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Look in mirror before starting a bath redo

What would make your life easier or better? Is lighting or ventilation in need of an upgrade?

Remodeling a bathroom? Consider which features it's missing now.

The older your house, the more MIAs there will be.

Bob Bowman and John Matusik Jr., the "B & M" of B & M Custom Carpentry in West Deptford, generally work on older South Jersey homes. So in their upgrades, exhaust fans are a priority. Even if a bathroom has one, it often doesn't work well.

"We like to put them in-line, from the room, through the ductwork, into the attic, into the fan, then outside," said Matusik. "Older houses aren't vented."

And, the pair said, they can count on replacing decrepit lighting.

Ditto Drew Miller, owner of Drew Miller Custom Builder in Collegeville: "The bathrooms are 20 years old, and the bulbs are 20 years old," he said.

Upgrades include installing recessed lighting over the main fixtures, Bowman said: toilet, shower or tub, and vanity.

"It definitely benefits the room," he said.

What's lacking in more upscale homes such as those in Upper Bucks County, as far as Furlong designer and general contractor Cyndi Haaz is concerned, are upgrades that meet the demands of busy families.

Take out the tub, she advised, and install larger showers. People don't have time for a long soak; besides, it empties the hot-water heater. Install multiple showerheads, too.

If the bathroom has one sink, or lav, as she calls it, then install two: "He can shave while you brush your teeth."

Plus, having two sinks can keep the peace if one spouse is messy and the other is neat. "That makes for a better relationship," Haaz said.

Such changes would set the homeowner back about $20,000, she said, a little more than the figure cited in the latest Cost vs. Value report assembled annually by Realtor magazine and the National Association of Realtors through a members survey.

According to the latest data, this is the first time in six years that the overall percentage return on investment has improved. An $18,500 bathroom makeover in the Philadelphia area (the median cost) can net a homeowner 60 percent of its cost at resale.

Though most of the upgrades discussed here fall into this median-cost category, it's the quality of the fixtures that will put you over the $18,500 mark. And don't forget about labor, those interviewed cautioned.

In a one-bathroom rowhouse or twin in Philadelphia, you might want to bypass an upgrade and add a bath instead. On the first floor, maybe, by eliminating that coat closet where the soil pipe is so conveniently hidden. Or in the basement.

"I would trade a closet all day long," said Paul Bondy, president of Exit Realty in Ambler. He estimated it would cost about $5,000 to put a toilet and sink in such a space, as long as the water access was close.

The house's "automatically appraised value will go up, $3,000, $6,000" with a powder room on the first floor, Bondy said.

Typically, he said, it's easier to install a powder room in the basement because in Philadelphia water lines go directly into the cellar. A house's appraised value would rise about the same amount if a powder room were added there, he noted.

Cosmetic changes to a bathroom can add value, too, Miller said. You can dye grout, install a new vanity, remove the shower rod and install glass doors, and install new tile over existing tile, as long as the floor is sound and not seriously cracked.

"Yes, it messes up the toilet," Miller said - extension rings have to be installed. But, he added, "we've never had a problem."

Designer Kathy Appel, co-owner of Hearth and Hedgerow in Quakertown, said readers should not take the Cost vs. Value report as gospel.

The prime reason to remodel is to please yourself, Appel said:

"It's about quality of life. The fact that you get 60 percent [back when you sell] is an added bonus."