The huge slab of black stone seemed to have magical properties — like something out of a Harry Potter novel. It was something much more than just a counter for my new kitchen.

Turquoise and white veins glowed when it was lit from behind. A magnet clung to small bits of ore imbedded within. And my wife and I were astounded when the store manager showed us interruptions in the veins caused by an ancient earthquake that split the stone and reforged it under enormous pressure. We realized that this stone wouldn’t simply be a highlight in our kitchen — it was also a geologic time capsule.

Designing a new kitchen is not a simple project. It’s fraught with hand-wringing and hard decisions. The process is stressful, expensive and full of second-guessing. But the end result can transform your house. The payoff can be a lifetime of joy and the addition of significant value to your home.   

A new kitchen is one of the most common home-renovation projects. And it should be. It’s the heart of your house. It’s where family and friends congregate and linger over food and conversation.

A kitchen remodel is also one of the most reliable ways to add value to your home. While a project can cost between $15,000 and $150,000, you can count on recouping around 70%–90% of your investment, one of the highest return of any home project. 

Over the last months, people have spent more time than usual in their kitchens. So, naturally, they start thinking about ways to improve them.

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If you’re considering a remodel or are designing a new home, here are some of the key elements to consider for your kitchen space.

The author and his wife fell in love with this black stone slab, which is now a focal point in their custom kitchen. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
The author and his wife fell in love with this black stone slab, which is now a focal point in their custom kitchen. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Good design is essential

Have you cooked in a kitchen that felt awkward? Perhaps you felt like you were always tripping over other people. Maybe the dishwasher and the oven couldn’t open at the same time. Maybe the appliances felt too far apart.

Good planning from the start will prevent these problems and save you huge headaches down the road.

Because it’s easier to visualize a kitchen when working from a blank slate, the first step is to sit down with some graph paper and plot out your area. Draw a map of the room that’s to scale, including permanent features like windows and doors. Then start playing with your options.  

One of the most tried-and-true elements of kitchen design is the golden triangle. Using the big three — the fridge, the stove and the sink/dishwasher — you form a work triangle. Doing so creates an efficient way to move around a kitchen.

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Each leg of the triangle should be 4–9 feet long, and the total distance should range from 13–26 feet. That way you’re not moving too much, but you also avoid bottlenecks. It sounds simple, but once you start experimenting with locations, you discover how many combinations are possible.

When my wife and I were planning our new house, we cut out squares to represent our appliances, then moved them around the graph paper until we had a plan we liked. From there, we backfilled with cabinets and smaller appliances like the mixer and microwave.

It can also be helpful to scope out other kitchens to see what works in terms of spacing and size. So keep a tape measure handy when visiting friends, once it’s safe to do so.

Another helpful exercise we did was to find an empty, grassy lawn where we laid out our design with stakes and flags, then practiced moving around our “new kitchen.” While it felt a little silly pretending to cook in our local park, it helped us realize that we needed more space between our main counter and kitchen island.

If you get stuck on this step, you can always hire a kitchen design specialist who will help you refine your ideas and assist in the decision-making process.

A popular way to save money on a kitchen remodel is to use pre-built cabinets like these from Ikea. (Courtesy of Ikea)
A popular way to save money on a kitchen remodel is to use pre-built cabinets like these from Ikea. (Courtesy of Ikea)
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Kitchen cabinets

Cabinets come in a wide variety of configurations. While it may seem daunting, the good news is that heights and depths are fairly standard — so it’s really only the cabinet width and the right combination of drawers and shelves that you need to plan.  

The most expensive route is to get your cabinets custom built from scratch. But a majority of homeowners order pre-built cabinets from a design center such as Ikea. 

Typically, you start by selecting a style you like, and then begin to mix and match the components until you figure out what works in your space. Cabinet packages typically include filler pieces that can be used when cabinets are a few inches smaller than a wall opening — so you have a little bit of flexibility when selecting your layout.

Creating a workspace 

When planning your space, consider including a kitchen island or a work nook in the kitchen with bar stools. It’s sure to get used. A lot.

The two chairs at the island in my kitchen are easily the most-used seats in the house. It’s where most of my writing happens, homework gets done, breakfast is served and friends sit down for intimate conversations.

Even seemingly small details, such as the placement of pot fillers, sconces and pendant lighting, should be decided up front to facilitate the plumbing and electrical process. (Courtesy of Rejuvenation)
Even seemingly small details, such as the placement of pot fillers, sconces and pendant lighting, should be decided up front to facilitate the plumbing and electrical process. (Courtesy of Rejuvenation)

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Electric, plumbing, gas and ventilation

After you have a plan in place, it’s time to think through the mechanics that make your kitchen work: the electrical, plumbing, gas and ventilation.  

These are usually an afterthought, but can be a very expensive part of your remodel since you typically hire contractors to install them. If you can use the existing locations for these items, it can save a lot of money. Some other things to consider:

Electric: You’ll need power routed to your appliances. Code requires that GFCI plugs be used in some kitchens areas, so some of your outlets may need to be upgraded. If you’re installing an island, you’ll almost certainly want outlets to charge devices and run small appliances. This means you’ll probably need wires run under the floor.

Plumbing: Moving the position of water lines and drains will be a large expense. You also need to consider bells and whistles like a pot filler or garbage disposal. Dishwashers almost always live next to the sink so they can share water and drain lines. 

Natural gas: Will you need to run a new gas line for the stove? Can you even get natural gas at your house, or will you need to include a large tank outside?

Ventilation: Range hoods need to vent to the outside. If you are putting the range on a kitchen island, you’ll need a downdraft vent or an unobtrusive range hood that vents through the ceiling. 

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Don’t forget the lights 

Kitchen lighting usually comes from four sources:  

Ceiling lights: These are typically already in place in the form of sconces or track lighting.

Range hoods: Hoods usually have lights built in to illuminate the cooking surface below.

Hanging lights: Some kind of pendant or hanging lights are normally installed over an island. This is a place that’s very visible, so you should plan to devote some budget here for quality lighting. 

Under-cabinet lights: It’s easy to overlook the fourth lighting source, which is under-cabinet lighting. Without these small lights that are hidden under the cabinets, counters can feel dark. A dimmer on these is a good idea in case the lights end up being annoyingly bright.

Flooring under cabinets 

A frequent headache during a kitchen remodel is when you pull out the old cabinets to discover that the flooring doesn’t go all the way to the wall. If the new layout is different from the old, it can leave large sections of unfinished flooring in obvious spots.

Be sure your demolition happens in advance of ordering the new cabinets, so you have time to fix this problem. If the gap is small, you can often add some additional trim to the kickplate. Otherwise, you’re stuck with trying to match the existing floor. 

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If you’re installing all new flooring as a part of your project, don’t skimp here. Cover the entire floor all the way to the wall, even under the cabinets. If you don’t, you may just create a future problem for yourself.

Cabinets first, then counters  

Part of the reason kitchen remodels take so long is because the counters are usually ordered after the cabinets are installed.  

Your counters will likely be a big-ticket item, so it’s something you want to invest time in choosing and get right the first time.  

Once you know your layout, you can begin shopping for the material you want to use. If you use natural material like marble, soapstone or granite, every piece will be unique, so you’ll want to go in person to the dealer to select your slab. Manufactured material like quartz is more uniform and can be ordered from a small sample.

After your cabinets are in place, a representative will come to your site and measure. They create a template that accounts for tiny variations in the wall and will include openings for sinks and faucets.

Demolition is a straightforward task you can take on yourself to save some money on a remodel. (Getty Images)
Demolition is a straightforward task you can take on yourself to save some money on a remodel. (Getty Images)
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Where to save some cash

Sticker shock can be a major hurdle when it comes to new kitchens. And many homeowners search for ways to save money.

If your budget is tight and you’re trying to decide where to trim, here are some suggestions on ways to save:

Demolition: This is probably the easiest way to save cash. Tearing out an old kitchen is grunt work. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, there’s no reason to pay someone $75 per hour to destroy things.  

Countertops: Counters are fairly easy to replace later, whereas cabinets are not. So you could postpone your dream countertops, save up and add them later.

Appliances and faucets: These items come in standard sizes, so this is another area where it’s easy to upgrade later.

Island materials: Consider a stainless steel kitchen island. While not cheap, a freestanding stainless work table is much more budget friendly than a permanent island.

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Repurposing rather than replacing: Another option for savings is to repurpose your existing cabinets. In many cases, and with a little elbow grease, you can strip, stain and paint what’s already in place.

Tips for repurposing old cabinets

DIY vs. using a pro 

Going the DIY route on a kitchen remodel is certainly possible if you’re handy with tools or have construction experience. Just know that there are certain areas that are easier to tackle, while others are best left to the experts.

Demolition: With a prybar, a cordless drill and some sweat equity, you can completely remove most kitchens in a single day. Just make sure the breakers and water are turned off in the kitchen before you begin. And don’t do the work until you’re ready to begin installing the new kitchen — or you could wind up doing your dishes in the bathtub for several extra months.

Power, gas and water: Unless you lived a former life as an electrician or plumber, these are areas best left to experts — because if you mess up, the results could be disastrous. Once the old kitchen is removed, hire someone to route the water, gas lines and power to meet your new design.  

Cabinets: Assembling cabinets is a bit like doing jumbo adult Legos. The hardest part is hanging the upper cabinets and shimming the lower cabinets to get everything level. Connecting the cabinets together and affixing them to the wall isn’t rocket science — so this is a place where you can DIY. If the planning and ordering were correct on the front end, cabinetry goes in quickly. If not, it’s an expensive time drain. So quadruple check your design before you start buying.

Counters: Budget options like laminate, wood and tile can be fabricated at home, but the majority of new kitchens use durable materials like marble, soapstone or an engineered surface like quartz. If going with one of these surfaces, special cutting and shaping are required, so this is done at a specialty dealer. And do you really want to try to transport a 2,000-pound piece of stone without breaking it? This one is a no-brainer: Leave it to the experts.

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Appliances: Appliances come in standard sizes with just a few variations, and many slide into place with minimal connections, so DIY installation is possible. But there are some situations when hiring someone makes sense — it really depends on your construction comfort level. Dishwashers and some refrigerators need to be connected to a water source. Sinks, garbage disposals and faucets can be tricky to get right, but are fairly standard to connect. Range hoods need to be connected to vents and power. Gas appliances need special consideration. Consider which of these, if any, you feel comfortable taking on.

Cabinet handles: This is an overlooked area that’s time consuming and easy to get sloppy with. It took me almost as long to install the handles in my kitchen as it did to assemble the cabinets themselves. While each handle only uses two holes, getting them perfectly positioned and level requires patience, or you’ll be using crooked handles the rest of your life.

Writer and general contractor Jeff Layton has been a builder and landlord in Seattle for more than 15 years. He recently installed three kitchens in his “forever home” near Leavenworth.