For their kitchen renovation project, Sherry and Joe Warsaw hired a carpenter to replace the doors on the cabinets of their Gaithersburg home. They paid $11,000 for the work. “Buying all new cabinets would have cost us three times as much as the new doors,” Sherry says. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Kitchen and bathroom renovations top the list of improvements for increasing the value of a home. But this labor-intensive remodeling can get expensive. Even without changing room layouts, the simple job of replacing finishes and fixtures can cost more than the price of a new car.

What builders call “pull and replace” remodeling can run about $12,000 to $22,000 for the average 5-by-7-foot bathroom and $29,000 to $52,000 for a 12-by-12-foot kitchen, estimates Rick Matus of Bethesda-based Case Design/Remodeling Inc. “As soon as you start moving plumbing, electrical wiring and walls, the costs go up substantially from there,” he says.

Budget-minded homeowners are finding cheaper solutions in the $10,000 to $20,000 range by making do with existing appliances and fixtures, refinishing kitchen cabinets and shopping for bargains. Suppliers and builders, in turn, are responding to the recession-driven demand for cost-conscious kitchen and bath remodeling with package deals aimed at guaranteeing the costs of materials and labor.

“At first, there was no way I was going to spend $18,000 to $25,000 to remodel a bathroom,” says Vienna homeowner Hannah Laufe, an attorney. “But to get what we wanted, my research showed that was the amount we needed to spend.”

Laufe and husband Richard Miller, a teacher, decided to renovate the outdated and worn master bathroom in their 1960s rambler. “Everything was pink, the medicine cabinet was rusty and the faucets didn’t work as well as they should,” Laufe says.

The couple tapped Case to remodel the space based on the firm’s new renovation program, called the 2012 Bath Collection, launched in January. For $13,000 to $25,000, the company will demolish an existing space, remove lead paint if necessary, and install backer board and tile. New plumbing fixtures, vanity, towel bars, lighting and painting are included in the price. “It saves the headache of shopping different sources,” Matus says. He says Case is now considering similar package deals for kitchens.

Laufe and Miller had a choice of designs in contemporary, traditional and transitional styles, but within a narrow range of products. They chose a stained maple vanity with a granite countertop, a glass door for the shower, and marble-look-alike porcelain tile on the floor and shower stall, spending about $20,000 on the project. “It took less than two weeks to complete,” Laufe says.

Finding ways to save

Management consultant Cope Willis and wife Sophie, who works for an educational software company, spent about $9,000 to partially remodel their pink bathroom. They kept the existing toilet and pedestal sink, and hired a local handyman to install a new bathtub and finishes. “We worked within the existing constraints of the bathroom to keep costs down,” Cope Willis says.

New subway-style tile around the tub, marble tiles on the floor and beadboard wainscoting create what Willis calls “a clean, traditional look” in keeping with the architectural character of the couple’s 1938 Colonial in upper Northwest Washington.

Most of the renovation dollars were spent on the installation — about $6,000. Budgeting that amount is realistic, according to several experts who say labor accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of bathroom remodeling costs.

“To save money, do as much as you can, like installing the toilet and doing the painting,” says Dominic Piccininni, senior director in merchandising for Home Depot, which offers free DIY workshops on bathroom repairs.

Matus recommends using leftover remnants of granite for vanity tops instead of ordering an entire slab.

“But don’t scrimp on faucets,” he says. “The big box stores typically sell faucets with plastic cartridges, not metal, that don’t last very long. You don’t want a leaky faucet after two years.”

Applying large tiles on floors and walls is another way to save money. “With 12-inch-by-12-inch tiles, you have less grout lines and labor costs, and they can make a room appear larger,” says Mina Fies, chief executive of Synergy Design & Construction in Reston. “You can also save money by not taking the tile to the ceiling around the tub or shower.”

Instead of replacing a tub or a shower stall, Piccininni recommends installing glass doors to create a fresh look and reduce costs. “If your plumbing is all good, you could do your whole bathroom yourself with a new shower head, toilet, vanity, sink and light fixture for under $1,000,” he says.

But even an experienced DIYer may not have the expertise to update a bathroom in an older home. “If the house has galvanized water pipes that are in bad shape and need to be changed to copper, that will require plumbing skills,” says architect Bruce Wentworth of the Wentworth Studio in Chevy Chase. “If the house does not have ground fault interrupted outlets, it requires electrical skills.” He notes that local laws require a homeowner to obtain a building permit “if walls are being changed, plumbing or electrical work is being done.”

Seeking counter values

Kitchen remodeling costs less when major fixtures are swapped out rather than moved to new locations. For a typical kitchen, about 12-by-12 feet, a budget of about $13,000 will allow a builder to install new countertops, backsplash, sink and faucet, decorative hardware and lighting, according to Matus.

But it won’t pay for cabinets or appliances, he says. “Plan to spend another $16,000 on cabinets and $7,500 appliances for an average kitchen.”

Replacing the cabinets, countertop, sink and flooring — but not the appliances — in the kitchen of their Alexandria condominium totaled $8,350 for Barbara Bosworth, a teacher’s assistant, and husband Ron, who works for a rental car company. The couple hired United Floors, Kitchen and Bath, a Rockville-based company that specializes in affordable renovations.

According to United’s owner, Koksal Keskin, the $7,900 kitchen package advertised on the company’s Web site includes 10 wood-finished cabinets, granite countertops and backsplash and installation. Increasing the budget to $16,900 adds more cabinets and granite countertops and a glass-tile backsplash and ceramic or wood flooring. Both packages include appliance hook-up and plumbing, but not the appliances themselves.

Few kitchen designers will consider a makeover for less than $20,000. But Savena Doychinov, of Design Studio International in Falls Church, is trying to make that budget work in a D.C. condo kitchen by leaving the refrigerator and flooring in place and using stock rather than custom cabinets. Even in small kitchens, costs can escalate when specialized appliances are needed to fit a confined space. “A narrow range or a shallow refrigerator can cost more than standard sizes,” Doychinov says.

The cheapest and easiest part of a kitchen overhaul, the designer says, is changing the countertops. She recommends plastic laminates over granite to save costs. “They have come a long way in design,” she says. “They now look like stone and are very durable. Down the road, when you have the money, you can replace them with granite.”

Cutting cabinet costs

Experts agree that the biggest expense in remodeling a kitchen — about 35 percent of the overall renovation costs — is replacing storage with new cabinets and drawers. “If you use ready-made [open] shelves such as the ones offered by Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn,” Doychinov says, “you can save money but probably no more than about 30 to 40 percent of the cost of new cheap wall cabinets.”

To reduce costs, Gaithersburg homeowners Sherry and Joe Warsaw hired carpenter Mike Van Meer of Van-Walker Woodworking to replace the doors of their 1990s-era kitchen cabinets with more contemporary designs in a white oak veneer.

“The cabinets were in good shape except for their hinges and faded color. Buying all new cabinets would have cost us three times as much as the new doors,” Sherry Warsaw says. “We also needed the changes to make room for a new wall oven and two dishwashers.”

The retired couple spent about $11,000 for the woodworking.

Van Meer points out that replacing or refacing doors is easiest and most cost-effective for frameless cabinets, commonly called European-style, as those in the Warsaws’ kitchen. The doors are sized so they fit over and conceal the edges of the cabinet box. “You can just replace the door and the hardware,” says Van Meer.

More standard American cabinets feature a frame around the opening of the box that is used to secure the door to the cabinet. Because this frame is visible, it has to be refaced along with the door.

Don’t have the money to replace or reface old cabinets? Van Meer recommends buying new door handles. “Little things like changing the hardware can give you a new look.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.