Plenty of bathtub options available

If you are thinking about buying a new bathtub only because your current tub looks a bit beat, first consider that you might get by with a resurfacing or an acrylic tub liner. Most people will still need the services of a professional, but these options can be far less costly than having the old tub ripped out and a new one installed. But if you're certain you need or want a new bathtub, there is an enormous range of choices in styles and materials.

Homeowners may wonder whether installing a large or fancy bathtub will increase the resale value of their home. The most credible independent sources we found say you probably won't make a profit on a bathroom renovation, but you'll get most of your investment back (although Parade and SmartMoney magazines offer very different estimates). A CNNMoney.com report says a large whirlpool bath won't impress home buyers who have little time to relax in a tub or who need to bathe small children, especially if it's the only tub in the home.

Reviews are scarce for individual bathtub models, probably because there's such a vast variety of products and individual tastes and because most people go a long time between purchases. Bellevue, Wash., plumber Terry Love, who maintains the plumbing website TerryLove.com, says an acrylic or fiberglass tub should last 15 to 35 years and a cast-iron tub no less than 50.

We found credible reports on standard bathtubs, typically in the form of buyer's guides, at HGTV.com, HomeDepot.com and Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazines. ConsumerReports.org does not cover conventional bathtubs, but does offer good general buying information about whirlpools, shower heads and bath cleansers, and most of those reports are available free online. HomeDepot.com and Popular Mechanics, Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazines also offer good general information about whirlpool tubs.

Here are some tips to consider before buying a bathtub:

Try it before you buy it. At a showroom, get inside the tub and consider whether it's a good fit for your body type and whether the surface appeals to you (plastic feels like plastic; fiberglass can have too much "give" underneath).

Measure the bathtub. Unless you are doing a full-scale renovation of the bathroom, you'll need a tub that's the same size as the old one. Even if you're ripping apart the room, your plumbing costs will be less if fixtures are installed where the old ones stood.

Think about hot water. If you are considering an extra-large bathtub, such as a whirlpool tub, make sure your water heater is powerful enough to supply all the hot water required.

Which end? You'll need to know whether you need the spout and drain to the right or left (or in the middle).

Consider weight. Unless the tub is on the ground floor with a concrete-slab foundation underneath, you'll need to find out whether the floor can support the weight of the bathtub. A plastic tub may weigh as little as 60 pounds unfilled (a gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds and most people use between 12 to 20 gallons in an average bathtub), while a cast-iron whirlpool tub may weigh 350 to 500 pounds even without a drop of water in it. Your floor may need reinforcement to handle such weight, especially if it's a large whirlpool tub filled with 40 to 50 gallons.

Materials costs. There is no longer a tremendous price difference between acrylic, fiberglass and cast-iron bathtubs. Really cheap plastic tubs can be found for a little more than $200, while standard tubs in a variety of materials generally run $300 to $400. On the other hand, premium materials like stone or copper can cost thousands of dollars.

Look at the construction. The support under the tub may range from steel ribs to Styrofoam under cheap plastic tubs. Your main objection to a cheaper construction likely will be how the tub feels underneath you while sit on it or step in it; it may not feel solid enough for you.

Durability is important. Most conventional tubs will last at least 15 years. Acrylic tub surfaces are more durable than fiberglass, but fewer refinishers will work on them. Enamel-coated steel or cast iron can be easily refinished by a professional.

Consider the rim. If you like keeping soap, shampoo, toiletries or rubber duckies on the side of the tub, make sure the tub side has room for them. Many freestanding tubs lack any kind of ledge.

Want a shower, too? Many, but not all standard tubs accommodate shower fittings and doors. Many freestanding tubs won't. Check before you buy.

Warmth. Nobody likes a cold bathtub, especially when first entering a bath. A plastic tub will not feel as cold when under you as harder surfaces like stone, and they retain heat decently. A cast-iron tub will initially draw out some of the heat from the water but will retain heat very well.

Check the warranty. Some cheaper plastic tubs come with one-year warranties, although you can find tubs with five-year and even lifetime warranties. But length is not the only factor -- almost all bathtub warranties are "limited" and you need to find out what's actually covered during that time period.

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