IT STARTED with a dishwasher -- a simple little installation in our simple little kitchen.

Five salesmen, eight months and $8,176 later it finished with a brand new kitchen, practically from scratch.

The minor project snowballed into a major one as a result of plumbing constraints, persuasive sales talk and that hard-to-resist clincher -- "it will improve the value of your investment."

Our dishwasher fever began nearly six years ago when my husband and I moved into our first dishwasherless apartment, and has increased with each squeeze of Joy (I'll never understand how a dish detergent got that name).

A true child of the push-button age, I've found it near torture to wash dishes by hand. But the leases in each of the three dishwasherless apartments we've lived in forbade even portables.

We had tried to ease the problem by using paper plates (gross with foods like spaghetti), eating out (expensive) and soaking dishes (only good if you've interested in cultivating new life forms).

So when our apartment converted to a condominium last year, installing a dishwasher was Priority Number One. Since our kitchen is a small "galley" or "Pullman" type design, we figured installation might be tricky. We decided to consult several kitchen contractors to see where and how it it could best be situated and installed.

We started with what we thought would be the least expensive -- Hechinger's and Sears. But both said they didn't do condos. (Sears has recently changed their policy and will do condos, and Heckinger's will now send out a salesperson to determine if the utility's hook-ups and condo policies make remodeling feasible.)

Next we called Creative Kitchens in Silver Spring, which had done a fine remodeling job on my parents' kitchen. Their salesman confirmed our design fears. Since the plumbing necessary to the dishwasher's operation was under the sink, and the sink was bordered by narrow cabinets on one side and a cooktop stove on the other, we had three choices.

We could install a tiny model in place of the narrow cabinets, buy a portable and store it in the dining area or move the cooktop. Neither the mini-model nor the portable suited us.

Here the snowball began: Since we had to move the cook-top, we might as well have replaced it with an oven/stovecombination in the tiny kitchen.

Since the cook-top and sink counter were both built into a stainless steel counter top, the sink and base cabinets would have to be replaced, too. As long as we were replacing the base cabinets we had) we might as well have put in matching cabinets above.

Since there were no appliances on the other side of the kitchen (except our refrigerator, which we planned to keep), it wouldn't cost that much more to redo those cabinets, too, and at the same time build-in our microwave oven.

Over the next five months we consulted five other kitchen remodeling firms. No one had an acceptable plan for installing just a dishwasher or making minor changes. So we set our minds and our wallets on doing the whole shebang.

Here, in brief, are the plans and prices each company presented. While most estimates are for entire renovations; some are for custom cabinets (more expensive) and some are for stock cabinets -- so it's not fair to strictly compare the prices quoted.

Miller Building Supply Co., Inc., Bailey's Crossroads, Va. A young, aggressive salesman drew up an attractive plan using Quaker Maid Quadrant Oak cabinets -- one of the nicest we'd seen. Total price for all the cabinets and appliances was $4,914. But they didn't do installations, and we wanted a company that did.

Capitol Kitchens and Building Supply, Clarksburg, Md. They presented an attractive, locally-made cabinet called Maryland Maid, in oak. Their charge for appliances and cabinets was $3,638,25. But they also didn't do the installation.

Voell Custom Kitchens, Northwest D.C. Their estimate of $6,339.65 for oak Wood-Mode cabinets, appliances and installation was a good price. But the salesman seemed to gloss over any dificult aspects of the job, unless we asked pointed questions. And the design just didn't have the pizzazz we wanted.

John G. Webster, a Northwest D.C. Webster proposed a rather bland Merillat Meadow Oak cabinet and would not provide an itemized account of the $5,986 total renovation cost.

So in June we signed a contract with Creative Kitchens, who had come up with a knock-out design using Allminmo cabinets, a West German company that bills itself as producing "the fantastic kitchen" -- not without reason.

The sand-colored, textured Formica cabinets are extra tall, making the most of our limited space. They are solidlyconstructed and have a variety of options -- like roll-out baskets, natural wood trim and top-hinged cabinets. Our favorite is a ceiling-high, foot-wide, rollout pantry with coated-wire baskets.

At $8,176 it wasn't the cheapest estimate. But taking into consideration each salesman's pitch and creativity, cabinets and appliances promoted and overall impression, we felt we were in good hands.

When we sat down to plan the nitty-gritty of design, salesman Gary Hare listened to our concerns and came up with workable suggestions to the design problems the kitchen posed.

One example is our oversized microwave oven that wouldn't fit any of the standard "sleeves" the cabinetmakers offer. On Hare's suggestion we approved a plan for his carpenter to construct a "sleeve" from wood that matched the cabinet trim.

Upon getting approval from our condominium board and signing the contract in May, we put one-third down. The custom-made cabinets were to be ready in 12 weeks. In 11 weeks Hare called and set a date. Workmen would come Monday and haul everything out of our kitchen except the refrigerator and microwave. By Thursday we'd have a new, usable kitchen.

Monday morning at 7:30 the workmen arrived. Monday evening the kitchen was bare and our living room stacked with boxes. By Thursday night, as promised, our kitchen was usable.

Except for minor problems -- two side panels hadn't come in and had to be installed the next week and a loose wire in the dishwasher required a service call (covered under the warranty) -- it couldn't have run more smoothly.

Since the wall space left to paint and the tiny (3-by-9-foot) floor didn't justify the minimum charge of the contractors. Creative Kitchens used, we did that ourselves.

Painting cost $20 for one gallon of paint, which proved to be twice as much as we needed. For flooring we chose Armstrong's no-wax, install-it-yourself tile at $75 for the tile and border. It proved as easy to put in as their ads claim and took about four hours.

We're still in estasy over the dishwasher -- possibly humanity's greatest invention (next to electric curlers). And with more than twice as much counter space, cooking is almost a pleasure.