Tips For A Successful Kitchen Remodel

It’s true. Kitchen remodeling is not for the feint of heart. It is quite an experience — the dust, the noise, and all the invasion of strangers coming into the house. And of course, you have to live without a kitchen for a few weeks.  But keep your eye on the prize – it is SO worth it. My clients tell me they love updating their kitchens because they spend lots of family time in the kitchen and adjoining Family Room. It’s “where the party happens”, right? Even a partial kitchen remodel will have a high rate of return on investment. In most cases, it will almost pay for itself when you sell the home, especially if you get to use that kitchen for a few years. More importantly, you get to enjoy the shiny new space every day.



Before you “get bids” on anything, find out if what you want to do is even feasible. Many people have no idea what the different levels of kitchen remodeling are or what they cost. HGTV is not a good source of renovation prices. The shows usually don’t disclose the real cost for projects for those beautiful projects done by pros. They do talk about costs and overruns for the do-it-yourself disaster shows, but that’s not the same as a job done by an experienced remodeler.

So… how can you get some independent idea of remodeling costs? Go to the latest national survey of remodelers and realtors. It has all sort of projects, but look for a kitchen remodel scenario similar to yours. You will be able to view that kitchen with a 3-D viewer, and see what features you get for that price. Most full kitchen remodels that are “gut to the studs” jobs cost between $40K and $60K depending on finishes and size.  If you are moving walls, changing the location of things, or insisting on high-end cabinetry the cost will naturally be higher. According to the surveys a high-end kitchen costs over $100K. If your budget is around $20K, you can do partial remodel – just replace the counters with new stone tops, do a new tile backsplash, and add a sink & faucet. Maybe you can change the look of your cabinets by installing updated cabinet doors and drawer fronts, instead of putting in all new cabinets.

OK, so now you can set two important numbers: 1.) a BTN or “Budget Target Number” you hope to stay within, and 2.) an ACE “Absolutely Can’t Exceed” number that is your true limit. Do your homework — read magazines, visit showrooms to see what fixtures and appliances really cost.

No matter how well you plan, expect the project to “cost more and take longer than you think,” cautions Sherry Ackbar, Good Housekeeping magazine’s home editor.  “Embrace” that, and don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean the contractor is trying to be underhanded. Things just come up as the project proceeds. So set aside a little extra money — 15 to 20 percent of the total cost is a reasonable amount — to cover the unexpected.



Finding a good, reputable contractor is more important than price. I frequently hear horror stories from consumers who had a contractor start the job and then disappear, leaving their kitchen torn up and unusable. You don’t need that kind of stress.

Contrary to popular opinion, you do not get bids from several contractors. There is a more efficient, smarter method. Do initial interviews on the phone with your contractor-contenders, using my FREE 11 question CONTRACTOR TEST. Pick two companies you feel are experienced in your type of project. Meet with them on-site. Ask your favorite of them to write up “Detailed Specifications” for your project. These should contain allowances (assumed amounts), like $5.00 per sq. ft for backsplash & floor tile materials, $7,000. for the appliance package, $4,000. for the granite tops, $1,500. for plumbing fixtures, and so on. Your idea and my idea of a high-end countertop may not be the same thing. This seems to be a big problem — people don’t get what they thought they were getting quality-wise. Having a proper scope of work written out like this will prevent all that.

These Specifications will be in the form other contractors are used to seeing and are different from what you might write up as the homeowner. These will help you get a more “apples to apples” bid from the second contractor. Get your prices in and select the contractor you feel is the best fit for you. Negotiate the project with your chosen remodeler from there. This is much faster and smarter than walking 4 or 5 contractors through your house without pre-screening them, realizing in your “gut” that most are not really right for you and then getting bids in that all have different assumptions in their scopes of work. Do diligent interviews on the phone first.

Writing these “Specifications” takes time and skill. Expect to pay that first contractor a fee (i.e. $500. for a small kitchen project; $1,500. for a complex one) to write up the Specifications for your project.

Remember, while price is important, choosing the company with the lowest price “is usually not the best idea,” warns Sara Ann Busby, vice president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. You get what you pay for.   “It could be the quality of the materials the builder selected is different,” she notes, “or it could be that he or she missed something and will jack up the price later.”

So…how do you find some reputable remodelers in the first place? Talk to friends and neighbors who had similar projects done. Then narrow that list down by seeing if they are on the list of Certified Contractors available at your local Builders Association. If they aren’t, pass them by. Almost all professional contractors are members of their local builder’s association or NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) chapter. In Houston, Texas for example, call the Greater Houston Builders Association (281-970-8970) and ask for the list of remodelers that have certifications in construction. Specifically, see if your contractor-contenders have any of these certifications: CGR = Certified Graduate Remodeler, GMB = Graduate Master Builder, CGP = Certified Green Building Professional, CGB = Certified Graduate Builder, CR, Certified Remodeler or CAPS = Certified Aging in Place Specialist. A contractor with any one of these certifications will be a pro with training and better business practices than the other contractors out there. Your chances of having a bad experience are very slim if you use this certification-filter to pick your contractor.

In addition to asking the questions on my Contractor Test, you also need to do a gut check. How do you feel about this contractor? Remember, you’ll be dealing with this person for months, so you want someone you’ll feel comfortable talking to, someone who listens, will treat you fairly, work through problems maturely and who is flexible. “It needs to be a fun, enjoyable experience,” designer Busby says. “If it’s not, you’re not dealing with the right people.”



There are ways to get a stunning look without going top-of-the-line. “You just need to know where to save and where to splurge,” says Consumer Reports Bob Markovich. If you are on a budget, buy good quality fixtures without that brand name. Good plumbing supply stores can help you with this. You will save money and still have the gorgeous fixtures you want.

For our new kitchen, we went with a manufactured quartz counter top; made from ground-up quartz bonded together. To me it looks every bit as nice as granite or marble, and there’s a huge selection of colors and designs. This manufactured stone, such and Cambria, Silestone, and Zodiac, is tough and relatively maintenance free.

Tests by Consumer Reports show that when it comes to flooring materials, “fake beats real.” Vinyl is best for long-wear and resistance to stains, sun and moisture.  Plastic laminate, (Pergo and Shaw are the top sellers) are tough and relatively easy to install.
Markovich says the plastic laminates “did far better overall than the pre-finished solid wood flooring you see in all the real estate ads, and certainly better than engineered wood, which is the wood veneer you see so often.”

Another important tip is to make all of your selection decisions and order them before work begins. But, where to start? I provide my clients with a list of stores and people in those stores to go visit to get expert help. In most cases the clients can buy their fixtures and hardware at my builder cost and I don’t mark them up. Some contractors do choose to mark these up for larger profits. If the prospect of picking out all the parts in a kitchen gives you heartburn, you hate shopping, or your life is just too busy, we provide a designer to help you, or you can find your own. She/he can narrow the choices way down, and you can rest assured everything will “go together” and match.

Here is the proper sequence for picking out your stuff: 

1) Start with your appliances.  Cabinets can’t be designed, ordered or even priced accurately without knowing the sizes of you appliances.
2) Next select your countertop choice. Whether it is laminate or granite, get a piece of it and carry it with you when you get to pick your floor material and backslash tile, and eventually, paint.
3) Cabinet decisions are next, and a critical decision is whether you want a painted look or a stained finish look. Painted cabinets can more easily be built and painted on-site so it is faster. Stained cabinets are better ordered pre-finished so the color and varnish layers are robotically perfect, like furniture. Next, pick a cabinet door style you like and, internal features that are important to you (do you want soft-close drawers? Yes, you do. Do you want a “lazy susan” in the corner? Maybe.) Your remodeler or his/her cabinet vendor can walk you through all of those options.
4) Pick out and bring home your plumbing fixtures. A stone counter-top with an under-mount sink cannot be fabricated unless the sink is selected. Don’t forget your faucet, basket strainer for the sink drain, pump soap dispenser, RO water filter system, and Insta-Hot if you desire all those features. Buy these at the same time and same place you buy your sink – from a plumbing supply store (not a big box store) that can make sure it all fits together.




You never want to pay for the entire construction project up front, or even 50%. A legit remodeler will not ask you to do this – they should be solvent enough to go buy materials without having to get money up front from you every time. In most cases, your down payment should be no more than 10-20% percent of the total contract price, unless there are custom-made items like cabinets or replacement windows that are ordered at the beginning of the project. Your contractor will have to pay at least 50% up front for custom-made items so expect to cover him or her for this.

The contract should spell out the schedule for the rest of the payments. Base payments on your remodeler’s achieving on visible progress steps in the construction, (often called “milestones”) such as when the countertops go in, or the cabinets are installed. Most contractors will bill you at the end of each week or every two weeks. Don’t make the final payment until everything is done, the final inspection is completed, and you are satisfied with the results. It is OK to hold out an agreed upon amount at the end [2% on a bigger project (over $50K) to 5% on a smaller one (under 50k)], until everything is completed. It is “not OK” to hold out $3,000. for a missing cabinet knob. Hold-backs at the end of the job for a loose end like that should be in proportion to the real time-and-materials cost of finishing up that item.



We’ve compiled 9 mistakes to avoid to keep you from falling into some of the most common kitchen renovation traps.


That’s it! Hopefully these tips will help you pick the right contractor and you’re kitchen remodel goes smoothly, quickly, and on-budget!