Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Americans want luxury in bathrooms



By Jeffrey Gold
The Associated Press

OLD TAPPAN, N.J. - Flush with cash, more Americans are placing grander throne rooms in their castles.

The household bathroom, long a functional and spartan chamber, is evolving into a showplace as remodelers and builders install precious metals, fine stone and high-tech plumbing in more houses across the country.

Consumers want the larger and pricier bathrooms - some adorned with sconces and columns - that they see in hotels, spas, magazines, the Internet and home improvement television shows. Also driving the trend are low mortgage rates, construction of bigger and grander houses and people who would rather invest in their homes than stocks.

Toward the top of the market are homeowners like Janice Gilliam, who estimated that she and her husband spent more than $50,000 on the master bath for their $1.6 million home in 2001.

"We didn't expect to go this big," Gilliam explained.

A crystal and pewter chandelier, skylight and wide window brighten their airy, 12-by-16-foot master bathroom. The creamy marble floor warms the toes and heats the room through hot water pipes under the stone. The tub is encased in polished green granite highlighted by gold and black flecks, as are his-and-her sinks, each with its own wall-size mirror and cherry vanity.

"We used to pinch ourselves and say we couldn't believe we lived here," Gilliam said.

Such amenities are also appearing in homes costing a fraction of Gilliam's, boosting revenues in the multibillion-dollar U.S. bath market.

Plumbers and builders say bathroom costs can easily triple because of fine fixtures and finishes, but claim the expense is more than recouped at resale.

Remodeling is the biggest driver of the bath market, said James Lucas, an industry analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott Inc., noting that 40 percent of U.S. homes are over 40 years old.

But new construction is also a factor. Over half of today's new homes have 2.5 or more bathrooms, compared to just 25 percent 20 years ago, according to Piscataway-based American Standard, the world's largest producer of bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

Its overall sales grew by nearly 10 percent to $1.99 billion in 2002, as did sales of its Porcher (por-SHAY') high-end bath line, said Jeannette Long, director of U.S. marketing and communications.

"I don't see any sign of it slowing," said Diana Schrage, an interior designer at fixture maker Kohler Co. in Kohler, Wis. "It's been phenomenal." Kohler is privately held and does not disclose sales figures.

Couples often get ready for work at the same time, leading to master bathrooms that feature two sinks and two toilets - each in an enclosed area - as well as coffee makers, Schrage said.

But Michael Olsher lives alone in a 5-bedroom, 5.5-bathroom, $1.6 million home overlooking the 18th green at Mizner Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla. A onetime business professor and steel executive, Olsher now builds homes, and designed his master bath to be agreeable to a woman (he hopes to marry).

In addition to a domed ceiling, four columns and separate enclosures for his-and-hers toilets, her water closet has a bidet and cabinet. "I bet you there are more conversations going on between partners in the bathroom than the bedroom," Olsher said.

Business has been booming for Thomas D. Palermo, whose family now has nine bath and plumbing outlets in New Jersey, compared to three in 1991. "Every new home, without exception, from moderate-priced condos on up, gets at least one whirlpool," Palermo said.

Prices range from moderate to - literally - gold-plated. A total "tear out" in which a bathroom gets new high-end fixtures and materials can cost $10,000 to $25,000 in northern New Jersey, compared to an average of $4,500 a decade ago, Palermo estimated.

At the Ridgewood branch of Palermo Supply Co., manager Victoria Reczkowski ticked off prices.

A plain white sink is available for $200, while $700 will buy one that has patterned, glazed enamel, and $1,000 gets a stainless steel "vessel" style, which sits atop the counter.

Many models of faucets are available in chrome for about $50, making it a best seller, but brushed nickel is a fast-rising No. 2, and costs 30 percent more. Gold or sterling silver start at $1,700.

Multi-head shower systems, including a handheld nozzle, start at $1,000. If that isn't wet enough, try the $5,000 Kohler WaterHaven system (not including the installation or the need for a large water heater and pipes): It features two telescoping heads, four adjustable body sprays and one hand-held nozzle.

It costs about $3,000 to $4,000 to add a steam-room experience to the shower, including electrical and plumbing work, Reczkowski said.

The toilet can be warmed with just a $70 heated seat.

Ready for a tub? The basic 5-footer of coated cast iron starts at $200. Basic whirlpools start around $2,000, and exceed $10,000 for two-person, programmable models with sequential massage jets and bubblers.

"People are much more cognizant of the plumbing fixtures that they are putting in," said custom builder Anthony Ceccon, owner of Talsa Construction Co., of Saddle River, who specializes in homes costing $2 million to $4 million. He is finishing an eight-bedroom house that has 12 bathrooms.

A big house 20 years ago had about 3,200 square feet of finished space, but he said he is now building homes of 6,000 to 10,000 square feet.

The same trend has been seen by Toll Brothers Inc., of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., which builds luxury homes in 22 states, with prices ranging from $200,000 to $1.5 million.

Its average home is now 3,700 square feet, up 23 percent from 3,000 a decade ago. But the growth of Toll's master bathrooms has outpaced that, expanding more than 50 percent to 202 square feet from 134 square feet over 10 years, architecture director Jed Gibson said.




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