OUR HOPE, when we set out to buy a new kitchen for the 40-year-old home we had just moved into, was to spare ourselves all aggravation.
Now to anybody who has ever done any remodeling, that must sound awfully naive. But we were first-timers, both busy at our jobs and unwilling to devote much energy to the project.
Our plan was simple enough. We would hire a specialist, have him draw up a plan, and then we would go away on vacation while he got the work done. We'd come back home to find our dream kitchen. No fuss, no bother, no mess.
It didn't -- as you probably have already begun to suspect -- work out that way at all. Other novices may learn from our experience. Here's what happened:
We bought the house knowing the kitchen needed improving. For one thing, it had no counters, not even one. From the day we moved in, we chopped vegetables and stirred sauces on that tinly space between the burners on the stove.
The other big problem was cupboard space. There wasn't any to count. Only enough to store dishes for two and groceries to get us through the week.
Then there were the aesthetics. The old-fashioned sink retained its stains no matter how hard we scrubbed. An ugly radiator underneath caught our eyes first thing through the kitchen door and repelled them every time.
And we wanted a dishwasher. That was an essential.
And a desk, a cookbook shelf, a breakfast counter, better lighting, a vent for the stove, a new floor and new wallpaper.
Actually, there wasn't anything we liked about the room. "Gut it," we decided, without really knowing the potential cost.
We phoned two kitchen remodeling shops that had been recommended. They each spent about an hour with us, finding out what we wanted, making suggestions, measuring walls -- and letting us know subtly that it would cost us far more than we had expected.
For one thing, the electrical wiring in our house, they both said, was not sufficient to handle the new appliances. That required the installation of a new electrical service with circuit breakers at a cost in the hundreds.
A week later each presented a plan. They looked gorgeous. And at $10,000 -- they were within a couple of hundred dollars of each other -- about twice as much as our wildest guess.
Here's where we began to deflate our dreams. We could do with fewer custommade cupboards, the appliances didn't have to be "top-of-the-line" and the bookcase would have to be less elaborate. That cut the price $1,500 to what we felt we could manage.
Probably we should have sought more bids, but we were in a hurry -- and the process had already taken a lot of time.
We picked from the two, deciding as much on personality, I suppose, as anything else since their plans and costs were so similar.
Then more decisions. Formica over wood for the cabinets. Sleek and modern over traditional in design. Almond and terra cotta for the colors. Appliances to match. A Solarian floor.
Finally, we signed the contract and made a downpayment. Now, we thought, "Our work is over. It's up to you."
During the eight weeks required to build and ship the cabinets, the electrician showed up to do the preliminary wiring. This involved removing the basement Pepco meter so a new one could be installed outside. It would be months before we were hooked up to the meter again.
At first this worried us. We were getting electricity but not paying for it. We checked with the kitchen shop, with the electrician and Pepco. They told us to stop worrying. So we did.
We got a call from the shop when the cabinets arrived. They would start work on our kitchen the next day, a Thursday. On Friday, Sandy and I would head for 10 days in Maine.
The work went fast that first morning. The three-man crew arrived while I was eating breakfast. Before I finished, there wasn't any sink left to wash the dishes. Soon the kitchen was stripped.
Though our contract gave the kitchen shop a month to complete the job, we were assured we would have a functioning kitchen when we got back.
On Friday, we left town congratulating ourselves on how well things were going. Ten days later we flew back into National full of anticipation. When the taxi stopped in front of our house, Sandy ran eagerly for the kitchen while I hurried behind with the baggage.
From her fact I could tell something was wrong.
Almost nothing had been done except preliminary cabinet and duct work. No stove, no refrigerator, no sink. They all were sitting boxed in the dining room. The kitchen still looked like the shell we had left.
From here on, we experienced the kind of hassle I thought we had escaped by hiring the kitchen shop to oversee all of the remodeling details.
We thought, for example, the shop would schledule the workmen, keep a key and be on hand to let them in. Instead, I had to do much of it. I was on the phone, it seemed, a dozen times a day for one thing or another. And Sandy and I took turns staying home to admit the electrician, floor layer or other workmen.
The floor layer missed his first appointment. I complained, and we set up a new one for several days later. This time he showed up, only an hour late.
It was more than a week after our return before the sink and appliances finally were hooked up. At last we could cook a meal at home.
But problems remained. The stove was not level. Some of the hardware for the cabinets had not arrived. Wall switchplates did not match. Not all the lights had been hooked up. A workman left a scratch in the new counter top. Pepco hadn't installed a new meter or added the extra juice to run the appliances properly.
Fortunately we had not made our last payment and had leverage. Gradually, after persistent phone calls, we got them resolved mostly to our satisfaction. Only then did we write out the last check.
It had been a long process.We had asked for bids in May. Our kitchen was stripped in August. It became usable in September. Work continued in October. That last check was dated Nov. 20.
Then for the finishing details -- our responsibility now.
We picked out paint and wallpaper, which took a couple of trips to a decorating shop. Then we hired a friend of a friend, a full-time history teacher who's a part-time painter/wallpaperer, to do that work. We shopped for curtains and hung them. Finally, we hung pictures and spice racks.
We reported for work on time.
In the end, along with the aggravation, we got the kitchen we wanted.
Next time -- in an old house, it seems, there's always a next time -- we'll know what to expect.