courtesy Bath Fitter

In early March, Brian Altman, owner of Dutchess Building Specialists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., noted that for the last few years, kitchen remodels, always a staple project for the company, have been few and far between. Last year, a full five months went by with no kitchens under way by DBS. Meanwhile, Altman says, his business was holding its own on bath remodels, though also, he adds, losing a certain share of bath leads to underbidding.

To remedy that, the owner worked with DBS employees through the fall and winter to put together an affordable bathroom remodel package. The Advantage Bath Series features standardized components and starts at $16,500 (for a standard 5 foot by 8 foot space), with room to move up. DBS is unveiling it at area home shows this spring and is in the process of putting together an Advantage packaged kitchen remodel, for which pricing has yet to be determined.

One fact of the recession is that homeowners on the strictest of budgets have made themselves a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen and bath market.

For those who want a kitchen or bath remodel — traditionally the most expensive per-square-foot projects — but lack the funds to do it on a grand scale, there’s a growing array of alternatives. Cabinet refacing companies like national franchise operations N-Hance or Kitchen Solvers, or independent operations such as Let’s Face It, in Lansdale, Pa., or Reborn Cabinets, in Anaheim, Calif., specialize in turning a lackluster kitchen into one that looks newly remodeled, without moving a range or a sink. A raft of suppliers — Bath Fitter, Liners Direct, Luxury Bath, BCI, and others — and the contractors who install their products can rehab a bathroom by enclosing the tub, shower, or walls in easily cleaned acrylic. And those networks are expanding. One source estimates that they now have a 1% to 2% share of the bath refurbishing market.

These two worlds — full kitchen or bath remodeling versus the quick solution of refacing or acrylic — were once anathema. No longer. Some remodelers who specialize in custom kitchen or bath projects have jumped into, or are considering, offering low-cost alternatives. Similarly, some companies that started as acrylic bath dealers have found it profitable to remodel the rest of the bathroom, replacing toilets, floors, vanities, cabinets, expanding the scope of work of that liner job so that the final price comes out to right about what a full-scale bath remodel would cost. With fewer customers to go around, why pass on any particular market segment?

Jim Davy, owner of Bath Creations, in Port Huron, Mich., became a Luxury Bath franchisee 10 years ago. Since then he has steadily added to his company’s portfolio of bathroom-related services. Kitchens, he says, “are all big bucks. We make a nice living off of little bucks.” Especially now that his company can do tile, tubs, vanities, floors, all of it.

Point of Stress

Cost and convenience motivate homeowners to go the cabinet-refacing or acrylic-liner route. Of kitchens and baths, the bathroom is more likely to be designated for limited remodeling dollars. Bathrooms typically get hard daily use. Besides which there are a lot more of them. And when they start to crumble or grow mold, they can become intolerable.

That has led all kinds of companies — plumbing, kitchen and bath showrooms, and home improvement — into the acrylic-liner business in the last few years. Two years ago New York Sash, a window replacement, siding, and gutter-cover installer in Whitesboro, N.Y., began offering customers an acrylic product made by BCI. Today, company president Scott Hayes says, baths are his second most popular product after windows, accounting for 11% of sales.

Acrylic bath companies promise installation in one or two days, and they price out tub-liner jobs for as little as $2,500, though $4,000 to $6,000 is a more typical range for a tub and wall surround. Why so affordable? Not only are the components less expensive than tile, but often these projects require no demo and create relatively little mess.

Price is the biggest appeal. The acrylic-bath customer “needs a bathroom done but they’re in financial lockdown,” Davy says. They are also people “afraid of renovation,” says Jennifer English, marketing director for Bath Fitter, a 25-year-old supplier of acrylic bath components headquartered in Montreal. “It’s a point of stress.”

Add to that a growing aging-in-place market served by an array of acrylic products including walk-in tubs and tub-to-shower conversions suitable for wheelchairs.