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Getting A High-Quality Kitchen Remodel Without “Sticker Shock”

According to Remodeling magazine, the national average for a full kitchen remodel is $54,909. I have never been able to get my mind wrapped around this, considering that the national median income is only around $51,000.

The average full kitchen remodel is defined as:

“Update an outmoded 200-square-foot kitchen with a functional layout of 30 linear feet of semi-custom wood cabinets, including a 3-by-5-foot island; laminate countertops; and standard double-tub stainless-steel sink with standard single-lever faucet. Include energy-efficient wall oven, cooktop, ventilation system, built-in microwave, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and custom lighting. Add new resilient flooring. Finish with painted walls, trim, and ceiling.”

Remodeling magazine also reports that a major kitchen remodel returns an average of $40,732.  My average kitchen remodel usually comes in at less than half this national average cost.  Here’s how you can save money on your kitchen project and turn your effort into a positive gain in home equity without sacrificing quality:

• Start with your design.  Figure out the layout you want for your kitchen.  A simple and sleek design will appeal to most buyers and help keep your costs down.  Keeping your existing layout is always cheaper.  Avoid moving plumbing and electrical items if possible — at least try to keep your stove (especially gas stoves) and sink in the same location.  Moving a gas stove will require relocating gas lines and moving your sink plumbing can create additional problems. They also require additional permits and time.

Try to pick an overall theme — country, modern, rustic, etc.  This will help you select materials and ensure everything comes together properly.  Have a good idea of the look you want before you go into a design center or talk to contractors.

Get a design early and plan ahead. Cabinets can take six weeks or more to be delivered.  You don’t want to have your kitchen torn apart while you’re waiting for an item to be delivered.

• Determine the scope of work. Once you have a very good idea of what you want, sit down and write up a good detailed list of tasks that you want completed.  You don’t have to be technical and you don’t have to use construction terms but just state all the things you want a contractor to do and bid.  It can be as simple as: remove all existing flooring and cabinets; install new flooring, cabinets, countertops, sink and appliances per the plan; paint; hook up sink plumbing; and install new light fixtures.

When you start talking to contractors and designers you may find additional work is required.  That’s okay.  It’s easy to update your list and resend to all the bidding contractors.  Otherwise, the various contractors will list the items they believe you want and it will be difficult to compare bids.  A basic scope of work also eliminates some guess work by the contractor.

Ask your contractors to line item their bids as you’ve categorized the items.  This, too, will help you compare costs and refine your plan.

• Try to select the materials yourself.  Asking a contractor to supply big-ticket items such as flooring, cabinets, countertops and appliances leaves them with a huge range to guess on and there is a chance you’ll end up paying the contractor an additional fee on top of the supplied costs.

A lot of money can be saved in a kitchen remodel by shopping around on your big-ticket items.  I’ve not been able to save much money on things like paint and light fixtures.  So I focus on my cabinets, countertops, appliances and flooring.

• Don’t select cabinets based on name brands. Cabinets are a huge expense.  There can easily be a $15,000 difference between various designs and manufacturers for 30 linear feet of semi-custom cabinets.  Taking some time to select a good quality cabinet can save a lot of money.

I’ve never seen a home buyer ask for the name brand of cabinets in a home.  You can get a very good cabinet for a fraction of the cost of some of the big-name manufacturers.

You should look for cabinet boxes made of furniture-grade plywood. Doors and drawer fronts should be made from a solid wood frame surrounding a panel and I prefer a solid wood panel.  Furniture grade plywood panels are okay as long as it looks good but avoid laminated particle board.

Drawers should be constructed of solid wood with dovetail joinery and a plywood bottom that is tightly fitted into a groove in the side of the drawer. I also look for a good slide and soft-close feature. Shelves should be made of at least half inch furniture grade plywood.

If you ensure your cabinets have these features then the name on them doesn’t really matter.  Most cabinet makers will provide similar warranties anyway.  Check with your supplier.

Wood species and design have a major impact on price.  Often you can get the desired look but save money by going with a little simpler design and different wood.  Most all cabinets are made of a hardwood so they will be durable.

• Choose the countertop wisely. Countertops also range widely in price.  My top of choice is granite.  Countertops are one of the first things people notice in your kitchen.  Particle board wrapped in Formica or other laminate is almost always a turn off to potential buyers.  When selecting granite, first choose the color you want, dark or light.  Price will often be determined by what your supplier has available.   Granite is granite so there is no significant quality difference in the stone.  You can easily pick a $20 a square foot granite and get the same look as a $45 a square foot granite.

Watch the installation costs. When it comes to granite, the supplier will almost always do the install.  I’ve found that some suppliers advertise really cheap per square foot costs but then they jack up the installation costs.  Make sure you get a full bid from the various suppliers you visit.  You might find the shop that advertised $20 granite is actually more expensive than the shop that’s selling a $30 granite.

When it comes to cabinets and countertops, try going to one of the many small local suppliers.  Shopping around with these shops can often save you thousands vs. what you’ll pay at the big home-improvement stores. And you are much more likely to be dealing with just one person rather than whomever happens to be on duty on a given day at a big retailer.  I also find that many of the small shops can deliver in half the time required by the big retailers.

• Low-priced flooring may be just as good as the costly kind. Tile and hardwood can easily range in costs from $1 a square foot to $15 a square foot or more.  I find that I can get a very good look in a home with a $2 or $3 a square foot tile.

For tile, I normally go to the big home improvement stores.  Big retailers normally have the best price on tile but their selection is limited.  Avoid using real stone if you’re cost conscious.  The material is more expensive and it’s usually tougher to install and your contractor should charge you more for installation.  If he doesn’t charge you more, there’s a good chance he’s not very experienced with it and you may end up with quality problems.  I prefer a simple and clean look anyway.  Granite or marble tile can look out of place if not installed correctly and properly incorporated into an overall design.

Good prices on hardwood can be found at one of the surplus or overstock warehouses.  This may take some time because you never know what they may have in supply at any given visit.  If you can use an overstock item you can save thousands in material.  This may require you to start watching months in advance of your project.

• Go for midgrade name brand appliances. Appraisers and buyers rarely value top-of-the line appliances at anything close to their purchase price.

Appliances are sold a bit like cars.  There are appliance sales people in almost every big box store.  Make contact with several sales people.  Get their cards and see if they’ll call or text you when they’re having sales.  This is what I do.  I buy packages of appliances well before I’m ready for them when I have upcoming projects.  These retailers have also been willing to hold my appliances for months until I’m ready for delivery.

• Do your homework to find the right contractor. Knowing your rough layout, desired materials, and armed with a scope of work, you can begin getting bids.  Dealing with contractors can be a daunting task.  Virginia, Maryland and the District all have good guidance for consumers.  Check your jurisdiction’s Web site to find good tips for researching your contractor and items that need to be in a construction contract.

Make sure you get four or five bids.  Be wary of any bid that is too cheap or too expensive.  Have contractors line item their bids and closely compare the items.  If one of the items varies greatly in price from bid to bid then you may not have properly explained your needs.

Getting the best price on labor is not always about just finding the right contractor.  It’s about finding the right contractor at the right time.  If a contractor happens to be busy he’ll probably still give you a price but he probably won’t give you the best price. So always get multiple bids from reputable contractors.

If you have a choice, try timing your project after the holiday rush but before the spring thaw.  This is typically contractors’ slowest time of the year and they’ll appreciate having indoor work.

Big retailers will provide you with local contractors.  This is almost always the more expensive option but it does provide you with an additional layer of protection.

• Avoid change orders. Change orders kill.  Do your best to flesh out your desires before the bidding process and get as much as you can bid and priced out prior to signing a construction contract.  A contractor knows you are probably not going to bid out a change order so he’s not likely to give you the best price.  Most times the contractor will have pulled permits for the job so it will be difficult or impossible to bring in another contractor to fill a need.

• Try doing some of the work yourself. If you’re adventurous and handy, consider installing the cabinets yourself.  This is much easier than one might think and there are ample videos and books available to help the do-it-yourselfer in this task.  Some contractors really seem to overcharge for cabinet installation.  Check to see how your cabinets will be delivered.  If they come preassembled, installing them yourself is that much easier.  If assembly is required, you may reconsider because it will require significantly more time.

Kitchen remodels are never painless.  Expect the project to take a least a couple weeks.  This is time when you will not be able to use a vital portion of your home.  Starting to plan your remodel months in advance is key to finding the best price on materials and mitigating the stress of the construction process.

Have a plan, start early and work with good people and you can save thousands of dollars and immeasurable stress.  In the end, you’ll not only have a beautiful kitchen to enjoy but also add significantly to your home’s value.