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The (Don't Get Burned) Kitchen Remodeling Guide

A 4-phase plan for getting the kitchen you want at a price you can afford

kitchen remodel
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
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Hey, have you heard the one about the 36-inch pro-style range that ripped the molding off the back door on its way into the house? Or the poured-on-site concrete countertop that cracked three months after installation? Or maybe it was the contractor who was paid in advance, promptly skipped town, and was never heard from again.

Yep, we've heard those stories, too. Let's face it, in a nation where home renovation long ago surpassed baseball as the Great American Pastime, kitchen nightmares are a dime a dozen — and anyone who's ever traded Formica countertops and a Harvest Gold fridge for soapstone and a stainless steel side-by-side knows exactly what we're talking about.

Well, misery may love company, but what we all crave is a happy ending—a smart-looking, functional workspace that is a source of comfort, efficiency, and maybe a little neighborly envy (not to mention an excellent Porterhouse). To help you get there, we've compiled this handy guide to some common kitchen-remodeling disasters and offer expert strategies for steering clear of them. For each major phase of the job — hiring, planning, budgeting, and living through it — we've got an easy 10-point plan to follow. And don't let our cautionary tales scare you: Take our advice, and your biggest regret when your dream kitchen is complete will be that you didn't do it sooner.
 

Hey, have you heard the one about the 36-inch pro-style range that ripped the molding off the back door on its way into the house? Or the poured-on-site concrete countertop that cracked three months after installation? Or maybe it was the contractor who was paid in advance, promptly skipped town, and was never heard from again.

Yep, we've heard those stories, too. Let's face it, in a nation where home renovation long ago surpassed baseball as the Great American Pastime, kitchen nightmares are a dime a dozen — and anyone who's ever traded Formica countertops and a Harvest Gold fridge for soapstone and a stainless steel side-by-side knows exactly what we're talking about.

Well, misery may love company, but what we all crave is a happy ending—a smart-looking, functional workspace that is a source of comfort, efficiency, and maybe a little neighborly envy (not to mention an excellent Porterhouse). To help you get there, we've compiled this handy guide to some common kitchen-remodeling disasters and offer expert strategies for steering clear of them. For each major phase of the job — hiring, planning, budgeting, and living through it — we've got an easy 10-point plan to follow. And don't let our cautionary tales scare you: Take our advice, and your biggest regret when your dream kitchen is complete will be that you didn't do it sooner.
 

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Finding (and Holding Onto) the Best Pros

 

Finding (and Holding Onto) the Best Pros

Kitchen remodeling is at the top of homeowners' wish lists. It is also, according to attorneys general across the country, a leading source of consumer complaints. Recommendations from friends are the best place to start your search for a qualified contractor. But before you make a decision, keep these caveats in mind.

Three Truths About Contractors
1. They're only as good as their last job. "General contractors often win jobs based on their good reputations," explains architect Dennis Wedlick, author of Good House Hunting: 20 Steps to Your Dream Home. "But circumstances can change. When the contractor switches subcontractors or laborers, quality can be affected." Ask your top three candidates to supply references, and follow up with the most recent ones.
2. What you see is what you get. In addition to completed renovations, try to visit a job in progress. You can learn a lot about a contractor's commitment to quality and safety by seeing for yourself how clean the site is and how carefully the drywall is hung and taped.
3. The best ones are worth waiting for. The best contractors tend to be the busiest ones. Build your schedule around the GC of your dreams, not vice versa.

Four Essentials to Ask References
1. What were the contractor's work habits? Did he show up on time and prepared to supervise the subs?
2. Did he stick to the scope of the work and cleanup plan as outlined in the contract? Were any unauthorized changes of materials or details made?
3. Did your project stay on or close to budget? Did materials arrive on time? Did he keep you up to date on his progress or potential delays?
4. Did anything go wrong? And if so, how — and how quickly — was the crisis resolved?


Three R's of Keeping the Crew Happy
1. Refreshments: You don't have to cater three squares a day, but at least offer a thermos of coffee or a cooler with soft drinks. They'll appreciate it.
2. Responsibility: The crew can't work efficiently if you're in the way. Ask questions, but don't overwhelm them with your TOH-taught smarts. And teach kids and pets the meaning of KEEP OUT.
3. Respect: Say good morning, good night, and good job when appropriate. And, please: Don't ask if they've met any desperate housewives lately. The appliances can be top-of-the-line, the finishes the most expensive around, but if the space doesn't work, it's money down the brand-new In-Sink-Erator. Here are 10 ways to arrive at the best design for you, even if—like the vast majority of Americans—you rarely cook a meal from scratch.
 

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Plan the Smartest Layout

 

Plan the Smartest Layout

Three Things to Bring to Your First Meeting With the Kitchen Planner
An experienced designer can save you time and money by heading off potential problems at the pass. Kitchen planners know all the tricks: how to maximize storage, smart substitutions for high-end materials, even the best local contractors for the job. But first, they need a few things from you.

1. An architectural rendering or to-scale drawing of your existing kitchen, showing the location of windows, doors, heating, plumbing lines, and electrical outlets. If you're not working with an architect, you can do it yourself with 3-D kitchen design software. (Take a free test-drive at nkba.org, the National Kitchen and Bath Association's website.)
2. A detailed wish list indicating your goals for remodeling. Do you want more space? More storage? More style? A built-in dog bed? Organize it by priority, from the "must-haves" to the "in our dreams."
3. An idea folder: pictures of rooms, products, materials, and architectural details that appeal to you; notes on what you like about friends' kitchens (and hate about your own); and general concepts translated from other areas of your life. Are you a neat freak? Glass-front cabinets are sleek, but you may be happier with painted doors that conceal clutter.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself: A Kitchen Personality Quiz
Repeat this mantra: Form follows function. Answer these questions about the way your household uses the kitchen, then see the analysis below for design ideas.

1. How many chefs usually work in the kitchen?
a. Two, maybe more (including guests and kids).
b. Only one person cooks at a time.
c. None.

2. What's your cooking style?
a. Serious: Cooking and entertaining at home is how we unwind.
b. Laid-back: Dinner most nights is a casual affair; holidays are when we cook for a crowd.
c. Nonexistent.

3. Who else hangs out in the kitchen, and what do they do there?
a. On weekends the place is party central.
b. The whole family seems to do everything but sleep and play soccer there. It's a game room, TV room, office, and kitchen all rolled into one.
c. If it weren't for the beer and microwave dinners, the kitchen would get no use at all.

4. How important is easy cleanup?
a. Not as important as the high-Btu burst I get from unsealed stove burners.
b. The room sees too much activity for surfaces to need coddling. It has to clean up fast.
c. What I really need is a recycling system for paper, plastic, and glass.

5. If you could splurge on one luxury, what would it be?
a. A six-burner Viking range with electric ovens.
b. A built-in computer desk where the kids can go on-line and I can pay bills.
c. Ever hear of a self-cleaning microwave?


The Answers
3 or more A's: Think like a pro. If it's in the budget, spend the money on a six- to eight-burner professional- style range, dedicated spice storage, and a fridge spacious enough to accommodate platters. You may also want to consider glass-front cabinets or open shelves to display dishes and glassware. Make sure you have good task lighting and stick to a flooring material like wood or old-fashioned linoleum, which are easy on the feet and easy to clean.

3 or more B's: Keep it functional, not fussy. Design in features that will simplify your daily routine—a self-cleaning oven, a microwave where the kids can reach it, lots of counter and storage space. Since you rarely cook labor-intensive meals, spend your appliance dollars on an energy-efficient side-by-side refrigerator, an easy-to-clean cooktop, and sturdy cabinetry with ample space for household staples. Think in advance about ways to control the inevitable clutter from all that family activity, such as an adjustable shelving system or cubbies fitted with bins.

3 or more C's: Remember resale. Spend your makeover dollars on practical, clean-lined cabinets; good-quality basic appliances; and conveniences like a built-in recycling center. Be careful not to spend too little on the kitchen: Quality counts with homebuyers, and a shoddy new kitchen is no better than a dingy old one. It will be money well spent. In the current real estate market, you should be able to recoup between 87 and 125 percent of your investment.

Two Triangles are Better Than One: The Best Layouts for Busy Kitchens

The kitchen triangle — that three-sided connection between the stove, sink, and refrigerator — is practically sacrosanct in kitchen design manuals. But in today's family kitchens, often one triangle isn't enough.

1. The island workstation: Depending on the shape of your kitchen, an island can make the work triangle more efficient — in a large space, it can tighten the legs of the triangle to the recommended distance of between 4 and 8 feet. In a two-cook kitchen, the island can be a pivot point in a series of triangles, especially if it includes a prep sink or a dedicated workstation, as for baking. In a compact kitchen, consider a rolling island that can be tucked against a wall when not in use.
2. The zone approach: Before you settle on a layout, map out the prevalent traffic patterns in the room: for instance, from fridge to sink to stove; toaster to coffeemaker to computer desk; homework station to fridge to back door. Then set up distinct areas, or "zones," for each set of activities. For convenience and safety, try to keep zones from overlapping — the refrigerator, for instance, should be at the outer corner of the cooking zone so that kids can access it without having to pass near the stove.
The good news is, you should be able to recoup most of your remodeling costs at resale. The bad news: You have to pay for it now. Limit spending to no more than 15 percent of your home's market value. Then, once you've come up with a budget number, lop 20 percent off the top and squirrel it away for unexpected necessities — like shoring up the floor so that new cast-iron Aga stove doesn't go crashing into the basement.
 

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Cutting Costs Without Cutting Corners

 

Cutting Costs Without Cutting Corners

One Simple Exercise That Can Save Big Bucks
One of the surest ways to shave costs is to do more with what you've got. So before taking the sledgehammer to your existing kitchen, try this: Empty every drawer and cupboard. Revisit where you've been putting things. Is there an organizational scheme that makes more sense? Think in zones, storing items closest to where they are used. "In the end," says architect Dennis Wedlick, "you may like the reconfiguration so well that you'll decide to just paint and stick with the kitchen you've got." And if you do go forward, you'll have a clearer sense of how you really use the kitchen, which will help save time and money on the redesign.

Five Things that Really Matter When Shopping for Appliances
Call it the Emperor's New Stove. Today's appliances are jam-packed with features, but don't let all those bells and whistles fool you. When comparison shopping (which you really should do, since prices for the same item can differ by hundreds of dollars), pay particular attention to these five things:

1. Burner heat output (in Btu): Ideally, you want a combination of high highs and low lows. A standard burner goes from a low of around 2,000 Btu to a high of 12,000. Pro-style models can pump out 15,000 Btu or more to boil pasta water in a flash, but ease down to a low of 400 for gently simmering sauces.

2. Energy efficiency: Look for dishwashers and refrigerators that have earned Energy Star ratings (energystar.gov). You'll save money on operating costs as you conserve resources.

3. Ease of operation: Easy-to-grip stovetop knobs, accessible refrigerator controls, convenient dishwasher loadability: The little things mean a lot.

4. Safety features: Choose a cooktop with controls at the front or side, not between burners, and click-and-turn knobs that kids can't light by mistake. Don't skimp on ventilation: The mightier the stove, the more powerful the range hood required. And be sure your design plan includes plenty of GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) outlets to avoid the use of extension cords.

5. Ease of cleaning: Options like sealed stovetop burners, sliding tempered-glass refrigerator shelves (not drip-through grates), and fingerprint-resistant textured finishes reduce cleanup time.


Four Budget Balancing Scenarios
1. You love the look of stainless steel appliances, but not the price tag. Near-record prices for stainless steel drove the cost of pro-style appliances up as much as 10 percent last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. A 36-inch pro-style dual-fuel range now runs $6,000 or more. Affordable alternative: Get the look by installing a six-burner pro-style cooktop ($800?$2,500) and a pair of mid-range wall ovens (about $1,500). Save $2,000 or more.

2. You really need more storage space, but you plan to move in a few years and would rather not invest in custom cabinets. Custom-crafting every nook and cranny for the way you cook may not be the most economical use of your dollars when someone else—with different cooking and lifestyle habits—will be living in your kitchen before the home-equity loan is paid off. Affordable alternative: Consider working a walk-in pantry into your plan. It's a remarkably economical way to upgrade your kitchen—a pantry can supply as much storage as a wall or more of custom built-ins. Save as much as $1,100 per linear foot.

3. You want granite countertops, but they'll bust the budget. Granite's resistance to moisture, scratching, and high heat makes it a perennially popular (if pricey) choice. Affordable alternative: If you love the look of granite—or soapstone or marble or handcrafted tile for that matter—work it into your plan. But instead of using it for every countertop, try limiting it to a high-visibility island or to the areas flanking the range. Elsewhere, use less expensive options like plastic laminate or ceramic tile. Mixing also adds visual interest. Save $150 or more per square foot.

4. You want a lighter, brighter kitchen, but knocking down walls just isn't an option. The space may be drab and dingy, but it gets the job done, and a major overhaul isn't in the budget right now. Affordable alternative: Sometimes a well-planned lighting scheme is all it takes to brighten a kitchen. Spend the bucks for the services of a professional planner or lighting designer. That plus simple cosmetic upgrades, such as a fresh paint job, new cabinet hardware, upgraded counters or flooring, and a couple of new appliances can totally transform the space. Save untold thousands by sticking to the original layout.
 

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Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes

 

Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes

In a perfect world, demolition starts on time, deliveries arrive on schedule, installation takes place without a hitch, and cleanup is quick and easy. Chances of all that happening are slim enough; don't shrink the odds by falling prey to these common pitfalls.

1. Trying to be your own GC. Trust us: This is one job you don't want to undertake. A kitchen remodel is one of the most costly, complicated, and time-consuming projects imaginable, and the input of qualified professionals is not only valuable, in most parts of the country it's mandated by law.

2. Hiring the wrong GC. Never hire a contractor who makes you uncomfortable, no matter how highly recommended or how low the estimate. If you feel like the contractor is someone you can't trust, keep looking.

3. Putting the job out for bid without clear enough specs. Unless you account for every detail of the project up front, you won't be comparing apples to apples when you solicit bids. That means specifying the type of flooring, countertop material, lighting, even cabinet hardware. If you don't, a contractor might assume higher-end choices (which may be more difficult to install), and you could end up overpaying.

4. Paying in advance. It's shocking how often normally intelligent people turn over a sledgehammer and their life savings to someone they just met. Never pay more than 30 percent of the total job cost up front (typically to cover startup materials). Then work out a schedule of progress payments based on the completion of predetermined phases of the job.

5. Getting distracted from your ultimate goal. Have you ever made a run to Lowe's to pick up a plunger and some window screening and come back with $200 worth of tools and gadgets you didn't really need? The same goes for kitchen remodels. "There are so many toys out there," says architect Dennis Wedlick. "That's why it's essential to make a wish list—and to stick to it."

6. Trying to keep up with the Joneses. If frozen pizza is all you ever pop in the oven, a conventional stove will serve you just as well as that newfangled induction range — and save you thousands of dollars besides. You can always upgrade appliances later.

7. Settling for a cookie-cutter kitchen. Let's face it: The next owners of your house will start dreaming of ripping out your fantasy kitchen as soon as they move in. Unless you're planning to move within the next couple of years, go ahead and build the kitchen that works for you and your budget. But be careful not to overcustomize. What's perfect for you today (built-in seating for the kids—who will soon be too tall to use it) may prove limiting tomorrow.

8. Ignoring what you can't see. Everyone worries about the cabinet faces, but if the sides and hardware aren't made of sturdy enough stuff, the doors will be crooked in no time. And those gorgeous concrete or tile countertops are sure to crack if they're not installed on a strong, level base. Don't be seduced by surfaces: It's what's behind the walls and under the floors that really counts.

9. Changing your mind—again. Time is money. That's what Benjamin Franklin advised tradesmen way back in 1748, and indecisive homeowners would do well to heed his warning. Regretting, reordering, reconfiguring—it all leads to delays, changed work orders, and tapped-out budgets. It also tests the patience of your contractor, who's got another job lined up after this one.

10. Living with a dysfunctional space because remodeling is a hassle. Life's about thriving, not just surviving. Just think, with a little time and effort, you could have the kitchen you've always wanted. Not to mention a few (happy) remodeling stories of your own.

 
 

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