Design 101

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do you like about your current kitchen? What do you hate?
  • How do you plan to use the kitchen—a center of family activities; a place to eat most or all meals; for gourmet-level cooking, sometimes with more than one chef; for entertaining guests; a makeshift space for conducting family business?
  • Do you want to make structural changes? Replace appliances?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • Do you have a certain look or finishes in mind? Whether you buy materials yourself or buy through a designer or contractor, collecting a portfolio of kitchens you like can help you organize your vision. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas, as are home design magazines and websites.

There are compelling reasons to get professional design help: Pros usually know how to make kitchens look better, function more efficiently, and cost less. With their 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 creates designs—for a fee. More commonly, consumers get design services from remodeling contractors or companies that sell cabinets and other kitchen items. Some of these companies charge hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for design services. 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 purchasing through them.

Arrange to interview several designers. Here at Checkbook.org, you’ll find customer reviews of contractors and remodelers (which include many kitchen specialists), cabinet retailers, and countertop suppliers. (Our ratings come from surveys we regularly send to Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals.)

When meeting with designers, assess their taste and how easy it is to communicate with them. We prefer designers who will visit your home, not just recommend products at the store based on room measurements. A meeting in your existing kitchen 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 recording 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 promising candidate, ask for references. If possible, tour a kitchen that the designer has recently done 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. Click here for our advice on getting the best deal on appliances.

Companies that don’t charge design fees and don’t require you to buy through them are particularly attractive options. This lets you shop for competitive prices to make sure you don’t overpay for cabinets and other items. Of course, in the end you might be willing to shell out extra to buy through the company that provides the design, either because it seems fair or because you are pleased with the plan and want to keep the designer involved throughout the project.

Choosing Cabinets (and Avoiding High Prices)

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, Zonavita, 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.

Here at Checkbook.org, you’ll find customer reviews of cabinet suppliers. When visiting top stores, keep these points in mind 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 brands will have several dealers within reach. Find them by visiting the manufacturer’s website.

Get several area suppliers to bid on your job. The table below shows the range of prices Checkbook’s undercover shoppers were quoted when they provided local cabinet sellers specifications for 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 $3,920, from $5,961 to $9,881.
  • Home Depot and Lowe’s did not offer the lowest prices.
  • Although we provided dealers with a list of specific cabinets, a number offered to come to our home to confirm our measurements at no additional cost.

If the price of new cabinets busts your budget, consider painting or re-facing existing cabinets. This is a good option if 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 should run about $200, while replacing similar cabinets would cost $6,000 or more. Even hiring a painter to do the work can cost less than $2,000. 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.
 

Prices for a Set of
16 KraftMaid Cabinets*

Price
(does not
include
installation)
Granite Expo
1368 40th St, Emeryville, 510-652-8882
$6,069
Lowe’s
Multiple locations
$6,222
Alpha Kitchen & Bath
311 Lorton Ave, Burlingame, 650-315-2587
$7,119
Goodlife Kitchens
1604 Hayes St, San Francisco, 415-771-8590
$7,623
TeeVax Home Appliance & Kitchen Center
422 Wilson St, Santa Rosa, 707-545-1195
$7,790
BCI Cabinet Design
817 Arnold Dr, Martinez, 925-370-7070
$8,715
Best Buy Cabinets
1328 El Camino Real, Belmont, 650-413-5550
$8,973
DeAnza Interior
1073 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, 408-861-0766
$9,004
Home Depot
Multiple locations
$9,098
Sunkist Enterprises
1308 Rollins Rd, Burlingame, 650-347-3900
$9,101
Albany Cabinets & Design
920 San Pablo Ave, Albany, 510-526-2288
$11,218
DRB Construction
1104 Willow Pass Ct, Concord, 925-349-4476
$17,289
* Checkbook supplied companies with measurements for 16 KraftMaid cabinets with cherry finish, solid raised Roman arch panels and full overlay, matching toe kicks, all-plywood construction, and full-extension dovetail drawers with undermount glides. Prices include delivery but do not include installation services.