Americans’ fixation on kitchens continues to drive a large chunk of the remodeling business. At the heart of our national (and expensive) spiff-up fever: cabinets and countertops, which usually consume about half the budget for most kitchen redos.

That means cabinets and countertops could amount to a few thousand bucks as part of a “light remodel,” or $25,000 to $50,000 or more if you’re going for a bells, whistles and Sub-Zero fridge kind of renovation.

Getting started can be tough. Why choose quartz countertops over granite? Are there cabinet styles and colors that won’t quickly go out of style? Should you change your kitchen’s layout, and, if so, who can help with that?

To help Washington Post readers find suppliers that offer great service and low prices, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area cabinet and countertop suppliers and installers until Oct. 31 via Checkbook surveyed its own and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected people.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

Design 101

Begin by answering:

· What do you like about your current kitchen? What do you dislike?

· What do you plan to use the kitchen as: a center of family activities; a place to eat most or all meals; an area for gourmet-level cooking, sometimes with more than one chef; a spot for entertaining guests; a makeshift space for conducting family business?

· Do you want to make structural changes? Replace appliances?

· How much are you willing to spend?

· Do you have a certain look or finishes in mind? Whether you buy materials yourself or buy through a designer or contractor, collecting a portfolio of kitchens you like can help you organize your vision. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas, as are home design magazines and websites.

There are compelling reasons to get professional design help: Pros usually know how to make kitchens look better, function more efficiently and cost less. With their expertise, you can avoid mishaps — such as discovering you can’t install a fixture because a pipe blocks the way. And if suppliers or installers get something wrong, a professional designer has more leverage to push them to make it right.

A professional might be a kitchen designer or architect who only creates designs — for a fee. More commonly, consumers get design services from remodeling contractors or companies that sell cabinets and other kitchen items. Some of these companies charge hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for design services. Others waive the fee if you end up buying cabinets or other items through them. And some companies provide the design free — as a cost of marketing — and hope that you wind up purchasing through them.

Arrange to interview several designers. When meeting with them, assess their taste and how easy it is to communicate with them. Look for designers who will visit your home, not just recommend products at the store based on room measurements. A meeting in your existing kitchen is likely to hatch the most creative ideas.

When you find a promising candidate, ask for references. If possible, tour a kitchen that the designer has recently done and thinks would match your taste. Discuss timing — how many draft plans the designer will provide; whether you have to use the designer’s own contractors; how closely the designer will supervise the installation; whether you will have to buy cabinets, countertops, fixtures, appliances and other items through the designer; and how the designer will be compensated.

Seek arrangements that let you compare prices and buy from a supplier other than the designer if the price is right. For this freedom, it’s worth paying a design fee. Markups on cabinets, countertops and other items can be substantial; don’t get stuck with a designer who provides a free design and more than makes up for it with excessive markups.

Companies that don’t charge design fees and don’t require you to buy through them are particularly attractive options. This lets you shop for competitive prices to make sure you don’t overpay for cabinets and other items. Of course, in the end you might be willing to shell out extra to buy through the company that provides the design, either because it seems fair or because you are pleased with the plan and want to keep the designer involved throughout the project.

Choosing cabinets (and avoiding high prices)

You will have to decide on the number, types and sizes of cabinets; type of wood; door style; finish; knobs; and accessories. The websites of major manufacturers such as Wood-Mode (, Fieldstone Cabinetry (, KraftMaid (, Zonavita ( and Merillat ( display types, styles and finishes; provide assistance with creating plans; and answer many of your questions. These are excellent resources — visit them before you contact designers.

When visiting cabinet stores, keep these points in mind to judge quality:

· Stock cabinets, which are mass-produced in standard sizes, generally cost less than custom or semi-custom cabinets. Custom cabinets usually consist of the best materials. Semi-custom units are also made to order, but in standard sizes that may require spacer-inserts to fit your space exactly.

· Wood grain that matches from piece to piece and furniture-quality finish are signs of quality.

· Look for drawers with dovetailed joints, drawer sides of 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch plywood and drawer bottoms fitted and glued into side grooves. High-quality drawers should pull out completely. Doors with fitted mortised corners are sturdier than those made with non-interlocking butt joints. Top-quality cabinets usually have solid-wood face frames at least 3/4 inches thick. For the cabinet box, avoid thin sides, backs and floors. Especially avoid thin particleboard.

Once you have decided on cabinets, make a list of each cabinet you want, with exact specifications for manufacturer, style, wood type, finish and size. Then start shopping. Unfortunately, because different vendors generally sell different makes, you won’t be able to compare prices for the same exact cabinets at dozens of sellers. But most major brands will have several dealers within reach. Find them by visiting the manufacturer’s website.

Get several area suppliers to bid on your job. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers got very different prices when they provided local cabinet sellers specifications for 16 cabinets for an average-size kitchen remodel. All quoted on the same model, finish and sizes of KraftMaid cabinets. Here is what they found:

· There was substantial dealer-to-dealer price variation — a difference of $3,920, from $5,961 to $9,881.

· Home Depot and Lowe’s did not offer the lowest prices.

· Although shoppers provided dealers with a list of specific cabinets, a number offered to come to the home to confirm measurements at no additional cost.

If the price of new cabinets busts your budget, consider painting or refacing existing cabinets. This is a good option if your cabinets are well-constructed and in good condition beneath the surface, and you are satisfied with the existing kitchen layout and design.

The best thing about painting is the price. The materials to paint cabinets should run about $200, while replacing similar cabinets would cost $6,000 or more. Even hiring a painter to do the work can cost less than $2,000. Although refacing is much more expensive than painting, it should still cost only about 70 percent as much as replacements. A professional re-facer usually replaces cabinet doors and drawer fronts and covers exposed face frames of the cabinets with a wood or plastic veneer that matches the new doors.

Comparing countertop costs

Countertop materials range from wood to plastics to metal to stone, and for each you can save plenty by shopping for the best price. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers got quotes from local companies to supply and install a countertop made with Black Galaxy granite, using the exact same design. Prices varied significantly, from $2,100 to $3,895. As with Checkbook’s illustrative cabinet job, Home Depot and Lowe’s did not offer the lowest prices.

Of course, quality of fabrication and installation is at least as important as price. Check ratings at, check with friends, ask to see examples of a company’s recent installations, and note how closely a company’s staff listens to you and how carefully they measure.

Ask retailers about their warranties. Do they cover repairing or replacing counters if they stain, chip or crack? Know that it’s far easier to get a warranty on quartz or another manufactured product than on granite; because manufactured counter materials are brand-name and engineered, they usually come with a guarantee against chips, scratching or warping for 10 to 20 years. Granite and natural stones are usually ineligible for such warranties.

Most vendors can have your new countertops cut and installed within a week to 10 days, unless your material is out of stock. Be sure your designer or countertop seller comes to measure beforehand to prevent cutting mistakes.

Working with your suppliers or contractor

Lots of homeowners who buy new kitchens don’t have fond memories of the experience (to put it mildly). But there is much you can do to ensure smooth redos, starting with insisting on a solid contract.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. Jennifer Barger is senior writer and executive director. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of area cabinet and countertop suppliers and installers free of charge until Oct. 31 at