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Homeowners confess their dumbest remodeling mistakes

Consumer Reports News: June 21, 2013 10:08 AM

Even if you don't expect every last detail of your kitchen renovation to turn out perfectly, you probably plan on coming close, without any major mistakes. Yet remodeling goofs—like boxing in the fridge or mounting the cabinets out of reach—happen more often than you might think. The good news: Nailing down the essentials that will make your kitchen comfortable, functional, and stylish for years to come is easy if you know what they are. We talked with homeowners to find out which design oversights and outright blunders caused them the most grief. Here are their most regretted missteps, and advice on how to sidestep them.

Overlooking built-in flaws
With budgets tight and wish lists long, too many people try to save by ignoring underlying issues—and end up paying for it when the job is done. Kelly Anne Sohigian found that out the hard way when she didn't enlarge the tiny windows in her Fairfield, Conn., kitchen. "We didn't want the additional expense," she says. "But I regret it every day because the room would be so much brighter and better connected to the outside world."
Tip: Get any architectural issues taken care of early. If your budget is tight, hold off expenditures that won't require you to redo any work, like replacing older appliances that still work or changing light fixtures.

Not measuring carefully
"Measure twice, cut once." That's the carpenter's creed, and it's a wise one for homeowners, too. When Kathleen O'Donnell had her Southampton, N.Y., kitchen renovated, she planned a breakfast bar across from the refrigerator. But her contractor measured the space incorrectly and didn't leave enough space between the two elements. "So now that the granite top is on the breakfast bar, there's no room to pull the refrigerator out if we ever need to have it repaired," she says. "If and when that happens, I'll probably have to remove the entire countertop, too."
Tip: Clearance is key: Make sure your layout allows adequate space for the dishwasher, refrigerator, and all cabinet doors and drawers to open, and enough room to remove and replace appliances down the road.

Forgetting the basics
It's fun to focus on features like decorative tiles and gooseneck faucets that give your new kitchen a splash of style—and to forget about some of the essentials. That's what happened to Becky Engel of Portland, Ore. "My contractor spent weeks perfecting the location of drawer dividers and rollout trays, and even which side of the sink the soap dispenser belonged on," she says. "The last thing to find a home was the garbage can, and it wound up clear on the other side of the kitchen from my sink." Now, whenever she's cooking or cleaning, she has to carry over the bin. But at least she has one.
Tip: Some kitchen designs completely omit details like a recycling bin, utility closet, coat-and-boot storage (crucial if you enter through the kitchen), or cell-phone charging station.

Letting small errors slide
Cutting corners to save time in the face of inevitable scheduling challenges may seem unavoidable and even forgivable. But beware: Sometimes an error you think you can live with can have a major impact on how you enjoy the space. Alexandra Kay of Washingtonville, N.Y., provides a cautionary tale. "The contractor messed up and placed the cabinets flush against the ceiling," she says. "By the time we realized what he'd done, the granite installers were on their way. We didn't want to reschedule them, so we left the cabinets where they were." Too high, as it turns out. Kay has to stand on a stool to reach the upper shelves. "It's a constant annoyance," she says.
Tip: Even if it means extending the project agonizing another week, get the job done right the first time.

Taking the middle bid
When choosing between competing bids from contractors or craftsmen, conventional wisdom is to accept the price in the middle. But sometimes it's a lot smarter to pay more to get better results, especially when precision really counts. Case in point: Finish work, where attention to detail is everything. Rachel and Art Hastings of Laguna Niguel, Calif., learned the difference between top- and middle-tier painters when they redid their kitchen two years ago. "We went with the grade B painter, and he didn't do a great job," Rachel says. "The finish looks chalky in some places. He also hung the cabinet doors wrong, and some of the paint chipped."
Tip: Of course, high prices don't guarantee high quality, so be sure to get multiple references for each pro you're considering. If possible, visit completed projects to see the work for yourself.

Not asking questions
New cabinets are the biggest single investment in most kitchen remodels. Even stock units will cost you a pretty penny. So it's worth taking your time during the ordering process. Sarah Place of Raleigh, N.C., wishes she had considered her cabinet choice more carefully. "We chose a medium-grade cabinet line to keep costs in step with the value of the house and the neighborhood," she says. "But we didn't realize that there were all these extras we needed to order that would drive the base price way up—and the cabinet retailer didn't explain it until the very end."

Sarah also got dinged by durability issues. "It turned out the end panels of the cabinets were just wood veneer, and haven't held up well over time," she says. "If we want to sell the house, we'll have to replace those panels."
Tip: Find out what each part of a cabinet is made of. And ask about the real prices of options like glass doors, interior organizers, and hardware choices so you aren't surprised when it's time to pay.

Cutting out your must-haves
Sure, you want to keep the remodeling budget as lean as possible. But don't trim the meat away with the fat. Some features may be worth the extra expense, as Michelle Hays of Paige, Texas, now knows. "We skipped installing undercabinet lighting, and the kitchen's really too dark," she says. "But our biggest mistake was not including an island. It would have given us a central work area that we're missing now."
Tip: Before you start the job, think about how you'll use the new space. If you need to cut costs, downgrade materials—say, laminate counters instead of stone—before sacrificing function.

Choosing fussy materials
Concrete countertops, limestone backsplash tiles, and enamel sinks are gorgeous options. But they're also risky ones because they're vulnerable to staining and chipping, and require more care. Even stainless steel—a sturdy material that's all but inescapable in many remodeled kitchens today—needs more tending than you might expect. Linda Mackey of Margate, Fla., discovered that when she chose it for the appliances and sinks in her new kitchen. "I should have listened when my friends warned me about all the fingerprints on stainless steel," she says. "I'm cleaning all the time, not just the refrigerator door but the sink, too. If I had it to do over, I'd have gone with a white finish."
Tip: Consider your tolerance for stains and cleaning. Some people are comfortable with demanding surfaces.

For more on kitchen remodeling, check our new report, "Get the kitchen you've always wanted" and see the smart choices three homeowners made in "Magnificent kitchen makeovers."

Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide

   

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