What Does it Cost to Remodel a kitchen?

What Does it Cost to Remodel a kitchen?
Kitchen #1
Kitchen #1

What does it cost to renovate a kitchen?  I’ve had 3-4 contacts within the past few weeks from homeowners who wish to renovate their kitchens for budgets ranging from $15,000 to $25,000.  In their words, they want to gut their kitchens and replace everything from cabinets to lighting to flooring.

My short answer to each of them was that I can’t do it for that money – and believe that it’s only possible if they’re willing to take on some of the tasks themselves – including my roles of design and construction management.

But it got me thinking about what drives the cost of kitchen remodeling.  Here are the actual costs for 4 very different kitchens that we’ve done recently:

Cost Comparisons for 4 Kitchens
Cost Comparisons for 4 Kitchens

The first 3 are nice but modest kitchens.  While the 4th is clearly high-end – but is still more modest than what is usually depicted in the glossy magazines.  Homeowner 1 & 2 also reduced costs by doing some of the work themselves as I describe below.  All four kitchens are in the greater Washington DC area and all were remodeled during the 2007-2009 time period.  Three were in the close-in Maryland suburbs of Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Bethesda.  One was in Upper Northwest Washington.  The prices — especially construction labor — will vary by region of the country.

Kitchen #2
Kitchen #2

Construction labor drives kitchen remodeling costs.  It takes skilled labor to handle the very diverse tasks that are required to fix and modify wiring, plumbing, flooring, and to hang cabinets so that they are level and secure.  Construction labor accounted for 40% to 50% of the total costs of the remodel.  The labor required to design, source materials, and manage construction accounted for another 15% to 20% of the total cost.  If the homeowner can take over some of these high-cost items, overall remodeling costs can be greatly reduced!  In my experience, the tasks that homeowners are most likely to be comfortable performing including design, selecting and purchasing materials, project management, painting and tiling.  A homeowner willing to take on one or more of these tasks might be able to remodel a kitchen for $25,000 – if they are also willing to make some accommodations regarding material choices AND the keep the kitchen configuration pretty much unchanged!

The homeowner for kitchen 1 did the painting themselves; the homeowners for kitchen 2 tiled the floor themselves plus (an artist) created the glass art windows & backsplash.  Both homeowners did some of the material sourcing themselves.

Changes that drive up both material and construction costs include opening up the kitchen to the rest of the house and to the outdoors – something that literally every single one of my clients desires.

The reason that construction costs seem to remain about 40-50% of total costs is that as more materials are added – such as windows and skylights or more complex plumbing and lighting – the cost of construction increases in order to properly install these additional features.

Kitchen #3
Kitchen #3

So now let’s look at how to control the 40% to 50% of costs that are paid for materials.

Cabinetry Drives Costs:  In all 4 kitchens, cabinetry was the highest price item accounting for 15% to 17% of the total budget.  And, in my opinion, it’s one area where you should pay for quality and function.  If we look at the first kitchen, we could have lowered the cabinetry costs by perhaps $2,000 by purchasing cabinets made with particle board frames and with doors instead of drawers in base cabinets.  But penny-pinching in this area can lead to cabinets that fall apart quickly and back strain and inconvenience.  All but the 4th kitchen used stock cabinetry and even the 4th kitchen only used certain specialty cabinetry.  None used cabinet fronts for appliances.  Custom cabinetry and finishes would have driven the costs of cabinets for the high-end kitchen up as much as $10-$20,000 (or more).

Kitchens 1 & 2 kept cabinets costs low simply by limiting the amount of cabinets.  Both kitchens used closet pantries to eliminate several thousand in cabinet costs.  Building walls is much cheaper than buying cabinets.  A pantry can use ventilated or solid shelving at a fraction of the cost and with much great convenience than using large pantry cabinets.

IF your cabinets are in good shape, you can save half the cost of new cabinets by re-facing the cabinets instead of replacing them.  An even better way to save money if all you’re trying to do is change the look is to paint or stain the cabinets.  For one client, we spent only $1,000 to sand and re-stain the cabinets a very dark cherry color.  This totally changed the look of the kitchen.

Appliances & Countertops:  These 2 categories account for 10% to 16% of costs.  Here is definitely an area where one can save without sacrificing function.  Using laminate instead of granite, concrete or solid surface material would have reduced the countertop costs by at least 75% — $2,000 to $7,000 savings!  And today’s laminates are much improved in performance and looks from the Formica of the 1950’s.

Believe it or not, all of these kitchens could have spent much more on appliances than they did.  Even the high-end kitchen used a standard depth refrigerator instead of a counter-depth built-in refrigerator.  The first 2 kitchens used ranges instead of cooktops with separate built-in ovens.  This is definitely an area where homeowners can save money without sacrificing a lot of function or looks.

Windows, Doors &  Skylights: All the Kitchens were opened to the rest of the house.  Kitchens 2, 3, and 4 were all opened up to the outdoors as well.  This added anywhere from $2,000 to $18,000 in material costs alone – and even more in labor.  Again, in my opinion, these costs are well worth the improvements in lifestyle and enjoyment.  Something that may be worth postponing your kitchen remodel until you can afford.

Partial View of Kitchen #4
Partial View of Kitchen #4

Flooring: The cost of flooring has a lot to do with the material and the detail. All of these homeowners kept costs relatively low – the 1st, 3rd and 4th all used hardwood and the cost differences have to do with how much of the flooring was new and the size of the space.  The 2nd kitchen used tile.  The cost reflects only the cost of the material since the homeowner saved money by doing installation themselves.  They also selected very attractive but low cost porcelain tile.  None of the homeowners used special inlays or patterns that would have jacked up the price.

Backsplash: Here’s an area where you can make a lot of impact with a low cost.

All the Rest: Lighting fixtures and plumbing fixtures were costly in the 4th kitchen but quite modest in the other 3.  This area, in my opinion, is kind of like appliances where you can get a lot of function for a relatively inexpensive price.  Bells and Whistles and designer brands add a lot of price with only.

Summary: If you’re trying to get a sense of how much it will cost to “completely” remodel your kitchen, I would use the following ballpark formulas.  This will give you a reasonable sense of what it will take.  Then you can use the guidance, above, to think through how to keep the remodel costs as low as reasonably achievable.  Remember, these numbers are for the greater Washington DC area.  Prices — especially construction labor — will vary in different parts of the country.

If you’re keeping the existing configuration with no changes to walls or functions. $300 – $325/sf
If you’re opening up to the rest of the house $325 – $400/sf
If you’re opening up to the house & to the outside $350 – $450/sf
If you want a designer kitchen $450 – $650/sf


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