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Flush with New Ideas

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath

Craig O’Connor says bathroom makeovers by Affordable Bath can include deep soaking tubs, which are growing in popularity.

It’s one of the most important rooms in the house — resale-wise, and otherwise. And yet, many people live with something that’s been outdated for 20 years or more. New materials, products, and techniques provide an array of creative and often-affordable options for giving the bathroom a new life.

 

A bathroom makeover can be functional and involve a simple update, or turn the space into a spa-like retreat with recessed lighting, a heated floor, a spacious tiled shower with multiple shower heads and built-in benches, or a deep soaking tub where the water vibrates in response to soft music.

The choices are almost limitless, and thanks to new materials and technology, there are solutions for every budget that result in a fresh, clean, updated look.

“The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important,” said Jason Cusimano, owner of Bathfitter of Western Mass. in Greenfield, which specializes in customized acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and shower-to-bath conversions.

Jim Belle-Isle agrees. “The bathroom is the first thing people see in the morning and the last room they see before they go to bed,” said the owner of BathCrafters in Chicopee, which also specializes in custom acrylic tub liners, wall systems, and conversions.

 

The two rooms that affect resale value the most are the kitchen and the bathroom; they tend to be most expensive to remodel, but are also the most important.”

 

Affordable Baths Inc. in Springfield, meanwhile, does complete makeovers that begin with gutting the entire room. The existing footprint can be replicated, or the room may get an entirely new design, which allows a homeowner to be as creative as their budget and imagination allow.

“Many people are suffering with bathrooms that have been outdated for 10 or 15 years; they wait to remodel until they are ready to put their house on the market, but if you are going to spend the money, you should do it at least a few years before you sell so you can enjoy it,” said Craig O’Connor, owner of Affordable Baths, adding that a remodeled bathroom adds instant equity to a home.

Local bath remodelers say the majority of their clients are 35 and older, and are remodeling or making changes because the room is outdated or has problems due to mold and mildew. Baby Boomers also make up a large part of their business, and those who plan to stay in their homes often want the bathtub converted into a spacious shower stall with grab bars, a seat, and recessed soap holders.

“Twenty years ago, we did one shower conversion for every tub makeover. Now the ratio is one-to-one,” Cusimano said as he spoke about the growing trend. “The bathroom usually has a small footprint, but eliminating a tub can make the space seem amazingly larger.”

Trends and styles come and go, but white fixtures are the most popular, followed by neutrals that include beige and gray. Although many remodeling shows on TV feature bathrooms with intricate tiles and daring designs in shower stalls, grouted seams require maintenance, and most New Englanders want surfaces that are easy to clean and prefer wall surrounds or large, block-style tiles.

For this edition and its focus on home improvement, BusinessWest explores options offered by local remodelers that range from complete makeovers to less-costly renovations that include relining and resurfacing tubs, sinks, wall tiles, and bath surrounds, extending their life and giving them a clean, updated look.

Changing Trends

O’Connor’s Springfield showroom contains tiles, vanities, showerheads, shower stalls, faucets, lighting, countertop samples, flooring, and everything else needed for a complete bathroom remodel. The typical cost of a job in New England is $14,000, but Affordable Bath can usually do a complete remodel for $10,000, as long as the footprint isn’t changed. However, the price rises if people choose costly options such as heated floors, custom tile bath surrounds, or vanities larger than 36 inches.

The room is gutted down to the studs, and the remodeling takes a week or two to complete. It can be inconvenient for homeowners who have only one bathroom, but the new bath or shower is ready for use by the end of the first week, and clients are offered Porta Potty units.

Gunmetal-gray-colored vanities are growing in popularity, but most people choose shades of brown, and quartz countertops are replacing granite; the material is slightly more expensive, but doesn’t require maintenance and resists stains.

O’Connor told BusinessWest that many people whose master bathrooms have Jacuzzi tubs are eliminating them or replacing them with deep-soaking or claw-foot models.

Jim Belle-Isle

Jim Belle-Isle says BathCrafters can install a new bathtub liner and wall system in one or two days to give the room an updated look.

Claw-foot tubs come in cast iron, which retains the temperature of the water for long periods of time, or acrylic, which weighs less and is a good choice for second floors.

Some Baby Boomers and seniors are also looking toward the future and choosing walk-in tubs.

“The surfaces are heated, and the jets can be positioned to hit the knees, hips, or lower back,” O’Connor said, adding that roll-in showers with fold-down seats and grab bars are another option that eliminate the need to step over a wall to bathe.

“We’ve created bathrooms that range from a basic remodel that meets practical needs to spaces that provide the comfort of a private, spa-like retreat,” he continued, noting that the company recently remodeled a master bathroom and installed an oversized Jacuzzi tub and separate shower with multiple showerheads, custom tiles, a built-in bench, and a frameless glass exterior.

Although a complete makeover is the ultimate choice, there are many options for people who don’t need or want that option or can’t afford it. They include having a custom-made acrylic tub and liner installed over the existing one. The liners usually have lifetime warranties, and the entire job can be done in about two days and enhanced with a new sink with fancy faucets and a new toilet.

“We have more than 1,000 acrylic molds that fit every cast-iron or steel tub, along with multiple designs and colors,” Cusimano said, adding that bronze or brushed nickel drains or overflows are popular and an average job costs $3,000 to $4,000, although prices for tub-to-shower conversions range from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on factors that include how much plumbing is required and whether the homeowner wants built-in seats and other high-end features.

He told BusinessWest that acrylic is a very high-end plastic and far more durable than old bath surrounds that tend to be made of fiberglass. The material is easy to clean, and the finish never wears off, as acrylic is not a coating.

Many bathrooms remodelers are called upon to change have baby-blue or pink tubs and fixtures, and tiles that were also used as wainscoting and were popular in the ’40s and ’50s.

The tiles are often removed before a new wall system is put in place, and water damage caused by small cracks in the tiles or grouting behind them is repaired.

“There can be hundreds of seams in a tiled bathroom where water can get in,” Cusimano said, adding that some people have no idea that this has been happening.

Most tub liners and wall systems need beading where the edges meet, but new barrier materials are infused with mildicides and antimicrobial additives.

The wall systems Bathfitter uses don’t come in pieces, but are custom-made after taking measurements with a laser. They extend from the edge of the tub or shower to the ceiling, and the corners are bent so there are no seams inside the tub.

Soap dishes and corner caddies can be added, along with acrylic on the ceiling, and bowed rods are gaining popularity as they make the area seem more spacious.

BathCrafters also makes custom tub liners that are formed to fit perfectly over existing tubs, and if tile walls are in excellent shape, Belle-Isle said, they can be covered with acrylic liners, which reduces the cost of removing them. In addition, tile wainscoting in dated colors can be covered with tile-shaped acrylic.

“The biggest decision they have to make is whether they want a shower door. It does pose a maintenance issue, but some people want glass doors without metal frames,” he noted.

Although tub surrounds come in many colors and designs, neutral palettes allow people to change the look of the bathroom in the future without having to spend a lot of money. “People can get creative with floor tile, vanity tops, and paint colors,” Belle-Isle said, adding that he often reminds customers that it is much easier to redo a floor than a tub and surround.

“Remodeling can cost a lot, but the main issue in a bathroom is usually the tub or shower. Many don’t want to completely gut the room, but they do want a look that is modern and doesn’t require much maintenance, and we can provide that,” he continued, adding that everything he installs is customized to fit.

Miracle Method of Ludlow offers another option that is the least expensive choice but completely updates the look of a bathroom, tub, or shower area and extends the life of existing tubs and showers that are scratched, chipped, or contain outdated colors. After the tub or wall surround is professionally cleaned, a high-end coating is applied, which contains a bonding agent that fuses with the old surface.

Owner Jim Kenney says the entire process takes five to six hours and cures overnight. Prices start at $585 for a standard bathtub, and sinks, countertops, and tiled walls can also be sprayed.

“We can change the entire color scheme and use the same acrylic on tile walls, which will give the room a fresh new look and bring it up to date,” he explained.

In addition, Miracle Method does step-through cutaways in bathtubs that turn them into shower stalls and are popular with seniors. “We cut a 24-inch wide step into the side rail so it is easier to get into,” Kenney explained, adding that he leaves five inches on either end of the cutaway and can install grab bars and apply a non-slip surface to the floor before the coating is sprayed onto it. The cost of this makeover with grab bars is about $1,450, and it is a growing part of his business.

Modern Look

Bathrooms are used on a daily basis by homeowners as well as their guests, and can reflect a person’s decorating style or simply serve as a functional room that meets basic needs.

But the look and age of the tub, sink, toilet, and walls can make it a place to avoid or one that is enjoyable to visit, Belle-Isle said. “When the environment in a bathroom is pleasant, it makes a big difference in a person’s overall mood.”

Building Trades Sections

Scaling New Heights

Fran Beaulieu

Fran Beaulieu says it’s a challenge to attract young workers, but those with a passion for the home-improvement trades can build gratifying careers there.

From the time his father first hung out a shingle — and then installed a whole lot more of them — Fran Beaulieu says the secret to this 50-year-old company’s success is almost too simple to be true.

“The key here is we outwork everyone,” he said. “We’re here at 7, we’re open on Saturdays, we’re always on top of it, always focused on every job. We outwork everyone. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

That legacy of hard work began in the mid-’60s, when Fran’s father, Phil Beaulieu, a French-Canadian immigrant, arrived in Western Mass. looking for a job, and found one at Fisk Rubber in Chicopee, which later became Uniroyal.

At one point, Fisk’s unionized workers went on strike, and while on strike, the elder Beaulieu met a couple fellow French-Canadians who hung siding, and went to work for them.

Decks are among the many home-exterior projects tackled by Phil Beaulieu & Sons.

Decks are among the many home-exterior projects tackled by Phil Beaulieu & Sons.

“They would go out on Saturdays and on Sundays after church and knock on doors to generate work,” Fran said. “The first time he did that, he got three jobs, and he never had to look back.”

Beaulieu officially launched his home-improvement business in 1967, gradually adding other skills beyond siding, from roofing to window and door installation. His son Al came on board in 1984, and Fran followed in 1988, eventually taking Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement to new heights.

“My brother and I have been operating the business since 2008,” Fran Beaulieu said, noting that the company recorded $1.8 million in gross sales that year, but $7 million last year. “We are, from what our supply houses tell us, by far the largest exterior remodeler in the area, but we’ve done it quietly — 90% comes from past customers and referrals.”

That testifies to high levels of customer satisfaction, he went on.

“As soon as you call here, we don’t drop the ball; we make an appointment and show up on time. Unlike a lot of home-improvement companies in the area, we aren’t about marketing; we’re about the trade. My brother and I, and the key guys here, are all about the trade and the craft. If that’s where our focus is, we don’t have to worry about what the competition is doing.”

Today, Phil Beaulieu & Sons specializes in all manner of exterior home improvement — tackling about 600 projects a year — including roofing, siding, windows, doors, decks, and masonry, with occasional light interior work related to an exterior project, like repairing ceiling damage caused by a leaky roof or installing interior trim on window jobs.

Products have evolved over time; for example, Beaulieu said new energy codes have put many window makers out of business and consolidated business among fewer manufacturers. He said he chooses product lines with a long track record for quality, and for good reason.

“We choose manufacturers that stand behind their products,” he told BusinessWest, rattling off names like Mastic siding, Harvey windows, Therma-Tru doors, and Trex decking. “We get every salesman in here, wanting us to sell their product, but we’re cautious about what we sell. If we select an inferior window to save a few bucks, we might put in a couple thousand windows in a year, and if they have a problem, it could destroy our reputation. So we have to be very careful. We use products that are time-tested and generally leaders in their industry.”

For that reason, Beaulieu said, his company tries to be up-front about pricing, but customers appreciate the candor. After all, while a generic product might cost 10% less, “if something goes awry, people don’t remember what kind of window is in their house; they remember who put the window in. So we don’t want callbacks — unless, of course, you want more work.”

Weathering Change

At peak times, Phil Beaulieu & Sons may have 60 people working, including eight office staff, three on the sales team, and professionals scattered at job sites throughout the region.

“It’s a struggle to find labor,” Fran Beaulieu said. “We have a young crop of guys coming through the system, along with reaching out to other guys in the industry. They might have been a small-time contractor, and we say, ‘listen, come work here. You won’t have to chase leads and make calls; here’s your next job.’ We’ve been able to bring in some guys that way. We’re always looking.”

That said, some Beaulieu employees have been there 30 years or more, crafting the sort of long-term, successful, and satisfying careers that many young people mulling career choices may not consider.

“The trades are great, and they’re not what they were 25 years ago,” he said. “If you take it as professionally as, say, a banker does, you can do really well.”

But it’s also hard work, he added. “You have cold days, hot days, rainy days, but also beautiful bluebird days. Working in the fall is amazing. Working in February and March … not so fun. But you become accustomed to working outside in the elements. You learn how to dress in layers, how to eat properly, and how your body reacts.”

While job volume remains strong, he told BusinessWest, large projects tend to be fewer than in the past.

“People tend to nickel and dime on their house, but if they’re comfortable with our work, we’ll get more projects from them,” he explained, noting, for example, that it was common 20 years ago for homeowners to order 32 windows at once, where now they’ll order a few at a time as they can afford it. Tax season is a healthy time for orders, not only because people like sprucing up their properties with the warm weather, but they see a hefty tax refund as an opportunity to reinvest in their homes.

“That’s when we get a lot of repeat business — ‘you did our roof last year; this year we need a rear sliding door, and take care of that hatchway.’”

Over the years, the company has become increasingly involved in the communities it serves, lending energy and resources to organizations such as Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen, D.A.R.E., the Ludlow Hockey Assoc., and many local schools and youth sports groups.

Fran Beaulieu also sits on the executive board for Revitalize CDC, which is dedicated to performing home repairs and modifications for low-income families, the elderly, military veterans, and people with special needs. “We do a number of projects with them each year. We did a big Veterans Day project. When they came to Holyoke, we closed an entire block at Beech Street and worked on about 15 homes, all in one day. That was a great day.”

This year, Phil Beaulieu & Sons struck an affiliation with the Valley Blue Sox, with a billboard in left field reading ‘hammer it here,’ and making a donation to Revitalize CDC with each home run.

Beaulieu also sits on the board of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass., which, among other roles, helps members comply with new building-industry codes in the Bay State.

“All that regulation has eliminated a lot of the little pickup-truck guys; they’re harder to find,” he said. “We used to bid projects against the small-time guys who were uninsured, unlicensed, and, if there was a problem, the homeowner probably couldn’t find that guy again. That’s changed in Massachusetts, which has become increasingly progressive about regulating our industry. A lot of it has to do with consumer protection.”

Next Generation

Fran and Al Beaulieu are already looking down the road to the third generation of this family business, as Al’s son will soon graduate from American International College and has decided to make home improvement his career.

“He’ll wear a tool pouch for a while,” Fran said. “You can’t manage it if you can’t do it. You’ve got to appreciate your employees.”

That said, he added, “we’re always looking for young talent. Any time someone wants to be a carpenter, sider, or roofer, we’re always willing to listen. We try to find guys who are into the trade and have the same passion we have for it. I’ve talked to young guys after their first cold day and said, ‘this trade isn’t for you. Not to make you feel bad, but you’re only 21, and you should know it now.’ If you don’t have the passion, this isn’t for you.”

For those who embrace the challenge, however, there are plenty more ladders to climb, on days both cold and gray, and when the bluebirds are happily singing.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Building Trades Sections

Floor Plans

The team at Best Tile in Springfield

The team at Best Tile in Springfield includes, from left, Sarah Rietberg, showroom manager; Chad Hart and Beverly Gomes, design consulants; and Karen Belezarian-Tesini, store manager.

Harry Marcus started installing tile way back in 1955, so Karen Belezarian-Tesini considers herself lucky to have known him.

“Harry would say, ‘why are you here? Why do you like the business?’” said Belezarian-Tesini, manager of Best Tile in Springfield — one of some 30 locations that have sprung from Marcus’ original business 60 years ago. “I said, ‘I have a passion for it.’ Harry said, ‘that’s why you’re going to last. You have to have a passion for what you do.’”

Marcus Tile was born in the City of Homes, but there were no tile distributors in Springfield, meaning he had to travel to Hartford almost every day to pick up tile for his four-man team of installers. So he and his wife, Mollie, decided to start their own tile-distribution business. They sold their installation business and partnered with the Wenczel Tile Co. to open up Standard Tile Distributors in August 1956.

“It was a true rags-to-riches story,” Belezarian-Tesini said. “He was selling so much and so well, Wenczel asked him, ‘if we got you a bricks-and-mortar shop, would you open a store?’ He said yes and opened up his store.”

That’s where the story began — a story that has since expanded well past the Springfield-Hartford corridor, across the Northeast and down the Atlantic Coast. The Marcuses’ oldest son, Steve, eventually entered the family business and, after managing the Hartford branch, opened a new location in Albany, N.Y., naming it Best Tile — the word ‘Best’ representing the first two letters of his first name and that of his wife, Beverly.

By the early 1970s Best Tile was importing tile from around the world, and Steve Marcus and his business partner, Bob Rose, had expanded well into Central and Western New York. Meanwhile, Steve’s brother, Brad, expanded the company into the Boston area, and Steve Marcus and Rose later expanded into Pennsylvania with another partner, Chet Whittam. Following that, the company set up shop in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and more recently Vermont and North Carolina.

Karen Belezarian-Tesini

Karen Belezarian-Tesini says a slowing of the building boom over the past 20 years has coincided with an uptick in remodeling, which certainly benefits Best Tile.

“They’ve done very well managing and growing the business. It’s a great company to work for,” Belezarian-Tesini said. “They’re smart investors, and they direct-import everything, buying direct from factories. They’ve kept a great relationship with these factories over the years, which gives them great buying power.”

Those factories are based in countries as far-flung as Spain, Italy, Brazil, England, Turkey, Mexico, and the U.S., she added. “We pride ourselves on quality. In all the years I’ve worked here, no one’s ever come back and complained about quality of the tile, which is huge.”

Hitting the Wall

From her position managing the bustling shop on Belmont Avenue — where customers come looking to inject new life into their kitchen and bathroom floors and walls, among other areas — Belezarian-Tesini has seen a number of changes in the tile business.

“Twenty years ago, it was a contractor-driven industry, big time. It’s now more of a remodeling industry, with maybe 50% of the business retail — years ago, there was not as much retail,” she explained. “The building boom isn’t there like it used to be; you don’t see big tracts of homes going up. There’s a lot more remodeling going on.

“It’s still the City of Homes; I do believe that,” she went on. “You can tell by the remodeling going on in our neighborhoods. People are retiring to over-55 communities, and the younger generation is moving in and remodeling the home. That’s where a lot of our business is coming from nowadays.”

She noted that the contractors working in this field are an aging lot. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I wish trade schools would introduce more tile-related careers, because it’s an industry that should continue to grow.”

It’s growing in part through social media, websites, and especially home-improvement networks like HGTV and DIY, which showcase transitions that inspire viewers to tackle tile jobs themselves or hire someone to bring their vision to life.

“That’s what’s driving people, opening their eyes to what’s current, what’s hot,” she said. And that means Best Tile needs to stay on the cutting edge of what shoppers are looking for.

“Flooring has gone from a marble look to a wooded look,” she noted as one example. And large-format floor tiles are extremely popular, like 8-by-48-inch floor sections and 12-by-24-inch wall tiles; 12-by-12 pieces have become a bit passé. Meanwhile, “mosaic is hot, hot, hot — glass mosaic, glass and stone mixed, all stone, stone and ceramic. It can be for a floor, wall, backsplash, bathroom, kitchen, you name it. It’s everywhere, and it’s beautiful.

“The industry has come a long way,” she added. “The digital imaging, the handcrafted tile, so superior to what we had years ago. It’s beautiful.”

Happy Wife, Happy Life

Since the 2000s, the third generation of Roses and Marcuses have led the company through continued growth, showroom upgrades, and product expansion, under the umbrella of the East Coast Tile Group of companies.

But that’s the big picture; Belezarian-Tesini is more invested in the individuals — and, more often than not, couples — that show up at Best Tile looking to realize their vision of a beautiful bathroom or kitchen.

“You do this with your spouse; it’s not usually something you do alone. Husbands and wives make decisions together. And when they shop, they’re generally shopping together,” she said, adding, however, that some husbands embody man-shopping clichés. “Most of the time, we offer the husbands coffee or water, or ask if they want to sit down somewhere. Some spouses are very involved, and some are just here for the ride.”

It’s a ride that began with Harry Marcus’ vision, and passion, for building a business from the ground — well, the tile floor, anyway — up.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]