Dream Kitchens: Lessons Learned

Homeowners who recently renovated talk about their best and worst choices and what they wish someone had told them early on.

By: Emily Leaman

Kitchen renovations are among the most expensive remodeling projects, but an updated kitchen can add a lot of value to a home. According to Remodeling magazine, the average cost of a major kitchen renovation in Washington is more than $50,000; homeowners can expect to see more than a 75-percent return on the investment.

Considering the stakes, it’s important to know what to expect. We asked homeowners who have recently been through the process for their insights—what they like about their new kitchens, what they’d do differently, and what they wish someone had told them before they started.

Planning is free—so do a lot of it.

Many homeowners were surprised by how much time they spent planning their renovation. “The more you can visualize at the beginning, the fewer holdups there are later,” says Marianne Bakia, whose kitchen in DC’s Petworth neighborhood was remodeled earlier this year.

Bakia’s early-1900s home likely hadn’t been renovated since the ’70s; it had outdated appliances, tattered wallpaper, and worn flooring. Bakia and her husband both had clear ideas of what they wanted to do, but their visions were completely different. Says Bakia: “I had no idea my husband would care.”

Her solution? She created a spreadsheet with 50 ideas. Separately, the couple ranked each on a scale of 1 to 5; projects marked with a 5 were definites—anything with a lower number was territory for compromise. “The exercise really helped us develop a plan we were both excited about,” Bakia says.

Know what you want before you get bids.

Early planning is critical when shopping for bids from contractors. Without a detailed plan, it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Jill Center learned this early. Her Capitol Hill Victorian was renovated in 2007, but she worked for months beforehand to come up with a plan. Center knew what kinds of floors, cabinets, and countertops she wanted, so builders were able to write bids for specific materials and brands. “If you just say, ‘I want new floors,’ you don’t know what they’re budgeting for,” she says. “Being as specific as possible can help to save you from surprises later on.”

Choose contractors carefully.

Kathy Buchanan regretted her choice of contractor. When her 1955 split-level in Falls Church was remodeled last year, she hired an architect to build an addition and enlarge her kitchen. The first architect couldn’t secure a building permit, so Buchanan hired another company. She says this one was able to do the structural work but didn’t have an eye for design details: She left it up to the builders to find flooring, and they installed white oak—the rest of the house has red oak. “If we didn’t specify exactly what we wanted, they decided,” she says. “I was so clueless.”

Not satisfied with the results, Buchanan hired a designer to rework the kitchen’s aesthetics. She finally got floors that matched—plus the kitchen of her dreams.

Make sure your surface materials are practical, not just pretty.

Kathleen Cregan of Winchester loves her Marmoleum floor. Instead of tile, she used the eco-friendly linoleum alternative in her kitchen. She says the flooring is warm underfoot in the winter and stays cool in the summer. It’s also durable and easy to clean.

Lamar Whitman, whose Dupont Circle kitchen was gutted and rebuilt, chose concrete countertops because he liked the way they looked. But he didn’t anticipate how labor-intensive they’d be: “It’s like oil on a garage floor—if you don’t clean up a spill right away, it’ll stain.”

Prepare to be displaced.

Gutting and remodeling Cregan’s home took 15 months, during most of which she and her husband, Donnie Phelps, lived with their dog in a rec room adjacent to the garage. Without access to their kitchen, she says, “we ate out a lot.”

Jill Center got creative when it came to cooking. While the kitchen was being done, she moved a microwave, mini-fridge, and Crock-Pot into a bathroom and washed dishes in the bathtub. “It definitely wasn’t ideal,” she says, “but we quickly learned how to make it work.”

Design a good workflow.

Kitchen designers often spend time with clients discussing their “work triangle,” the area defined by the sink, refrigerator, and range. A good designer will help you place these items in positions that make sense for your cooking habits.

Mary Walter Midkiff and her husband, Neil, worked with a designer to make the triangle smaller in her Reston kitchen. To maximize counter space, she replaced a peninsula with an island. She also moved the sink and switched the locations of the oven and refrigerator. The designer figured out Midkiff’s ideal setup by asking detailed questions about how she cooks and entertains. “It’s so much easier to move around,” says Midkiff. “I’ve noticed a huge improvement.”

Spend the most on items that can’t be easily replaced.

If budget is a major concern, consider investing in projects that can’t be changed easily and saving money on pieces that can be upgraded later. That’s what Marianne Bakia did—she splurged on flooring and cabinets and rearranged the layout of her kitchen to improve workflow. For things such as stools, throw rugs, fixtures, and even appliances, she saved by shopping at Ikea, JC Penney, and other chains. Says Bakia: “We wanted future owners to appreciate the quality of the big-ticket items while having the flexibility to change out smaller pieces.”

Your most important choice might be your refrigerator.

When talking about appliances, homeowners are often most passionate about their refrigerators—for better or worse. “I think it’s the most important decision you make in your kitchen,” Cregan says.

She should know: She bought a refrigerator based on recommendations from friends and family rather than thinking about her own needs. She ended up with a fridge that fills up too quickly. “Milk cartons spend a lot of time lying on their side,” she says. “I usually run out of space when people come over.”

Bakia spent more time thinking about what type of fridge would suit her family, and the model she chose is one of her favorite things in her new kitchen. She doesn’t store a lot of frozen food, so she chose a model with a double pullout freezer drawer that maximizes fridge space above. It’s also counter depth—shallower than standard refrigerators—which makes for a seamless look and keeps her from losing food in the back. Says Bakia: “Who knew you could love a refrigerator?”

You might discover something you can no longer live without . . .

Several homeowners splurged on appliances and products they weren’t sure they’d use.

Midkiff got a wine cooler, something she’d never had before. The dual-temperature cooler holds up to 48 bottles and is tucked away under the counter. She says it’s a lifesaver when it comes to entertaining: “I can’t recall how we managed before.”

Joan Milburn installed Plugmold—a strip of electrical outlets—under the cabinets in her Vienna kitchen. Now she can plug in the coffeemaker or toaster wherever she wants rather than being tied to a single location. “I had no idea what I was missing,” she says.

Buchanan’s designer talked her into getting a faucet with a hot-and-cold-water filtering system built in. “We thought it was a good idea but didn’t know if we’d ever use the hot function,” she says. Turns out Buchanan uses it every day to make coffee with her French press. Was it worth the splurge? “Definitely,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I used a teakettle.”

. . . or something you wish you’d skipped.

Whitman loves his combination microwave/convection oven—“We use it 90 percent of the time instead of the regular oven,” he says—but his Miele range hood probably was a mistake: “It sounds like a jet engine when you turn it on.”

Bakia added a second sink in her island because she thought it would be efficient—it’s close to the refrigerator and stove. “In reality, I think it saves three steps,” she says. Bakia says she could have had 25 percent more counter space if she’d skipped the sink, though it has gotten some use: “We filled it with ice one time for a drink station when company was over.”

Cregan gives her sink mixed reviews, too. Nearly six feet tall, she got backaches when washing dishes in her old sink, so she decided to raise the countertop in the new kitchen. It would have worked—if she hadn’t splurged on an extra-deep sink. “It sort of negates the benefits of the higher counter,” she says. But there’s a bright side: “The deep sink hides the mess when guests are here.”