The kitchen renovation: Part Two

By Caitlin Kelly

It still hasn’t begun!

The apartment has been in chaos for weeks, as we excitedly (and too early) emptied all our cupboards in preparation for the work to begin. But because we live in a co-op apartment building, we have to submit a ream of paperwork and get it approved before any hammers can swing.

Here are the “before” photos, and a description of how we got to the decision to do this, and what we chose.

It will probably start next week, when we are (blessedly) far away from the noise and dust of demolition for a bit.

But I’ve already learned a few lessons useful to anyone considering a reno.

Each one ends in “ive”!


Every single item that is going to be bought, re-used or replaced in your new room needs to be measured carefully and ordered, sometimes weeks or months in advance, so it’s right at hand when the workmen arrive and are now on a timeline.

English: Electric cables in old apartment building
English: Electric cables in old apartment building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


To mess! Our living room and hallway are now a staging area, full of boxes of our stuff and boxes of the new items yet to be installed. The place is going to be nuts for a while. Focus on how gorgeous it will be when it’s all done.


Make a punch list of every single element going into the new room or space and what is needed to have it safely and legally installed. This includes: lighting, outlets, faucet, tile, counter-tops, flooring, appliances, paint, primer, grout, hardware, etc. With so many details, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget something along the way.

Keep checking in with your suppliers and contractor to make sure they, too, are on top of everything and have agreed — in writing — to your explicit wishes. If there are points of disagreement, you’ll need a paper trail.


This is one of the most tiring pieces of committing to a renovation project, endless, daily, sometimes several times a day, decisions that must be made quickly  — and permanently. (Change orders are really expensive and your contractor may hate you for making them, or — worse — bail since s/he always has a list of other clients awaiting his crew’s attention as well. Make a plan and stick with it.)

After designing our kitchen’s entire color scheme around the cream enamel panel of the Italian stove we’d chosen that color was discontinued by the time we ordered it. Shriek! I had to suddenly decide what to do, (fine, stainless steel, boring), and not freak out or rethink all the other choices and start again from scratch.

I don’t have time to do all of this twice. Most of us don’t.

You have to decide on a budget and then make every decision to fit within it, (or exceed it, and decide how you’ll handle that additional cost.) It’s tiring! And since most of us have never studied design and rarely spend tens of thousands of dollars (even thousands) within a few weeks, it’s a lot to handle.


If you really want something to happen a certain way, or want a very specific product or material, say so!

No one can, or wants to, read your mind and it’s up to you, (or the architect/designer you’ve hired), to be very clear and specific with your contractor about what you have in mind. Don’t hand-flap and sigh and walk away in frustration. Some things will fall through. There will be some surprises, and almost all of them add expense — yours!

I went through three contractors to find the one we’re now working with, for the second time. The first two seemed to take personal offense at my custom designs. It’s your home, your taste and your budget. Trust your contractor to offer smart and helpful options, but don’t be afraid to say no if it really isn’t what you want.

A stainless steel countertop
A stainless steel countertop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This is the other half of being decisive. In the middle (!) of writing this post, my husband called to ask me to read yet another email and write yet another email to the contractor. Gah! Has to be done.

I’ve probably answered half a dozen emails, so far, from the contractor and I do so promptly. We’re all busy and all juggling multiple projects. You should also expect this from him/her as well.


Very few of us have an unlimited budget or space or timeline for The Perfect Renovation. How can you work most creatively within your space and budget?

Our kitchen is really small, (eight feet long, galley kitchen, no outlet for a stove hood), and our pantry is literally a narrow, tiny closet. We may not buy a microwave, which some people would insist is a must. Not for us; I’ve never owned one so feel no compulsion to have one just because we’re getting a new kitchen. It’s just as cramped as it was before!

We also moved a china cabinet from one room to another and are changing its purpose — we’ll use it to hide ugly cans and bottles and supplies, while we transfer pretty plates, glasses and platters to our new open shelves.

We were also able to reduce the quote by offering to prime and paint our cabinets and walls and by bartering my husband’s photography skills for the contractor — who always needs professional images for his website. That alone saved us $2,000.


I feel like I’m now surgically attached to our measuring tapes! I know the height of the sconces, the height of the legs for the holders for our platters, the width of our shelves…


Oh, yeah. Assume that whatever you’ve budgeted is an amusing-but-naive attempt. Unless (lucky you!) you are a multi-skilled DIYer (electrical and plumbing work? tiles?), you’ll be paying other people considerable coin to bring their skills into your home. Tiles, stone, flooring, lighting, cabinet handles…it all adds up.

Sighed our contractor: “Those TV design shows make me crazy! They never include the true costs of this stuff. I have to keep explaining this to clients every time.”

Agreed our saleswoman at our tile/stone vendor, “You know Houzz? Forget it! Clients come in here wanting exactly what they saw in a picture there, but a lot of it is custom work. They have no idea that how expensive it is.”

Any other tips you can offer?

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11 thoughts on “The kitchen renovation: Part Two

  1. Good luck with this! The decisive part is hardest for me: whenever we have anything done in the house, husband says “it’s up to you” thinking this is helpful. I don’t know! Some do, some have no clue, like me and are scared to death to make the wrong choice! Oh, the only other tip I’d add, but am not sure how to add an “ive” at the end has to do with timing–it never takes the time they quote either–it always takes much longer and every project includes some deviation from original plan to put it off track and drama, and we have to deal with it and learn not to be angry when they are not done when expected. Again, good luck with this–exciting!

    1. My husband says this too…but I studied interior design for a few years so feel fairly confident in my choices thanks to that formal, and rigorous training. I think anyone without it (i.e. most people!) who don’t hire a designer or even get a consult from one are right to be nervous. I think it also leads to some really dull (i.e. all white) “design.”

  2. Steve

    One suggestion I might make that will probably save you in the long run is to take care of the guys who are actually performing your work. Meaning, make sure they know they can use your bathroom, provide water, soda or iced tea, donuts and coffee in the morning. Maybe even treat them for lunch a couple of times. Doing this may run you a couple hundred dollars but is still much cheaper than a change order or ‘extra’ that will inevitably surface during the course of the job. Workers seem to go the extra mile for a customer that demonstrates some extra kindness and appreciation for who they are. Probably the best money you will spend. Good luck on the project! Steve

    1. Thanks!

      You make a great point…and when the guys did our bathroom reno a few years ago, I made sure to have lots of tea, just the way they liked it, every morning. Last night (as we are away the first 2 weeks they’ll be here), I put out lots of toilet paper (we only have one bathroom) and told our contractor to tell them they can play music as well.

      But I’ll do the donut/muffin thing and lunch…thank you for the suggestion. I feel fortunate to have a crew this skilled (they normally only tackle $100K + projects) so I want to make sure they know how much I appreciate that.

  3. So true, “If there are points of disagreement, you’ll need a paper trail.” I paid for my English degree a few times over with this one, given the money we saved our selves when disputes and problems arose later. And yes, so true about the part about being responsive to email (and DO put everything writing, and GET everything back in writing, as related to paper trails).

    Building a house was a three year period of being practically chained to the computer, writing and researching. Here’s where NOT having the smart phone with nonstop incoming email is such a blessing… you could add this to your list: rest. The process is exhausting and you have to be able to turn it off and walk away to keep your sanity and recoup your energy.

    1. It’s to easy to “forget” what you said or what they promised. I hear too many stories of deep frustration over renovations.

      Three years! Wow. I’m dreading 6 weeks…but also live and work in this small space.

      It really does take a lot of energy to make snap decisions (sometimes) that can be terribly costly to change later. Aaaah, for an unlimited budget. 🙂

  4. God love you, C. My parents and I have been involved in lots of renovations over the years and my dad always says that after you map out a plan and schedule, multiply the time you’ve figured it would take by 2.5 or 3 and multiply the price you set by 2 to start. Good tip, too, to take care of the people doing the work. My parents always did that, and now their contractor is one of their best buddies. 😀 The other advice I can offer is when you feel like you’re about to get really stressed out and you’re going to start crying or throwing things, immediately take a walk. Also, have a nice bottle of wine at the ready so you can toast how your kitchen is GOING to look. My mom kept a nice bottle of scotch around and when things started getting really tense around the renovations (I went through a few as an adult), we’d all go sit outside with the scotch, each have a bit, and appreciate the evening or late afternoon. Things always felt a little better after that. And we’d toast to the finish.

    1. Hmmm.

      Well, barring terrible surprises, we are already over budget by the usual 25%, but not double. The space is small so we are *hoping* to have it all done within a month. Hah.

      I have already found a co-working space to rent and can also hide in the public library, for work. But this will be rougher to face than the bathroom reno, as there was a public shower in our bldg. I could use then.

      Good to hear from you again!

  5. Yes, kiss your husband hard every day, even if you don’t feel like it! After over a year of remodeling, we still do that every day.

    How disappointing about your stove! We waited too long to order the “orange bubble tile” but felt lucky that we were able to import $80 of tile for $300 from Spain. I looked and looked but just couldn’t find anything that I liked better. Maybe someone has one in a warehouse somewhere?

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