Kitchens 101

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A beginner’s guide to updating the heart of your home

So, you’re thinking of renovating your kitchen? Congratulations! Not only will you enjoy the benefits of a remodel, your home value will increase as well. And, in terms of home improvements, an updated kitchen offers one of the best “Return on Investments” according to most real estate agents (I should know since I’m married to one).

Starting the Process
Last fall, my own outdated and narrow galley-style kitchen was renovated, but it was quite the process to get to the finish line. I’m the first to admit that the gleaming, spacious—and oh, so spotless!—kitchens littering my Pinterest boards were far from practical or realistic. Not only were we limited by a fixed floor plan, we also had a set price point to follow.

Tracy Kearney, Certified Kitchen Designer®, owner and designer at Cornerstone Cabinets and Design, believes “an honest discussion about budget is the most important thing to start a project.” Doing so allows you to “narrow down the products and options that best fit,” she says.

Now, Pinterest, and similar sites like Houzz, do have their place. While you need to be realistic about the budget, MB Tile owner, Maurice Becerra, says, “Customers are definitely more educated today thanks to [these]websites,” which helps in clearly explaining your vision. He also says an experienced contractor can find a way to make your dream a reality while being mindful of your budget.

Finally, deciding what to change and the order of events “is crucial,” Kearney says. “Poor scheduling, lack of communication or poor relationships with subcontractors can add weeks to a renovation,” Kearney says. But, on the other hand, a well-managed process could be completed in less than two weeks if you solely focus on cabinets, countertops and backsplash.

Keep in mind that opting to change the footprint of your kitchen will significantly affect project cost and timeline. Sometimes that improvement is “critical to the function of the space and the entire project,” Kearney says, but for a standard home we’ll focus on the core elements in the order she recommends: cabinets first then countertops and finally backsplash and lighting.

Keep It All Together: The Cabinets
Cabinets present you with two primary choices: repaint or purchase new. The case for new is strong since repainting is so involved. Plus, it’s time consuming (for us it took about three weeks) and tedious (requiring the removal of all hardware and doors; stripping, sanding, repeat; priming, drying, repeat, etc.). However, our existing cabinets were custom built from very durable wood, so we opted to go the refresh route by painting.

For most homeowners, it will save more time and money to upgrade your cabinetry by purchasing new. Kearney suggests selecting cabinets “built in a manufacturing facility that uses the most durable paint and stain finishes.” A less expensive finish may have a lower upfront cost, Kearney says, but those cabinets tend to have shorter warranties and are less durable. To protect your cabinets from the oils on your hands, Kearney recommends “choosing a handle with at least one inch of space between the back of the handle and the cabinet.”

Another possible option would be to purchase new cabinet doors, hinges and hardware while keeping the base cabinetry the same; this approach can be more budget-conscious but still elevates the look in keeping with the countertops and other upgrades. Do keep in mind that low quality cabinet bases will not withstand the weight of a stone countertop over time, so be mindful of that before deciding.

Top It Off: The Counters
Of all of the kitchen decisions, lifestyle may play the largest role in this one. Page Hastings, owner of Spectrum Stone Designs LLC, says, “There are pros and cons with all [countertop]materials; it’s just a matter of understanding them and which will work best for your home.” Kearney says to consider “budget and lifestyle; how often do you cook, entertain? Do you have children?” These questions are critical because the care for marble, quartz and granite varies widely.

Hastings says it’s important to “understand the product you’re purchasing; marble is beautiful, but it may not be for everyone.” Indeed, as a mom to three kids, I learned our home was far from safe for the soft nature of marble, which Hastings says is more prone to be scratched, etched or stained. Quartz, on the other hand, is a stone that “replicates the marble look” but without the worry (so, if you guessed that we chose quartz, you would be right). Another popular and beautiful option is granite, which needs to be re-sealed every year or so.

Set It Off: The Backsplash
When looking at tile, Becerra recommends “tasteful pairings that enhance your countertop, not try to outdo it.” Once you’ve selected a countertop, you want your tile and grout to complement it. Becerra warns that choosing a “very trendy look will date the kitchen” and a low-quality or porous tile that stains easily “will age poorly and be a turnoff to potential buyers.”

One advantage of individual tiles over mesh mosaics is that they have fewer grout lines and typically show fewer stains, Becerra says. They also come with matching bullnose tiles, which create a nice ending “transition to a painted surface;” most mesh squares lack these.

In calculating cost, Becerra says the biggest factor “is the pattern, second is the materials, and lastly, the number of outlets, switches and windows in the kitchen.” The popular subway tile is generally a simple and easy installation, but laying those same tiles in a herringbone pattern would triple the time and double the waste, “thus greatly increasing the cost,” Becerra explains.

Brighten It Up: The Lights
Lifestyle also plays a role in choosing light fixtures. “Start with the layout of your room,” Lisa Moorefield, showroom consultant at Timberlake Lighting of Lynchburg, says. Evaluate your “ceiling heights, cabinet areas, work triangle, etc.” Consider how you use your kitchen, where shadows need to be eliminated and then, Moorefield says, where you want to find your statement piece—perhaps over the island or the dining table.

In my galley-style kitchen, the chandelier over the table and the pendant light over the undermount sink steal the show. But the recessed lights and under-cabinet lighting work with the white quartz to make the narrow space feel larger and brighter. Plenty of creative lighting options are on the market to enhance whatever design you have.

Finally, if you have to choose only one or two things to change, Moorefield says updating your lighting will make “the biggest impact with the least amount of money.”

Regardless of what direction you go with a kitchen remodel, Kearney has some simple advice: “For the purpose of resale or enjoyment, people are looking for more low-maintenance, simple and easy to use spaces.”

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