordable property: Scrub the tub (and everything else) until it sparkles like new. If everything looks nice and works well, make one investment: hardware. Replace faucets, showerheads, towel racks, cabinet handles, tissue holders, and doorknobs with brushed-nickel accessories so they all match.

Market-rate property: Reglaze the tub, install a matching sink and trade up to an ultra low-flow toilet, which not only looks nice but saves on water bills. Remove plastic tub surrounds; tile is more elegant and durable. Lay a faux-stone vinyl or laminate floor, and replace the vanity surface with one that matches the kitchen countertops.

Luxury property: Upgrade the vanity and any shelving in the room to furniture-quality wood cabinetry. Consider granite for the vanity top. Hang a fancy mirror on the wall over the sink. Install well-lacquered hardwood floors–or go the extra mile and spring for real stone.