When a dishwasher, refrigerator and double oven — all builder-grade and all nearly 20 years old — failed in a brief span in late 2017, Dan and Marianne Casserly pondered their options.
They could undertake an extensive kitchen remodel, or they could seek a new home for their five-member family.
“I was intimidated by all of the potential construction and potentially being displaced from our home for a long time,” Dan Casserly said.
The Casserlys had purchased their large, Craftsman-style home in Falls Church, Virginia, in 2001, raised three children there and cherished their community, which is why they opted to renovate rather than move.
“There are so many people that are doing more redesigns in their homes than they are finding new houses to move around,” he said.
Spurred by swelling property values, owners remaining longer in their homes and a sluggish new-construction sector, the remodeling industry has boomed since the Great Recession, more than doubling to a record $425 billion in 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
Kitchens are among the most popular renovation projects. There were roughly 2 million kitchens remodeled in 2017, costing 140 percent more than they did in 1995, the center calculates in its 2019 “Improving America’s Housing” report.
A minor revamp of a 200-square-foot kitchen, which is roughly the size of a one-car garage, amounts to $22,000 on average, per Remodeling Magazine’s cost-vs.-value analysis. An upscale renovation can surpass $130,000. The National Kitchen and Bath Association puts the average cost of a kitchen remodel, regardless of dimensions, at $34,000, according to its Lifestyle Segmentation Study.
Given the amount of money homeowners spend on kitchen remodels, picking the approach that works best for you is key. Budgets, timelines and your willingness to do the work yourself will dictate the method you choose. Here are seven ways to go about it.
A design-build firm is a one-stop shop. Staffed with designers and craftsmen, these companies handle everything from inception to completion.
This approach appealed to the Casserlys, who considered a general contractor but ultimately picked Case Design.
“My husband and I both have demanding jobs and we have three teenagers at home who are all involved in sports,” Marianne Casserly said. “We really didn’t have time to manage different contractors.”
Handling projects in-house, design-build companies have a level of accountability that is rare in the fragmented remodeling industry.
“We are uniquely situated as design-build to put the project together in a cohesive manner,” said Elle Hunter, Case’s director of project development.
Design-build companies handle alterations to plumbing and electrical systems and modifications to load-bearing walls, services designers and even some general contractors often outsource.
“We have been known for changing the rest of the space around the kitchen, maybe taking down a wall or opening up more windows or replacing floors,” said Jonas Carnemark, founder of Carnemark Design and Build.
Although they don’t sell appliances, they usually have relationships with vendors, which allows them to coordinate delivery with the construction schedule.
A common concern with design-build companies is that they focus too much on the overall project and not the finer aspects of the design.
“There is attention to detail in the kitchen but not on the same level” as a kitchen designer, said Nadia Subaran, co-founder and co-owner of Aidan Design.
A centralized design-build operation can be too formulaic — a trait that promotes reliability but hinders personalization.
This approach is best for homeowners who seek reliability and clarity in the remodeling process but lack the time to oversee it themselves.
Because it is their specialty, kitchen designers bring a high level of expertise and personalization to the project.
“You do a kitchen once or twice in your life and it is a whole lot of money,” said Susan Serra, designer and owner of New York-based Susan Serra Associates. “I think [you] should go and interview professionals and go to one who does it every day.”
Kitchen designers parse clients’ habits of cooking and entertaining, their needs and wants, their homes’ constraints and possibilities. They maximize the space’s efficiency and functionality.
“You work with [a designer] to design something that is personal to you,” said Taylor Kiessig, who trusted Aidan Design in Maryland with an update of his family’s row house in the District of Columbia.
The benefit designers bring to a project is their knowledge of the latest trends and materials. Stacy Neri, a stay-at-home mother of five from Long Island, hadn’t heard of a galley sink until Serra suggested it. Now, she can’t live without it.
“I recommend a designer because they have access to products and information that I just didn’t know about,” Neri said.
The downside is that some designers associate with a select few brands and manufacturers, which could curtail choices. Another drawback is a designer only designs the kitchen. You still need to hire a contractor to carry out the design.
This approach is best for homeowners who may have a vision for their kitchen but struggle to translate it into the architecture of their home. It is also for renovators who do not mind spending weeks on the design phase.
Homeowners who know exactly what they want may prefer to go with a general contractor.
“We can just build things off a photo,” said Claud Fatu, owner of New York City-based Fatu Construction. “We do it all the time. There is no designer involved. The functionality of it falls back on us.”
Dan Nistor, owner of Alumni Builders in Chicago, said he doesn’t see an advantage to hiring a kitchen designer.
“You are just adding another layer of pricing,” he said.
Homeowners who hire a designer and a contractor incur markups and potentially higher costs. Fatu said when he’s working for a designer rather than directly for a client, he tends to bill more.
“If you are going to call me directly, you are probably going to save money and you know what you want,” Fatu said.
A contractor also may have relationships with vendors and can pass along discounts to a homeowner on cabinets, materials and finishes.
When Darryl Nipps, a real estate agent with Compass in New York City, redid his kitchen, he hired Fatu because he knew what he wanted and just needed someone to execute it.
“I think it is really important to find a contractor that you can trust and someone who can counsel you through the project,” Nipps said.
Contractors’ breadth of services also matters. Some only do the demolition and construction, leaving clients to shop for materials and appliances themselves; others pull permits and place orders. But they often charge more.
A disadvantage to this approach is that they are in such demand it can be challenging to find a reliable contractor who does quality work. Some contractors do not have a brick-and-mortar presence, which can make it difficult to track them down in case of disputes.
This approach is best for homeowners who easily conceptualize what they want and can manage their kitchen remodel.
For a previous remodel, Nipps used Ikea’s online 3-D application to design his kitchen and then chose cabinets from the store, which Fatu assembled.
“The tool [also] shows you how much the kitchen will cost,” said Kathleen Wilber, Ikea’s kitchen business leader, via email. Another benefit is these stores offer financing for the project.
Such offerings position big-box stores as affordable and versatile centers for kitchen renovations. Homeowners can shop for anything they need — from mortar to microwaves — at multiple price points and receive design and construction assistance. In this sense, they are even more comprehensive than design-build companies.
Big-box stores cater to a variety of homeowners who have different needs, timelines and budgets.
“We have something for everybody,” said Jennifer Wagner, a kitchen and bath installations merchant with Home Depot.
Both Ikea and Home Depot train employees in kitchen design. They outsource construction, but homeowners don’t have to use their vendor. The cost of labor can be cheaper through a big-box store than a general contractor because the stores give their contractors many projects and the contractors often pass the discounts onto the homeowner. Unlike a design-build company, though, these contractors may not have the licenses to make structural changes. The stores also offer warranties for products and services.
Big-box stores’ comprehensive approach suited Bruce Wasser and Fern Schumer Chapman, who redid their kitchen with Home Depot in Northern Illinois.
“The house is of pretty significant value and most people would have probably chosen to go with a designer rather than Home Depot,” Chapman said. “But I refused to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a kitchen.”
Not only did Wasser and Chapman get their dream kitchen, the result earned Home Depot’s companywide “kitchen of the month” award in February.
Yet, big-box stores, even the same brand, vary in the quality of service. They seldom are a match for “the level of experience or commitment to the industry you will find with an independent kitchen designer,” said Sarah Robertson, principal at Studio Dearborn in New York.
This approach is best for homeowners who want to save money on the design and installation while enjoying the convenience of shopping for all kitchen components under one roof.
Specialty kitchen store
Specialty kitchen stores are similar to big-box retailers in that they provide an array of kitchen components, including cabinets and fixtures. They also resemble design firms because they employ designers, who are often better qualified and more experienced than their counterparts at large retailers. Unlike a designer at a big-box store who perhaps transferred into the kitchen department and received some in-house training, specialty kitchen store designers tend to be nationally certified professionals.
“We offer what I would consider almost a custom level of products and services [at] Home Depot or Lowe’s price,” said Craig Pugh, designer with the Kitchen & Bath Shop in the District of Columbia.
These stores swing from low-cost upgrades to lavish remodels, without pledging fealty to brands the way a design firm might.
Moreover, for overwhelmed first-time renovators, specialty kitchen shops may reduce the anxiety of seemingly endless choices as the product selections they carry are often narrower than those of big-box stores.
“If you have never done a kitchen, there are a lot of choices,” said Jeff Mittelman, designer at the Ultimate Bath & Kitchen Design Store in Westborough, Massachusetts. “Just narrowing down manufacturers and bells and whistles and finishes, a lot of people don’t know [how].”
That’s why Amy Brockway, an operations manager in Boylston, Massachusetts, hired Mittleman to modernize her kitchen.
“I had a million ideas,” she said. “I kind of knew what I wanted it to look like, what the feel to be, but I needed somebody to keep me grounded.”
The drawback to specialty kitchen shops — like big-box stores — is profit may trump design in some establishments, Subaran of Aidan Design said.
This approach is best for homeowners who needs expert guidance as they shop without being overwhelmed by alternatives.
High-end design firm
If your approach to a kitchen renovation is you want the best of everything, spare no expense, then a high-end design firm is for you.
“I compare it a lot with Italian fashion, where it is really the love for detail,” said Julia Walter, managing director at Italian-bred Boffi Georgetown.
Like an exquisite atelier, upscale firms provide high quality but it comes at a price.
Clients seek “a way of looking at the kitchen that is different,” said Carnemark, who, independently from his design-build firm, heads Konst SieMatic, the District of Columbia outpost of the German kitchen manufacturer.
Conner Herman chose SieMatic for two unrelated remodels.
“I will never have to get a new kitchen,” she said. “I might have to get a new oven, but this design is timeless.”
While a high-end design company may have economical options, the cost of top-quality cabinets alone could exceed the entire remodel budget of some homeowners.
This approach is best for homeowners who cannot only afford to splurge but who wish to do so with a heightened attention to aesthetics and function.
The most cost-effective option is a do-it-yourself kitchen remodel. These renovations appeal to handy homeowners such as Nikki Boyd.
A professional organizer, Boyd, together with her husband, redid the kitchen of her Charleston, South Carolina, house. They refinished the cabinets, replaced the appliances and installed a backsplash.
With DIY, “you can save a tremendous amount of money,” Boyd said.
Sarah Milne, a woodworker and blogger in Portland, Oregon, agreed. Leaning on expertise cultivated by flipping homes with her husband, she estimated her kitchen remodel would have cost $20,000 if she paid someone else to do it. Going the DIY route, however, she spent less than a quarter of that amount.
“Labor was our one cost saver,” Milne said.
With help from her spouse, she resurfaced the cabinets, built additional ones, opened a wall and laid new tiles and floors. Like the Boyds, the only task they entrusted to a contractor was the placement of countertops, which turned out to be a mistake. The installation resulted in a chip and an uneven edge.
“People who want to be picky about the way they want it [done],” Milne said, should do the work themselves. Of course, they need to have the aptitude, time or even local authorization.
In many jurisdictions, any renovations that tamper with plumbing or electricity in condos or co-ops require licensed professionals, Fatu said.
This approach is best for homeowners who have minimal budgets or want to economize by expensing their own time, effort and creativity in a remodel.