I’ve been in the interior design business a long time. I know from experience that trends come and go; the ones people think will stick aren’t always the ones still around five or ten years down the line. But take it from me: for all the times in the last decade that someone has asked “do you REALLY need a bathtub in a master bathroom?” the answer is always (eventually and emphatically) YES! If you’re a bath lover with a big bathroom and a big budget, splurging on a nice tub is a no-brainer. But if your space and/or budget are limited (or if you just won’t use it much), finding an affordable bathtub that fits your needs can be a little trickier.
Choose The Right Tub For Your Budget
If you pick a bathtub totally at random, you could end up paying anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars for it. Worse, it isn’t always obvious at a glance what the difference is between bathtubs that vary significantly in price. So what are the keys to look for when shopping for an affordable bathtub?
- Installation Type: Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of bathtubs: ones that stand on their own, and ones that need a mount. The latter often carry a much lower initial price tag, but require extensive and expensive installation. To save money in the long run, pay more up front for a freestanding bathtub.
- Material: Different base materials can mean big price differences between similar-looking tubs. For a more affordable option, stick with acrylic or fiberglass. They won’t retain heat as well as metal-based tubs (like cast iron or copper), but will warm up faster and are light enough to install anywhere without reinforcing your floors.
- Functionality: Adding any kind of functionality to a bathtub will bump up its price. Jets, in-line heating, and other high-tech features should be reserved for people who will get a LOT of use out of them. A basic bathtub is a more affordable bathtub.
Price Your Plumbing Before Placing Your Bathtub
It’s incredibly important to remember that even if you choose an extremely affordable bathtub, the price of the tub is NOT the same as the final price of the project. Even tubs that require minimal installation have a few long and short term price considerations.
- In-bathroom plumbing: Unless you’re starting from new construction, you’ll either need to plan your new bathtub around the existing plumbing or do an extensive, expensive project to bring the plumbing to where you want to put the tub. Placing a freestanding tub in the center of your bathroom can look striking, but don’t forget the plumbing, waterproofing, and re-tiling projects that will come with it.
- Water Use: The biggest long-term expense for your new bathtub is a bump in your monthly water bill. Depending on the relative size of your new bathtub and how often you use it, this might not be a big concern. But if you plan to use your new, much-larger tub regularly, keep in mind that this is an expense that can add up.
- In-Line Heating: If you take very long baths, it can be worth splurging on a metal bathtub or one with in-line heating. Either will bump up the cost of the tub, but mean you’ll be able to keep water hot longer, so you won’t need to top off the tub.
The Nightmare Expense: A New Water Heater
- Water Heater Upgrade: The biggest mistake homeowners make when buying a new bathtub is overestimating the power of their existing water heaters. A tub with the same capacity as your water heater will end up filled with half hot water and half mixed-lukewarm water as the tank refills and struggles to keep up. Pay attention to the max fill level of the tub to avoid a lukewarm bath or a pricy water heater upgrade.
- Point of Use Water Heater: if you love long, hot baths but don’t have a big enough heater for your dream tub, consider investing in an electric point-of-use water heater. These are very energy efficient, and can supply you with a nearly infinite amount of piping hot water for a tenth of the price of a large tank-style heater.
Size Matters – But Not For The Reasons You Might Think
Bathtubs come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, from about 55″ – 72″ in length, with varying widths, depths, interior shapes, and overflow heights. That can mean fill capacities that range from 30 to over 100 gallons and everywhere in between. While the size of your tub won’t make a big difference in the initial price tag, these measurements will play a big part in the comfort and usability of your new tub, far beyond simply ensuring that it’ll fit in your bathroom.
- Comfort: Choosing the smallest, shallowest bathtub and using it infrequently is a good way to keep things affordable. It also basically ensures you’ll be cramped and shivering any time you bathe. Consider what you dislike about your current tub and adjust accordingly: a longer tub will let you stretch out your legs, a deeper tub will let you submerge yourself more, and sloped sides can help strike a balance between the two without ending up with a gargantuan bathtub.
- Water Use/Fill Time: Tubs that hold more water also take longer to fill – sometimes much longer. That can mean a long wait to get in the tub and quite a bit of heat loss in the meantime. Upgraded plumbing and in-line heating can help, but will cost you. The most affordable bathtubs are usually ones that combine a high submersion depth/overflow with a lower fill capacity.
- Weight: A high-capacity bathtub will be extremely heavy when full; especially if it’s a heavy tub to start, you’ll need to be sure your floors can support the maximum total weight (tub+water+you!) in one spot.
Style, Substance, And Practical Tub Design
There are practically as many bathtubs for sale as there are stars in the sky. Even if you narrow down the options to simple acrylic freestanding bathtubs without any kind of jets, there are still a lot of different looks, shapes, and features you should consider. They might not impact the affordability of the bathtub, but they will have an impact on your day-to-day experience with them beyond their basic appearance.
- Solid Base vs Clawfoot: Clawfoot bathtubs have been the darling of bathroom design for about as long as there’s been such a thing as bathroom design. And if you love a vintage look, it’s hard to go wrong with one. That said, many homeowners are finding that cleaning the feet (as well as under and around these tubs) is difficult and time consuming. Solid, smooth bases reduce the amount of floor you have to clean and are easy to wipe down, without any dust-and-gunk-accumulating crevices.
Balancing Style Preferences With Ease Of Cleaning
- Smooth Sides vs Textured Designs: Freestanding bathtubs have started to trend more toward simple, smooth surfaces and sculptural designs that shed dust rather than gathering it. That said, tubs with textured designs (whether it’s something starkly geometric or more vintage-inspired) tend to have a little more flair and personality.
- Straight Rim vs Slipper Tub: The silhouette of your bathtub (aka, whether it has an even edge all the way around, one sloped side, or two sloped sides) is certainly a style consideration. But it’s also a factor in the size and comfort of your tub. Tubs with narrow bases and sloped sides can fit into smaller spaces; while they don’t leave a lot of leg room, they’re great for submerging yourself in a reclined position. Steep slipper sides are also great for adding style to a simple tub.
Choosing the perfect, affordable bathtub is equal parts art and science; until the first time you sink into a filled tub (and the first time you see your new water bill!), it’s impossible to know for sure that the tub you’ve chosen is one you’ll love. Unfortunately, there aren’t many places that’ll let you test drive them. That said, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing what to look for is honestly more than half the battle. Having a good idea of what you want and how to get it is the best way to ensure that “affordable” means you’ve found the right value for your needs, and not accidentally skimped on something you want!