Remodel Your Kitchen Like the Amateurs

You read that right: DIY rookie Emilie Sommerhoff shares the lessons she and her husband have learned.

As if we didn’t have enough going on (we’re recently married and new business owners), my husband and I decided to renovate our circa 1967 kitchen … ourselves. Ah, the follies of the overly ambitious and dumbly confident.

Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. And we have a sparkling new kitchen. We also have a bag of freshly learned tricks. My husband can prepare a four-course meal on a Bunsen burner, for example.

Now, from cost realities to emotional meltdowns, let these true DIY tales make your renovation easier.

It’s Going to Cost HOW Much?
The number of appliances and finishes in a kitchen quickly pushes the cost up. And then there’s the psychology of it all: “Heck, we’ve spent this much,” you think. “Why not get the stainless French-door refrigerator we’ve always wanted?” And suddenly, the budget becomes “just a starting point.”

Initially, we thought we could make the improvements we wanted for under $6,000. But, according to Remodeling magazine, the national average spent on a “minor” kitchen remodel is $21,411 in 2009/2010. That includes new appliances, cabinet doors and drawers, countertops, a sink and flooring, but not restructuring walls or moving plumbing. Faced with that price tag, we asked ourselves a few questions. What was our budget, really? Where could we save? And how were we going to pay for it?

Crunching the Numbers
Remember, you’re not the only one who appreciates an updated kitchen or bathroom. Remodeling magazine reports a 78.3 percent average resale return, or $16,773, on that “minor” kitchen renovation. That number is down from over 100 percent during the real estate boom of 2004 and 2005, says Stephen Melman, director, Economic Services, with the National Association of Home Builders, but it’s still one of the best remodeling investments a homeowner can make. My husband took our research a step further and called a trustworthy neighborhood realtor to get her take on what the local housing market would bear.

With appliances and construction dating back to a period long before Energy Star, we had another easy incentive in energy rebates. The federal tax credits for energy-efficiency upgrades, set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010, would cover 30 percent of the cost up to $1,500 for updates to our insulation and windows. One visit from our energy supplier and we had identified more than $200 in additional rebate opportunities if we replaced our aluminum windows and energy-sucking fridge with better alternatives. (Make sure you save the paperwork, which is often attached to the item, to claim your rebate.)

Find the Funds
Since selling my husband’s Hummingbird guitar on eBay was apparently not an option, we decided to tap some of our equity in the house. We didn’t want to refinance our mortgage, so we considered a home equity loan and line of credit.

A home equity loan, or second mortgage, offered us a fixed interest rate. “This is for the customer who doesn’t want to take interest rate risk,” explained Rick Fletcher, associate vice president, Product, for Nationwide Bank®. “The downside is you have to take the full amount upfront, and you also start paying principal and interest right away.”

With a home equity line of credit, the interest rate is variable and could change at any time. While Fletcher warned that rate movement at this point is “mostly going to be up,” the current interest rate was hard to pass up. We also liked the idea of paying interest-only for a period of time, with the option to tack on a principal payment depending on cash flow. Home equity line of credit it was.

Adventures in DIY
According to the National Association of Homebuilders, 25 to 30 percent of the projects that come to remodelers are DIY efforts gone wrong. Granted my sample size is small, but I believe I’ve identified the five emotional stages these do-it-yourselfers go through: energetic confidence, lurking self-doubt, shame, humility and finally relief when professional help arrives. A DIY approach was a large part of our cost-saving strategy, but we learned (before needing divorce attorneys) that do-it-yourself does not have to mean do-it-ALL-yourself.

The secret to avoiding a sheepish phone call to a contractor is knowing, before you pull a single nail, what you can handle and what will require a professional. This obviously depends on your skill set, but as a general rule of thumb, anything that can cause injury or irreparable or expensive damage to your home if not done correctly should be left to an insured tradesperson. Think electrical wiring.

Designer Peggy Mackowski, 2008 STAR Remodeler of the Year and vice president of Quality Design and Construction, Inc., in Raleigh, North Carolina, puts electrical, plumbing, gas, drywall and changes to load-bearing walls on her DDIY (don’t do it yourself) list.

Also keep in mind that improper installation voids many warranties, and building code violations could cause trouble with your homeowners insurance policy or when it comes time to sell.

What We Did Ourselves
In the end, our DDIY list mirrored Mackowsky’s, plus professional floor tiling. With a little help from our sympathetic friends and family, this was the reach of our DIY efforts:

  • Design. Involving a professional design-build firm usually adds about 10 percent to your overall cost, according to Mackowski, so I bought a pad of graph paper, measured everything more times than I could count and started sketching. We considered the room from multiple angles and in different lighting conditions, checked that we could move when the refrigerator and oven doors were open simultaneously and determined (in detail) the storage space we would need. Then we reviewed the layout with our cabinet supplier, electrician and plumber, who brought many more things to our attention.
  • Project management. It’s like choreographing a dance of men in tool belts—from the electrician, plumber, sheetrocker, flooring installer, carpenter and painter to cabinet, countertop and other materials suppliers. It means aligning and realigning schedules often. But you’ll save the hourly rate charged by design firms like Mackowski’s.
  • Demolition. Just you, heavy-duty gloves, a sledgehammer, a pry bar and a dumpster.
  • Insulation. I won’t lie: Working until 1 a.m., covered in fiberglass particles, to have the insulation installed before the drywall team arrived at 7:30 a.m. was a low point.
  • Cabinet assembly and installation. The first one is a doozy, but once you decipher the instructions, it’s like adult LEGOs. It does take two to hang the wall cabinets, however.
  • Trim work and painting. After everything else, this was a cakewalk.

What Were We Thinking?
It’s a fact. At some point during the renovation process, you’ll question your sanity. When the moment hits, try these tips:

  • Cobble together a temporary kitchen. We kept our old fridge in the living room until our new one was installed and we grilled a lot. We embraced take-out (our kitchenware was packed to limit clutter) and used one of our two bathtubs for dishwashing.
  • Seal the work area. And put plastic or cardboard down where you’ll be walking.
  • Set a hard deadline. We planned on 10 weeks, and though we worked ourselves into a frenzy, knowing it would soon be over kept us focused on the goal.
  • Go easy on yourself. The trouble with DIY is you know where all the imperfections are. I dropped our glorious white farmhouse sink and cracked the corner. Though it’s hardly visible to the naked eye, I can see it from across the room. The thing is, nobody else notices, and even if they did, the kitchen looks beautiful.

One recent evening, after completing the kitchen, we were returning things to the home products retailer where we purchased our cabinets. Pulling into the parking lot, we passed a couple driving away in a moving truck similar to the one we’d loaded up 10 weeks earlier. We recognized the strained look on their faces and laughed, knowing we’d survived that moment and would later toast this anonymous couple from the new kitchen we renovated ourselves.

Scrimping and Splurging
In addition to the labor costs we avoided by doing some of the construction ourselves, we were able to cut other corners. Here’s where we scrimped and what we bought with the money we saved:

Disposal. We skipped the $350 dumpster and hauled the debris ourselves. Our local transfer station would handle the demolition for $20 a pickup-truck load, of which we had only three. And instead of paying to toss our working stove and dishwasher, we donated them to a local charity, which picked the appliances up for free. (Saved: $290)

Shipping. For the price of a moving truck and several hours of travel time, we saved hundreds in shipping costs on the cabinets. (Saved: $300)

Countertops. Our new “stone-effect” counter is … well, really, really cheap laminate. We’re not optimistic about its longevity, but our theory is it’s an easy finish to update when we’re feeling more flush or if we decide to sell the house. (Saved: estimated $700)

Refrigerator. Neither of us had ever had a fridge with the modern luxury of a water and ice dispenser—and we wanted one, even though it meant the cost of installing additional plumbing. (Spent: $500)

Dishwasher. The 112-square-foot kitchen could have easily looked like an appliance showroom, so paying a bit extra to disguise the dishwasher with a cabinet-like face was worth it. (Spent: $150)

Windows. It turned out the 1967 windows were a custom size, and custom meant costly. Replacing them wasn’t essential to the rest of the renovation, but with the rebate and the promised energy savings, it seemed a no-brainer. (Spent after rebate: $1,000)