Few home remodeling projects come with more benefits—and more headaches—than a major kitchen remodeling job. If you hire a general contractor to manage a major job that expands the kitchen footprint, costs can easily go into the six-figure range. If you have the courage to tackle the work yourself, the job may take many months to complete, and you may need to live without a kitchen for a good portion of that time.
But a gleaming new kitchen will make your home more livable, and it will increase the equity value of your real estate like few other remodeling projects can do.1 A great new kitchen will be the focus of family life and can be the center of social gatherings. A fully remodeled kitchen is most certainly a project worth the time, money, and effort, and you can avoid being overwhelmed if you fully understand the steps that go into the process before you begin.
Assess Needs and Wishes
A great many kitchen remodeling projects end up disappointing a homeowner—or shocking them with the cost—simply because they did not spend the necessary time to determine what they wanted and what they could afford.
Needs vs. Desires in a Kitchen Remodel
Start by asking yourself what persistent problems you experience with your current kitchen. Is it a matter of too little space to cook effectively? Too little space to store food and dishware? Do you lack dining areas? Are the appliances ineffective or too old? Or does the kitchen just make you wince because it is so dated and so ugly?
Establish a prioritized list of things you would like in your new kitchen, ranked according to their importance. It’s helpful to distinguish between those elements you absolutely need and those you simply want.
Remodel Reality Check
Early on in your planning, confront the two-part reality of a kitchen remodeling project: the logistics of the
work itself, and the expense involved.
If the work will be done by subcontractors managed by a general contractor, you will have strangers tracking through your house and making noise and mess for a matter of weeks or perhaps even a couple of months. If you plan to do the work yourself, the downtime for the kitchen will likely be much longer—and do you really have the time and DIY skills necessary to accomplish this?
Kitchen Remodel Resale Value
Consider the financial payback on a new kitchen. If you are planning to remain in your house for many years, a dream kitchen might be worth the high cost since it will serve as a functional and attractive family space for decades. But if you are an empty nester who plans to downsize to a smaller home in the next five years, perhaps a surface-level kitchen renovation is really the more practical option.
A kitchen is a highly personal space, and your idea of a dream kitchen may not be anything like the next owner’s idea. Kitchen remodels often return a good portion of their cost in improved home equity—but not all of it.1
Prepare for Compromise
Right from the beginning of the planning stage, establish a mindset that is willing to look for ways to cut costs on your kitchen remodeling project.
By far, the easiest and most expensive way to remodel a kitchen is to off-load most of the planning, design, and management of workers to a general contractor. But the contractor comes at a significant cost, and you can save a lot of money if you are willing to serve as your own contractor and hire and supervise individual subcontractors to do the hands-on work. Your cost savings will be greatly amplified if there are some of the tasks you are willing and able to tackle yourself.
Be ready to compromise on the materials in your new kitchen. It is easy to get dreamy-eyed about custom cabinets and marble floor tiles, but you will find that there are stock cabinets with hardwood veneer and mass-produced porcelain floor tiles that will also look great. Is that restaurant-grade gas range really necessary or will a good quality consumer range do the job?
If you’re truly creative, you might even think about using reclaimed cabinets and other materials to create a vintage kitchen look that is both unique and inexpensive.
Kitchen Design and Planning
With a realistic idea of what you need in a new kitchen and a mindset of determined flexibility, you can start to brainstorm and begin to hone a concrete, workable plan for your new kitchen.
Basic Kitchen Plans
While you have a wide range of possibilities, utilize one of the five classic kitchen design plans. For ease of movement, all plans represent some form of that classic workflow model, the kitchen triangle.
- One-Wall Design
- Corridor Design
- L-Shape Design
- Double-L Design
- U-Shape Design
In all likelihood, one of these classic kitchen design plans will be the logical choice for your new kitchen. From there, you can look at a number of resources to help develop actual plan drawings and blueprints for your kitchen:
- Kitchen design software: Inexpensive or free online kitchen design software helps you with the difficult task of space-planning.
- Physical design packages: These kits have cardboard punch-outs representing cabinets and appliances. Placing punch-outs on a kitchen grid helps you realistically view your available space.
- Kitchen designers: Kitchen designers staffed at home improvement companies or at kitchen design stores typically design your kitchen free of charge. However, they will steer you to their own vendors and to their own work crews. Independent designers will have the most freedom and may give you the best product because they have fewer restrictions. However, they will charge you for their services, either by the hour or as a percentage of the project cost.
- General contractors: The same GCs who manage kitchen remodeling projects may be able to assist you in the early stages of planning the kitchen, although their design assistance will not get detailed until you hire them. But most GCs who are bidding on a job will offer suggestions and possibly even plan sketches as part of their proposals. Just talking to contractors can help you clarify your own plans.
Hire a Contractor or DIY
Whether you do have created your kitchen plan yourself or worked with a design professional, once you have settled on a kitchen layout and developed drawings, it is time to make the all-important decision on who you will hire to turn those ideas into reality. There are three options:
- Hire a GC (general contractor). These are generally builder/construction firms that specialize in managing major projects from start to finish. They can range from small companies with two or three people, to a large firm with dozens of employees. In large firms, the commission charged by the GC ranges from 15 to 20 percent of the total job cost. Smaller GCs are often owner/operator business in which the owner may perform a good deal of the work himself, possibly one or two staff carpenters, then subcontract out specialized work, such as wiring, plumbing, and tile installation. This can help with cost efficiency, as most GCs have a pool of sub-contractors they work with often, so they may be able to negotiate a better rate. An owner/operator contractor with a good track record is an excellent choice for a kitchen remodeling project since their overhead costs are usually much lower than larger firms. These smaller contractors usually do not charge a commission, since their costs are figured into the overall job estimates.
- Do it yourself. At the other end of the scale is doing all the hands-on work yourself. This is a practical alternative if you are a very experienced DIYer, fully knowledgeable in all the skills required, and if you have plenty of spare time to do the work. But this is not an option for the faint-of-heart, because kitchen remodeling is a big project. It is not uncommon for a DIYer tackling a major kitchen remodel to find themselves a full year into a project with the end still months away. A good DIYer, though, can cut the project costs in half by doing all the work.
- Hire your own subcontractors. A compromise strategy is to serve as your GC—finding, hiring, and supervising the individual subcontractors (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, flooring pros, etc.) yourself. This can save you quite a bit of money over a GC-managed project, but it requires a good deal of effort to manage the workflow and supervise the various subcontractors. One advantage of this approach, though, is that you can choose to tackle some aspects of the job yourself to save money. For example, you can choose to do the demolition yourself, then hire carpenters to do the framing, wiring, and plumbing, then do the flooring and cabinet installations yourself.
At the point where you’re ready to hire a general contractor or begin the work yourself, it’s time to apply for permits. Permits must be obtained from different agencies. Your city or county may administer the electrical, plumbing, and building permits. Your water company may also need to permit any work relating to water supply and drainage.2 If a general contractor is handling the renovation, he will obtain all the necessary permits. If you are doing it yourself, start by calling your local city or county permitting agency.
Prepare Your Home
Make contingency plans for meals during the time your kitchen is out of operation. With some kitchen remodels, your plumbing and appliances may be operational for some portions of the project. More often, though, your stove, sink, and other appliances will be disconnected and absent for at least a short time, or maybe even many weeks, as your kitchen is being remodeled.
Make arrangements for living without your kitchen for however many weeks it will be out of commission. You may be able to get by if you move a few appliances into another room and set up an informal kitchen for the duration. A recreation room or home bar with a sink can serve as a cooking and dining space for this time. If you cook up a number of meals in advance and store them in a freezer, you’ll need nothing more than a microwave oven to reheat them for meals.
This might be a time when you eat more meals at restaurants, or a time when you find yourself joining sympathetic friends and relatives for meals at their homes—invitations are likely if you offer to cook for them.
With all the preparation out of the way, the first real step is a noisy and messy one—and one that can be fun, as well.
Whether it’s done by you or the general contractor’s crew, removing the old appliances and tearing out the old materials is the first step on the road to the new kitchen. This can be hard physical work, but it is not particularly complicated unless the demolition involves removing load-bearing walls.
This may be a part of the project you choose to do yourself. If so, remember to wear safety gear and take precautions if there is any chance that lead-based paint or asbestos is present.3 These materials require special handling. And if you are doing the demolition yourself, you’ll need to arrange for a roll-off dumpster or other means of hauling away the debris and any discarded appliances.
Kitchen Structural Build-Out
With demolition complete, a typical kitchen remodel begins in earnest with the contractor’s carpentry crew performing whatever framing work is necessary for the project. Depending on your new kitchen’s configuration, this may involve some very major construction tasks. Are you adding or replacing windows? Or removing windows to increase cabinet space? Taking down walls to open up the kitchen to the rest of the house? Even minor kitchen remodeling projects may need joists strengthened to support heavier appliances or built-ins such as a kitchen island.
Framing work is something many experienced DIYers can do themselves, working according to the building plans that were developed during the planning stages.
Plumbing, Wiring, and HVAC Rough-In
After the framing work, the next step is for new or rerouted plumbing pipes, wiring, and HVAC duct work to be run. This process is known as the mechanical rough-in phase, and it is normally done by licensed plumbers, electricians, and HVAC pros hired either by the general contractor or by a homeowner serving that role.
If you’re doing the work yourself and learning as you go, this will be slow-going. Plumbing and wiring are not trades you learn overnight, and kitchens usually require a lot of new plumbing and wiring. The current code wiring requirements for kitchens may mean that several entirely new circuits need to be installed.4 The complexity of the work and the inherent hazards if wiring and plumbing aren’t done correctly means that all but the most skilled DIYers will want to subcontract this work out to pros, who can do the work with remarkable swiftness.
Unless the kitchen project involves merely replacing a sink, dishwasher, and refrigerator in the same locations, normally there will be some rerouting of water supply and drain lines to new locations. Even if the fixtures are remaining in the same place, this is a good time to update any old plumbing pipes—galvanized steel pipes can be replaced with PEX, for example. The plumbing changes may be quite complex, such as if you are moving a sink to a center kitchen island.
When the plumbing rough-in is completed, it will receive the first of two inspections mandated by permit requirements. The inspector will review the installation while the wall surfaces are still removed to make sure it has been done according to code. If you have done this work yourself, it is your responsibility to arrange for the inspection.
As complex as the plumbing may be, the electrical service upgrades for a large kitchen remodel may be even more sweeping. Modern kitchens have very heavy electrical loads and the code may require as many as seven circuits or more.4 To effectively power a large modern kitchen, your home should have at least 200-amp service. This means that many kitchen remodeling projects require that an electrician update the entire electrical service to the house.
As the electrician runs the new circuits to the kitchen, he will likely abandon any existing circuit wiring in the kitchen in favor of running new wiring for all the kitchen circuits. Here, too, the wiring rough-in installation will need to be reviewed and passed by the inspector before the project can move to the next phase.
While not always necessary, any new HVAC ductwork required by the project is done at the same time that wiring and plumbing work is being completed. Installing sheet metal ductwork is usually done by an HVAC contractor who understands the physics of airflow and can position the new vent registers and cold air return registers in the most effective locations.
Finish Walls and Ceilings
With the next step, the kitchen will begin the transition from a battle-zone into something that looks like a kitchen.
Once the plumbing, wiring, and HVAC rough-ins have been completed and passed by the inspector, the walls and ceilings can be closed up. Exterior walls will be insulated with fiberglass batt to provide a buffer between the kitchen and inclement weather. With the wall cavities accessible, this is a good time to install high-quality insulation.
Next, drywall is hung and the seams are taped and finished. Walls and ceilings are now primed and painted. If ceilings are being textured, the texture is now applied.
Insulating, installing drywall, and priming and finishing walls and ceilings are all tasks that homeowners can do themselves to save money. Be aware, though, that pros can do this work very quickly and are relatively inexpensive.
Flooring installation is one of the last stages before cabinets, appliances, and fixtures are installed. It is normally saved until the end to prevent wear and tear on the new flooring.
If the project is being managed by a general contractor, his flooring subcontractors will now arrive to do the installation. The time required (as well as the expense) will depend on the type of flooring you’ve chosen.
- Sheet vinyl is the least expensive flooring choice and can usually be laid in one day. DIYers can do this job, but because the labor time involved is not great, professional installation is not very expensive.
- Ceramic tile requires a base of cement backer board, to which tile is adhered with thin-set mortar. The tile is then grouted. Even with inexpensive tile, professional installation can be costly because of the extensive labor involved. DIYers able and willing to do this work can enjoy good cost savings.
- Engineered wood feels like solid hardwood (its surface finish is real wood), but it is much less expensive. Tongue-and-groove planks are relatively easy for DIYers to install.
- Laminate flooring is a highly popular choice for kitchens because of the low price and ease of installation. Some forms are not recommended for moist locations such as kitchens. Laminate planks are easy for DIYers to install.
- Solid hardwood: Hardwood is less popular because water can warp it if not quickly mopped up. However, with proper care, it is a viable choice for the kitchen. Installers can lay wood in an average-sized kitchen floor in three days. Installing hardwood flooring yourself is a very difficult DIY project.
Install Cabinets and Countertops
As the kitchen remodeling nears the end, finish carpenters will install the cabinets and countertops.
Cabinet-hanging requires patience. Your local cabinet supplier should have work crews who can hang your cabinets, usually over a period of a day or two. If you are sub-contracting the work, any competent carpenter can do this job. Or you can do it yourself, though you will need helpers to do so.
Although it looks easy enough, installing countertops is harder than it looks. Ceramic tile countertops are probably best installed by tile pros who may also be installing your ceramic tile floor. If you are using synthetic materials, such as Silestone, Formica, or Corian, you may not even have the option of DIY installation, as these materials are difficult for DIYers to even buy. These solid-surface materials need to be fabricated and installed by authorized fabricators affiliated with the manufacturers. Granite, marble, and synthetic quartz countertops are so heavy that the best option is to have them installed by the shop that has fabricated them to your specifications.
Because countertops must be installed perfectly level and flat, good installation depends on base cabinets that are perfectly level and solidly anchored.
Install Appliances, Plumbing, and Wiring Fixtures
You’re on the second-to-last lap—installation of appliances and the final connections of plumbing and lighting fixtures. Appliances are delivered and put into position, and the plumber returns to hook up the dishwasher and refrigerator water supply and to install and connect the sink and faucets. The electrician also returns to install light fixtures and connect switches and outlets, and the ductwork covers are installed.
Some or all of this work can be done by homeowners, but if pros were used for earlier stages of the wiring and plumbing work, the final connections are normally part of their contracted work.
Inspection and Completion
With all the remodeling tasks complete, it’s now time for the final touches:
If you are working with a general contractor, do a walk-through and create a list of whatever details don’t meet your complete satisfaction. Discussing this punch-list with your GC is a normal part of any remodeling project, and include things like trim molding joints that don’t fit exactly, fixing scars and dings on the walls that occurred during appliance installation, faucet handle covers not yet put in place, as well as any major discrepancies you might notice. Now is the time to make sure you are satisfied with all the work that has been done.
At the end of the project, your permits will need to be finalled—that is, the various inspectors will need to visit your kitchen, review the work, and stamp your permit application as final or complete. If you have worked with contractors, they normally arrange for the required inspections, but if you’ve done the work yourself, you are in charge of contacting the inspectors to final the permits.
A good contractor employs a housecleaner who specializes in building-related cleaning. If you’re doing it yourself, give yourself a breather and hire a house cleaner to clean your kitchen.
And now, your kitchen is finished! Enjoy the new space and convenience, and feel good about having made one of the better home renovating choices!