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The kitchen makeover: How to avoid a raw deal

Over the years and more recently, the Home section and Local Living have featured a variety of kitchens in their respective pages. Here are some of our favorites; we hope you'll use them for inspiration, whether you're planning a complete renovation or just wish to change a thing or two about the kitchen you already have.
By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 9, 2010

It is not an exaggeration to compare the cost of a kitchen renovation to a year of college tuition, or even an entire college education. It is, let's face it, an expensive undertaking and one you should consider thoroughly, long before you start wrestling with whether you are going with granite or soapstone, hardwood or tile, Viking or GE Profile.

Begin by arming yourself with a list of questions as you look for a designer or company to work with on your project. It can spare you lots of heartache, wasted time and unexpected costs in the end.

We spoke to several kitchen designers and homeowners, who shared important questions to keep in mind to ask yourself and designers when embarking on a kitchen renovation.

1.Why am I doing this? Answering this question will go a long way toward prioritizing your goals for the project, says Blue Arnold, a certified kitchen and bath designer and principal of Kitchens by Request in Jarrettsville, Md. "Is it because things are broken? Or is it a lifestyle choice?" he says. "Is the goal to remodel the existing space or to expand on it?" Will you be entertaining friends on the weekend or feeding a gaggle of kids every night (or both)?

2.What are your credentials? "I have a bias toward people who are certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association," says Mark T. White of Kitchen Encounters in Annapolis. The professional organization has three levels of certification that are based on experience and education, and offers courses in professional development. Such an affiliation "assures consumers and homeowners that they are dealing with someone up to par, someone who has been trained properly," says White, who is certified.

Certification does not necessarily mean the services are prohibitively expensive, adds Arnold. "You can find certified designers at every price point. Home Depot has certified kitchen designers on staff."

3.May I see your portfolio? This was a key step for Severna Park resident Carol Burke, who hired White for her renovation three years ago. "You want to see the past jobs that the company has done, and you want to see the diversity of the designer," Burke says. "Mark had done all different types of kitchens, and I could see the possibilities. We were looking for a bit of Tuscany in ours, with warm colors, and we knew he would be able to come up with the right look."

References are equally important, White says. "Any designer that's been doing it for any period of time and is any good should have plenty of references," he says.

This is also the right time to decide whether you and the designer are going to hit it off, Burke says. "When the designer comes out to the house for that first or second meeting, I think it's important that you show them the whole house so they get to see who you are. It gives you the opportunity to feel each other out."

4.How much am I going to spend? Arnold says he stays away from the word "budget" because people are intimidated by it. "They're afraid to bring it up," he says. Instead, he asks clients, " 'Are you thinking $25,000 to $50,000? $50,000 to $75,000?' I tell them to find a range they're comfortable with and be honest with it."

And don't automatically assume that you won't be able to find a designer if you are working with limited funds. "Most of us work on projects large and small," Arnold says.

5.What is your role and responsibility? It's important to determine whether the designer will have a limited role as the project progresses, or be fully involved from beginning to end. So-called one-stop-shop designers provide or oversee everything for the job, from the design and plans to the workers and materials. One-stop service usually costs more but also makes the process easier for the customer. Other designers represent specific companies, such as cabinet manufacturers, and will be responsible for overseeing the installation of the cabinetry but not, for example, the appliances or countertops.

6.Does everyone get along? "Make sure your designer and contractor get along and can work together," says Margaret Clare of Alexandria, who had her kitchen renovated in the summer of 2008.

"I had an issue when it came to my granite," Clare says. "My kitchen designer wanted me to use a granite company that was more upscale than the one my contractor was recommending. My contractor was not used to working with this company, so he walked away when the granite company was having delays, and nothing was getting done. Because the kitchen designer was not a very proactive person, the granite company took several weeks to complete our granite work, and the completion date of our job was pushed back several weeks."

7.Does that come with a warranty? Make sure there are written guarantees on the maintenance of all items installed, Clare says. "I have heard that some contractors give a one-year warranty on all workmanship. My contractor did not do that, so I had to pay him for all the times he had to come back to tweak things."

8.When will it end? No doubt there will come a point in which you ask yourself this question, perhaps on a harried weeknight as you are trying to cook dinner over a Bunsen burner.

"Make sure you have a timeline with guarantees for when the project will be done," says Clare. "If there are no expectations for when the job should be done, workers walk off the job to do other jobs, leaving you alone, and you are stuck eating in your basement for another six weeks." She recommends holding off that final payment until all the work has been completed.

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