Are you ready for a kitchen makeover? To get started, ask yourself a few basic questions—

  • What do you like about your current kitchen? What do you hate?
  • How do you plan to use the kitchen—as a center of family activities; as a place to eat most or all meals; for gourmet-level cooking, sometimes with more than one cook; for entertaining guests; as a makeshift space for conducting family business?
  • Do you want to make structural changes? Replace appliances?
  • How much are you willing to spend?

You also have to decide how much help you want with the design. There are compelling reasons to get professional help: Professionals who examine and design kitchens every day know how to make kitchens look better, function better, and cost less. With professional expertise, you can avoid mishaps—like discovering you can’t install a fixture because a pipe blocks the way. And if suppliers or installers get something wrong, a professional designer has more leverage to push for making it right.

A professional might be a kitchen designer or architect who only does designs—for a fee. More commonly, consumers get design services from remodeling contractors or companies that sell cabinets and other kitchen items. Some such companies charge hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for design service. Others waive the fee if you end up buying cabinets or other items through them. And some companies provide the design for free—as a cost of marketing—and only hope that you wind up buying through them.

Arrange to interview several designers. Assess their taste and see how easy it is to communicate with them. We prefer designers who will visit your home, not just recommend cabinets at the store based on room measurements. Interaction in your home is likely to hatch the most creative ideas. Also, your measurements might miss something: One designer told us of a client who measured the space between windows—correctly measuring from the outside of one window’s trim to the outside of the next window’s trim, but failing to notice that the trim on one side of a window had already been cut down. Based on those measurements, the cabinets would not have been properly centered.

When you find a candidate you like, ask for references. If possible, inspect a kitchen that the designer has recently designed and thinks would match your taste. Discuss timing; how many draft plans the designer will provide; whether you have to use the designer’s own contractors; how closely the designer will supervise the installation; whether you will have to buy cabinets, countertops, fixtures, appliances, and other items through the designer; and how the designer will be compensated.

We recommend arrangements that let you compare prices and buy from a supplier other than the designer if the price is right. For this freedom, it’s worth paying a design fee. Markups on cabinets, countertops, and other items can be substantial; don’t get stuck with a designer who provides a free design and more than makes up for it with excessive markups. (For our advice on getting the best deal on appliances, see our article on appliance stores.)

Companies that charge no design fees and don’t require you to buy through them are particularly attractive options. This lets you get competitive prices to make sure you don’t overpay for cabinets and other items. Of course, in the end you might be willing to pay extra to buy through the company that provides the design, either because it seems fair or because you are pleased with the design work and want to keep the designer involved throughout the project.

You can get ratings of cabinet design and sales outlets here.

Cabinets are usually the most expensive and important element of kitchen projects. You will have to decide on the number, types, and sizes of cabinets; type of wood; door style; finish; knobs; and accessories. The websites of major manufacturers such as Wood-Mode, Fieldstone Cabinetry, KraftMaid, and Merillat display types, styles, and finishes; provide assistance with creating plans; and answer many of your questions. These are excellent resources; visit them before you contact designers.

When shopping for cabinets, keep in mind these points to judge quality—

  • Stock cabinets, which are mass-produced in standard sizes, generally cost less than custom or semi-custom cabinets. Custom cabinets made to order to fit your exact size needs usually consist of the best materials. Semi-custom units are also made to order, but in standard sizes that may require spacer-inserts to fit your space exactly.
  • Wood grain that matches from piece to piece and furniture-quality finish are signs of quality.
  • Look for drawers with dovetailed joints, drawer sides of 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch plywood, and drawer bottoms fitted and glued into side grooves. High-quality drawers should pull out completely. Doors with fitted mortised corners are sturdier than those made with non-interlocking butt joints. Top-quality cabinets usually have solid wood face frames at least 3/4 inches thick. For the cabinet box, avoid thin sides, backs, and floors; especially avoid thin particleboard.

Once you have decided on cabinets, make a list of each cabinet you want, with exact specifications for manufacturer, style, wood-type, finish, and size. Then start shopping. Unfortunately, because different vendors generally sell different makes, you won’t be able to compare prices for the same exact cabinets at dozens of sellers. But most major makes will have several dealers within reach. Find them by visiting the manufacturer’s website.

You’ll want to get several area suppliers to bid on your job. The table below shows the range of prices Consumers' Checkbook found when our shoppers asked area cabinet sellers to supply 16 cabinets for an average-size kitchen remodel. All quoted on the same model, finish, and sizes of KraftMaid cabinets. Here is what we found—

  • There was substantial dealer-to-dealer price variation—a difference of $3,105, from $6,202 to $9,307.
  • The two lowest prices quoted to our shoppers were from a Home Depot store and a Lowe’s store. But we found for both chains that prices varied dramatically from store to store.

If the price of new cabinets busts your budget, consider painting or re-facing existing cabinets—as long as your cabinets are well-constructed and in good condition beneath the surface, and you are satisfied with the existing kitchen layout and design.

The best thing about painting is the price. The materials to paint cabinets that would cost $6,000 or more to replace would cost only around $200. Even if you hire a painter to do the work, it usually costs less than $1,500. Although re-facing is much more expensive than painting, it should still cost only about 70 percent as much as replacements. A professional re-facer usually replaces cabinet doors and drawer fronts, and covers exposed face frames of the cabinets with a wood or plastic veneer that matches the new doors.

Illustrative Prices for 16 KraftMaid Cabinets*

Price quoted
Lowe’s, Gilroy, 408-413-6000 $6202
Home Depot, El Cerrito, 510-235-0800 $6219
Goldcrest Designs, Benicia, 707-558-9368 $6845
Possibility Kitchens, San Jose, 408-924-0204 $6998
MSK Design Build, Walnut Creek, 925-944-0153 $7013
Lowe’s, Antioch, 925-756-0370 $7131
Best Buy Cabinets, San Carlos, 650-413-5550 $7200
Goodlife Kitchens, San Francisco, 415-771-8590 $7310
Teevax, Santa Rosa, 707-545-1195 $7535-$7585
De Anza Interior, San Jose, 408-861-0766 $7649
Home Depot, Morgan Hill, 408-779-9755 $7655
Albany Cabinets & Design, Albany, 510-526-2288 $7750
Carrera Kitchen & Bath, San Rafael, 415-454-4647 $7815
ProBuild, Soquel, 831-475-6100 $7831
KitchenSync, San Francisco, 415-550-7701 $7977
Coliseum Tile, San Ramon, 925-831-0102 $9141
New Century Marble & Granite, San Leandro, 510-347-1818 $9175
Miracle Design, Hayward, 510-265-0221 $9307
*Price quotes are for 16 KraftMaid cherry cabinets with Roman Arch solid raised panels and full overlay, matching toe kicks, all-plywood construction, full-extension dovetail drawers with undermount glides, and local delivery.