How to Design a Kitchen, Part Two

And now another installation in a continuing series of posts in which I rant about kitchen design. Will this get it out of my system? Maybe. This one is also applicable to remodeling in general.

In this episode, let's talk budget. Everybody is limited by budget. I have never had a client who never once looked at some aspect of a design and said, "Holy crap, that costs too much." Maybe that aspect is $240/square foot tile, or maybe it is $10/square foot tile. It is always the case that there is a budget.

And every remodel is the better for it.

Really. You may think you wish you had an unlimited budget, but the reality is that design works better when it has some constraints to bounce against. Instead of stopping at the first thing that catches your eye, you have to find something that fits your budget, so you keep looking and maybe you find something even better. That's not true forever: eventually you're going to cut the budget so much that quality will suffer. But if you are willing to prioritize and know how to do it, budgets can get you a better remodel.

So let's talk about this week's article: Where Should I Splurge and Where Should I Save in a Home Remodel?

What's their first piece of advice? "Splurge: Prioritize Your Spending Based on Your Values and How You'll Use the Space"

I'm not sure how prioritizing is a splurge. To me it is absolutely the essential first step in a remodel. You can't remodel successfully without knowing what you need and what you want. It's flat-out stupid to get started on designing a renovation without spending time making a list of your priorities.

But let's talk about that list they offer as an example. Resale value should never be on your list for a remodel. If you are planning to sell your home in the next five years, talk to a good real estate agent about what to do because they can tell you whether it is worth doing any work at all, and at that point you are not remodeling but preparing for sale.

If you are planning to stay in your home, you should consider your own needs first.

I definitely think it is a mistake to "Lean towards neutral options" as they suggest. Neutral tends to mean "pleasing to other people" rather than "gives me joy." This advice just make people afraid to actually choose options that give them more joy, as if the ever-present God of Resale Value will smite you for choosing bright red tile for the bathroom.

Unless your taste is truly terrible by your own estimation and you hate your own choices, just choose something you like, because you have to live with it every day. Hell, even if you want to paint all your woodwork Barbie pink, I say go for it. You can always repaint later if you hate it or if you think bright green might suit you better. Nobody who doesn't live in your home should get a say in how you decorate your space.

If you want to get a little funky but not too funky, a safe rule for how to express personality without possibly going completely overboard is to express your personality on the parts of your house that are easiest to change or most self-contained. So maybe buy a bright red stove or paint a rainbow at chest height around your whole first floor. Repainting is easy and relatively inexpensive, so paint your walls whatever colour you think is nice. Only lean neutral on things like flooring.

YOU need to live in your house, not some fictional future buyer. Get your house ready to sell when you're ready to sell, not when you are getting ready to live in it.

"Avoid non-standard sizes or finishes" is kind of a weird one. I lead a constant battle against custom-sized cabinets at my office. Things work better when we stick with the sizes cabinets come in by default. My rule is no more than one custom-sized cabinet in a row, to fill out the space evenly, though I'll make small exceptions for symmetry. But combine this with "you could get custom doors put on stock IKEA cabinets for a nice compromise" and you have a potential disaster. IKEA cabinets are great for what they are. But they are very specific sizes, and nothing else, and those sizes are actually pretty limited compared to a higher end cabinet line. You will not take full advantage of your space by using them, because they are not customizable at all (as opposed to semi-custom cabinets that can be resized in set ways).

Cabinets are one place where I think custom works really well within reason. But I have a whole cabinet rant coming up, so I will leave that there.

This is less true with other things, like furniture, where a fully custom piece is going to cost a lot more and you can likely find a comparable one for less. Or tiles, where custom hand-painted tiles will eat your entire budget and more. On the other hand, for the most part quality window coverings like shades and draperies are always made custom for your windows because there are no standards.

Custom makes the most sense when you are trying to fit an existing space. It doesn't make as much sense for things that aren't built in or fitted to a space.

"Spend more on quality items that are hard to replace" I would phrase this differently. I would say, spend more on items you can reuse the next time you remodel (fashions change, finishes get worn out; you are going to want to re-remodel at some point). Like a bathtub (don't count on a toilet, although I think we may be as low as we can go with that), sinks, or cabinets. Yes, cabinets. You can paint or refinish cabinets and change the look, or buy new doors. Spend less on things that you may want to swap out later because of budget. Maybe you had your eye on a high-end, commercial-styled range until you discovered they sell for over $10,000. A good options is to just reuse your old range until you have the money for a new one, or buy a cheap range you can live with until you have the budget to upgrade.

I kind of halfway fell in love with the idea of a gigantic refrigerator for our kitchen until I priced them out. I don't mind spending a minor fortune on a stove, but with refrigerator technology still improving a lot on a regular cycle that works out to $1000 a year just for the box, power not included. So we will keep the old refrigerator and maybe consider a different one when the time comes. Or maybe not.

I also say spend the most money on the things you touch the most. Go all out on your bathroom faucet. Cut a few corners on the dining room light fixture.

"Splurge: Spend More on Your Room's Focal Points" kind of goes without saying, but what doesn't ever get said is: HAVE ONE FOCAL POINT UNLESS YOU HAVE A GIANT-ASS ROOM.

Make a list. Put the one thing you want everybody to remark on when they come in the room by the name of that room. There should only be two columns there. Maybe they notice other things later, but those things are secondary.

For example:

Kitchen: Stove/hood area
Front Parlour: Fireplace
Back Parlour: Built in bookcases
Dining Room: Fireplace wall
Front Bathroom: Clawfoot tub
Back Bathroom: Roll-in shower

Simple. Boom. That is where you spend the money. And when you make choices for everything else, keep in mind that you do not want to compete with the money you are spending on your focal point. Don't spend $5000 on a kick-ass side seating arrangement. Don't blow your budget on a chandelier unless that is the queen of the room. One star, everything else is the supporting cast.

The only exception to this is the great room. If you have a room that is kitchen, dining room, and living room all in one, you can have one focal area per functional space. But don't make me come over there and edit your design.

"Pick all your materials before the start of the project to avoid as many problems as possible." Yeah, OK, that might save you money. Mostly it will enable you to get scheduling straight and to not make crazy decisions when you are overwhelmed during construction, which has value.

The other suggestion I would make, and I would not have made this before the last couple of years, is to consider finding a local architect who does remodels of the kind you like and hiring them to help you design a project to meet your budget. If they don't work at your level they will tell you. If they think your budget is unreasonable they will tell you. Maybe they know an architect who would be good for you; we often know people who have cycled out of our offices and are setting up shop for themselves, and we refer people out to them all the time.

An architect who does home remodels will know your local market better than Houzz, and they can help you design something better than you could do by yourself because they literally do this kind of thing a dozen times a month. It sounds self-serving, and maybe it is, but architects really do solve problems you didn't know you were going to have. Frank Gehry is not a typical architect. The snooty artiste who refuses to listen and has a VISION for you doesn't exist. You won't lose control of your project and be forced to live in a stark modernist nightmare a la Mon Oncle. Those of us who work in residential design spend a lot of time working directly with our clients on designing a home that will work for them for their budget. It's worth considering.

And some bonus "how to save money" advice from 7 Easy Ways an Average Person Can Save Money on a Kitchen Remodel, which I will comment on rapid-fire:

First, doing your own demo will save you a small amount of money. Not a lot. Only do it if you really like taking things apart (and keep in mind you can't always just smash your way through, since there is usually electrical and plumbing to deal with). Demo is not a profit area for contractors so they'll happily let you do it yourself. It also sucks and is back-breaking work. Most big job-site injuries happen during demo.

Second, yes, just you can save some money if you assemble stuff yourself. On the other hand, some people just kind of fall apart at the idea of assembling stuff. You know yourself.

Third, my take on cabinets is coming soon. But yes, lots of cabinet gadgets are much much cheaper bought locally and installed yourself. Or avoided completely.

Fourth, sure, make your own lighting. Lighting is way overpriced and relatively easy to build. Be aware of your local codes about lighting types, though. In California that would be the Title 24 Energy Code.

Fifth, the backsplash has literally never broken any budget I have worked with. They're actually more commonly thought of as a place where you're not going to spend too much money even with a more expensive finish, since they are small. The only exception is one project I have where we are doing a fabricated integral stainless steel backsplash and counter with fabricated sinks and there are so many reasons why that is a budget buster beyond the stainless used in the backsplash part.

Sixth, I'm not sure where these people live that pulling the permit is the easy stuff, but keep in mind that in some cities there are people whose only job is to ferry projects through the permitting process (expeditors) and there are a lot of cities where the staff actively despise homeowners trying to pull permits for themselves. Pulling a permit sometimes takes several days of going back and forth with the various departments to provide everything they want, which is not crystal clear and cut and dried. I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a money-saver unless you have a lot of free time. But sure, do your own material pickups if you can; you will often save a a hundred bucks or more, and that can be worth it.

Seventh, only do your own painting if you do not suck at painting, which most people do. I've really come to appreciate the work of a really good painter who has a lot of practise and the right tools and who will deal with all the cleanup for me. Also, it's heartbreaking to see really nice construction work finished off with a shoddy paint job courtesy of an exhausted owner.

In short: don't value a few pennies over the quality of work, and know your own limitations.

posted by ayse on 07/30/15