7 Questions to Ask Before You Renovate Your Kitchen

Are you thinking about a kitchen renovation? Do you have visions of subway tile and quartz countertops dancing in your head? Or are you still steeling your nerves at the thought of kitchen upgrades before you try to sell your house? Before you start calling contractors, stop, make yourself some coffee, and ask yourself the following questions.

(Really. Make some coffee. This is going to take a while. I’ve written book chapters shorter than this blog post.)

Okay. Ready? Here we go.

1.) How long will I be in this house?

Why? Because how you answer this question helps you determine three things: Your budget. Your style choices. The quality of materials used.

If you’re only looking at staying in your house for a few more months or few more years, your kitchen renovation is really about re-sale. Which means you can keep your budget small, limiting it to essential visual upgrades. It also means you can paint your cabinets that trendy dark blue or choose that floor tile that’s all over Pinterest; you won’t be around in five years, when all those choices look oh so 2019. They’ll look good now, which is all that matters. You also don’t have to invest in furniture-grade cabinetry…or even mid-grade cabinetry; if doors are falling off their hinges in 10 years and laminate finishes are peeling off, you’re not the one who will have to deal with it.

If, however, you plan to be in your house for another decade (or two or three), you have a vested interest in a renovation that lasts (because, trust me, you don’t want to do this again for a long, long time). You also have a vested interest in a renovation that doesn’t look dated five years down the line (unless, of course, you can afford to shell out big bucks every time backsplash trends change). The longer you’re going to be in your house, the more important it is to invest in quality materials that last and classic design choices that work with the rest of your house. If you can’t afford to do that now (or if a house full of destructive littles makes you leery of having nice things), it’s better to either live with what you have until you can afford it/the time is right OR make a few cheap upgrades now and save the major work for later.

Life can always surprise you, but barring one of those surprises, Chris and I plan to be in this house for another 25 years. So, we made our decisions accordingly. We invested in high-quality maple cabinetry that is made to last a lifetime. We also made design choices that fit with our 1890 home and won’t date themselves in 5 or 10 or even 15 years. Although some of my decisions cost more upfront, the hope is that they will end up being the more economical choice because we won’t be doing this all over again 10 years down the road.

2.) What are homes in my neighborhood worth?

(My sweet kitchen in my old house)

Why? Because you don’t want to spend more on your kitchen than your neighborhood’s real estate market can justify.

When I lived in Steubenville, I lived in a poor, working class neighborhood, where home values have been steadily declining for the past 30 years. I needed to fix up my kitchen (when I bought the house, it bore more than a passing resemblance to a crack den), but it would have made zero sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars on fancy cabinets and countertops. So, I spent $8,000 painting cabinets, installing butcher-block countertops, vintage lights, new hardware, and a cute retro vinyl floor, and then called it good. And it was good. It was an adorable, functional kitchen that I loved and still miss.

This neighborhood is different. It’s in a charming borough of Pittsburgh, very close to the city, where home values are skyrocketing. We got in right at the beginning of that and bought, quite literally, the worst home on the block. Now, just 2.5 years later, three of the most recent homes sales in our neighborhood have been to Google employees, and updated homes usually aren’t on the market for more than a couple days. It made all sorts of sense to invest in this kitchen. In the unexpected event that we need to sell, buyers here expect high-end kitchens, so we will get all our money back and then some.

3.) Can I handle the crazy at this point in my life?

The dining room during the kitchen renovation

Why? Because major kitchen renovations are one of life’s most disruptive events, and there are seasons in life where they are just not worth it.

Never, ever, ever believe what you see on home renovation shows. No matter how stressed out the owners seem, no matter how many unexpected problems they show you, no matter how messy and chaotic the whole thing looks, they are still only conveying a fraction of the true crazy a kitchen renovation will bring to your life. Unless you have a second home in which you can hide while construction is taking place, your entire universe is going to get turned upside down when the heart of your home is a demolition zone.

For weeks or months, you will have no running water in your kitchen. If you’re able to cook at all, you’ll be using crockpots and microwaves, chopping vegetables on ironing boards, and running to get your milk on the back porch, which is where you fridge temporarily resides. At some point, you will just give up and spend your child’s college tuition on take-out.

Likewise, the dust and the mess will not stay contained in the kitchen. No matter how many plastic barriers get erected, it will be everywhere—your closet, your baby’s room, your shower. Crap will tumble about your house like fruit falling out of a cornucopia, and there is just no containing it. Even your backyard will look like a little slice of Appalachia, with construction debris strewn about. Which means every day you will have to choose between keeping your children inside and losing your sanity or sending your children outside and losing them.

Lastly, don’t think this is going to be over quickly. If you’re doing it yourself, you’ll be squeezing in the work on nights and weekends. If you’re contracting the work out, you’ll be at the mercy of that contractor’s schedule. Do good contractors exist who can get the job done in a timely manner and on budget? Definitely. Are they rarer than a four-leaf clover in January? You betcha. Even good, honest contractors are usually juggling multiple jobs at once. So, chances are, at some point in your renovation, they will disappear for days, weeks, even months at time, and your job site will sit, abandoned and quiet, while you eat your feelings in the bathroom, surrounded by all the dishes you need to wash in the tub.

Does this mean you shouldn’t renovate your kitchen? Of course not! No pain, no gain, right? And in the end, all the crazy is worth it to have a kitchen that actually works for your family. But, if you’re expecting a new baby or have just started homeschooling or are going through some other major life change, maybe wait a year or two. It will not kill you to look at those golden oak cabinets for another year. But it might kill you to get rid of them now.

4.) How do I use my kitchen?


Why? Because you need a kitchen that works for you, your family, and the kitchen stuff your family owns, not the family up the street.

Before you sit down with a kitchen designer (or start drawing up your own designs), make a list of all the ways you regularly use your kitchen. Think about how many people you want helping you cook. Or how many people are usually in the kitchen at one time. Do you like someone else doing dishes while you do meal prep? What are you biggest frustrations with your current kitchen, and how could you avoid them in the future?

Also, think about the stuff you own and want to own. Are you a cookware and gadget minimalist? Or a cookware and gadget maximilist? Are you fine with storing a few rarely used items elsewhere? Do you even have an elsewhere for rarely used items? Do you have too much kitchen stuff? Or maybe do you need more kitchen stuff?

Although, it’s usually just me cooking, I love company in the kitchen. I also love an extra pair of hands (or three) helping with clean up and prep work when I’m hosting big parties. I don’t like feeling isolated in the kitchen. I don’t like tripping over little ones when I have a hot pot in my hands. And I don’t like body checking people to get to the fridge. Those latter three dislikes were all problems in my old kitchen. Identifying them helped us make the decision to knock down the wall between the dining room and kitchen, create a layout that gave me a work zone that was not a throughway for kids, and install refrigerator drawers in the island.

Likewise, while I am a hoarder of vintage silver and really needall seven sets of dishes that I own (honest, I do), I have little use for gearand gadgets, big or small. I’m happy to keep a few things in my basement. And Iwant to see my pretty kitchen things. That helped us make the decision abouthow much cabinetry we needed and open shelving versus upper cabinets.

Before we ordered our cabinets, though, I spent weeks measuring every single kitchen thing we own. No exaggeration. I measured the height and width of pots, strainers, dishes, and glasses stacked on top of each other. I even planned out drawers and measured all the things I wanted in the drawers lined up together, so that I would know if they fit. I had heard too many horror stories about people’s cabinets arriving and the pots not fitting in drawers or the plates not fitting in cabinets. I was determined that was not going to be me. My husband thought I had lost my mind. But, you know what? It paid off. Once the cabinets arrived, everything worked out just as planned. If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: Measure, measure, and measure some more.

5.) Do changes need to be made to make the space more usable?

Why? Because you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a renovation that does nothing to improve the functionality of your kitchen.

Architects and contractors are good at many things. Kitchen design is not usually one of them. This is why, in houses both old and new, you find architectural elements that make the kitchen less functional for things like… cooking. I’m thinking here about windows that are so low you can’t put a countertop in front of them or multiple doorways that break up the flow of the space or walls that unnecessarily shrink the feel of the kitchen. I’m also thinking about poorly placed sinks and appliances that have you tripping over people as you try to prepare dinner OR give you no room to set down hot dishes when they come out of the oven OR have the oven, prep area, and sink all on opposite sides of the room so that you have no place to call home in the kitchen.

If you’re doing a budget upgrade or quick flip, by allmeans, just work around those elements. But, if you’re spending tens ofthousands on a major kitchen remodel, spend $1000 more to lift that window andreclaim that workspace. Or spend $500 more to close off the third entrance intothe room. Even if it costs you a few thousand dollars to move water and gaslines or take down walls, it might be worth it over the long-term.

Chris and I had to create a whole new space for our kitchen,not renovate an existing one, but we still had to change a few things, likeenlarging one window so it matched another and bricking over a third window sothat we could have a range hood. Both in terms of form and function, thosechanges made a big difference, and were worth every penny of the $1200 theycost to do.

It was much, much more costly to take down the wall betweenthe kitchen and dining room—but that’s mostly because of all the structuralproblems with the house that we uncovered in the process. Regardless,discovering those problems and fixing them was critical to our safety and thecontinued existence of this house. And having the kitchen and dining roomfunction like one big room, makes our smallish kitchen seem much bigger (andmakes me happy). So, we’re calling that decision an expensive win, but a winnevertheless.

6.) Can I realistically do any work myself

Why? Because even if you can do the work, you might not want to do it and you need to plan accordingly.

When I renovated my Steubenville kitchen, I paid acontractor to do some stuff—install the sink, countertop, and floors, plus theelectrical work—and then I worked like a crazy woman after hours and onweekends doing the rest: massive amounts of plaster repair, painting,backsplash and hardware install, plus hanging crown molding.

This kitchen was different. Not only was running plumbingand gas lines way beyond my level of expertise (and Chris’), but I didn’t evenhave the time to do the things I couldhave done. My life is different now than it was in 2006, and my work is muchmore demanding. I also don’t have the energy anymore to write all day and then renovateuntil midnight. Time does indeed take its toll.

At the beginning of our renovation, however, the temptationwas to deny that and tell myself that I could do more of the physical labor andsave us some money. Lots of people give into that temptation when planning homerenovations only to discover what I realized at the start. Some of the work isbeyond their skill-level. Other work is beyond their energy level. And evenwhen you have both the skills and the energy to do it, it costs you time awayfrom the people you love. This is one of the reasons why DIY kitchenrenovations can cause so much marital strife. They either drag out forever orthey completely disrupt a couple’s life together.

I’m not saying don’t do the work yourself. In 2006, it was totally the right call for me to DIY much of my kitchen renovation and it might be the right call for you now. But it also might not. Just think it through and be honest with yourself before you begin. And be willing to reconsider if you do realize, halfway through, that you’ve taken on more than you chew. Saving money is not worth your health, your sanity, or your marriage. It’s just not.

7.) What is this really going to cost?

Why? Because between our dreams and our contractor’s hopes, real numbers have a tendency to get lost

I know, you’ve worked out a budget. Or your contractor hasgiven you an estimate. But, before you move ahead, go back over that budget orestimate a few more times. Does it include all the items that actually figureinto a kitchen remodel—not just the cabinets and counters and tile, but also appliances,sinks, faucets, light fixtures, switch plates, grout, plumbing and electricalparts, cabinet hardware, register covers, shelving, garbage disposals, rangehoods, curtains, hooks, organizational systems, and toe kicks? And if it doesaccount for all those things, is the accounting realistic? Do the numbersallotted match up with the items you want and their actual cost?

Most of us tend not to think of all those things whenplanning a remodel and many contractors leave them out of their estimates,expecting that you will be taking care of them on your own. Or, they includethem in the budget, but lowball all the numbers, either because they don’trealize you want high end appliances and light fixtures…or to make their bidlook better.

It’s also important to know if your contractor has built acontingency fee into his estimate. What happens if something goes wrong? Is heon the hook for it? Are you? Or did he already account for it? The general ruleof thumb is to plan for 20 percent contingency. So, you shouldn’t just have themoney to pay for the estimate of your kitchen renovation, but your estimateplus 20 percent more.

For us, the 20 percent contingency would have been aboutright…if not for all the structural problems we encountered when we rippeddown the walls. That blew the budget to hell and back. I’ll talk later thisweek about how we dealt with that. But, let’s just say that if your house isolder than 1940 and you’re doing a major remodel, forget about the 20 percentcontingency and aim for a 30-50 percent contingency. Just in case.

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And that wraps it up for today. Congrats if you made it tothe end of my most epic post ever. This would have been so much easier in mykitchen over a glass of wine. And we’re not done yet. I’ll be back tomorrow tochat about what I love (and don’t love) about our kitchen.

9 thoughts on “7 Questions to Ask Before You Renovate Your Kitchen

  1. MariaE says:

    This is fascinating! I have never witnessed a reno of any kind besides repainting and refinishing. I am not the personality type to make them a priority either. However, we are young renters, so maybe some day I will find myself really fed up with my (owned) kitchen and will redo everything! I am sure fed up with my kitchenette with a dish rack taking up the majority of counterspace. I think Toby is longer than the only other counter top. I cook ALL our meals and no dishwasher. Thanks for this post. I know it took a significant amount of time to write, and it’s very interesting. –MariaE

    • Emily says:

      Thanks. I have the opposite tendency. I only tend to want old, falling down houses that need major work. My husband is convinced I couldn’t be happy in a house that I hadn’t “made” and he’s probably right! It’s a problem!

  2. Mary Beth says:

    Such a good post! Another thing I’ve realized doing a few (minor) renovations to our house is to allow a contingency time frame as well – just because your contractor says he can have something done in 2 weeks does not mean it will actually be done in two weeks. Even if he’s on time, the plumber he’s working with may not be, random things happen, etc. Every single renovation we’ve done has gone well over the time estimate given to us by the contractor, most have come in around double the expected time.

    I’ve also learned the hard way to check your contractor out before you use him. We followed several recommendations on a local Facebook group when we hired a handyman for a few small jobs that we just didn’t have time to do, and while the handyman did eventually do the work, he did it way after the time frame when it was supposed to be done (and only after I asked for our money back because it wasn’t done and he had taken 2/3rds of the payment already). I found out afterwards that even for small jobs, our state wants contractors and handymen to register with them to avoid that kind of situation and the state has a list of those individuals who have registered online – the handyman we hired wasn’t on that list.

    • Emily says:

      Yes on both counts. Of all the contractors and subcontractors who worked on this house, only three actually completed the work on time and on budget.

  3. Cristina Reintjes says:

    “while you eat your feelings in the bathroom, surrounded by all the dishes you need to wash in the tub.” I’m dying. We were really close to buying a super charming 1920’s Victorian last week that legitimately needed a new kitchen and I was really excited about designing exactly what I’ve always wanted. Instead we we just put an offer on a 1980’s Colonial that already has a brand new kitchen, just not exactly to my taste—and you can’t redo a brand new kitchen! I was feeling a bit disappointed but you’ve certainly cheered me up. I wasn’t envisioning plastic drop cloths and bathtub dish washing sessions when I was picturing my new kitchen 😊

  4. Dean Phillips says:

    I thought it was great how you said that you should invest in home renovating that doesn’t look dated in 5 years. My wife and I just moved into a new house, and we want to renovate the kitchen and bathrooms so that we can raise our home’s value. My wife really wants a splashback and new appliances in the kitchen, so we will be sure to invest in high-quality materials for our remodel.

  5. Mindy Jollie says:

    I like the idea of asking yourself about the utility of the space in the existing kitchen, and whether anything needs to change to make it more functional for cooking. I imagine that a budget does dictate just how many things you can adjust, but it also probably depends on your highest priority when renovating. My husband and I have been considering renovating our kitchen space, and honestly, my number one thing I want is a kitchen island.

  6. Dylan Peterson says:

    Thanks for the tip about making a list of all the things in your kitchen that you use the most before meeting with your designer to plan out your kitchen renovation. My sister has been telling me about how some of her kitchen appliances are outdated, and she wants to get the whole things renovated while replacing them. I’ll be sure to let her know about this information so that she can be prepared to meet with a designer.

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