Kitchen cabinets: refurbish or replace?

kitchen cabinetsKitchen cabinets endure more abuse than most any other item in your household, going from gleaming to grimy in no time. So WalletPop asked some experts how to tell when your cabinets need a facelift and which of the many options to choose.

Brian Kelsey, host of "HGTV Creative Edge with Brian," took among the most conservative approaches:

"As long as the cabinet structure is sound and in good shape, you really don't need to replace your cabinets," he tells WalletPop. "You could freshen them with a new coat of paint, and/or hardware -- easy and inexpensive DIY fixes."

But even the most optimistic know that sometimes you have to cry uncle.

"Many lesser quality cabinets are made with pressboard (which is basically ground up sawdust) and is generally not very strong," Kelsey continues. "If this is the case and you notice sagging, or edges/seams coming apart, it's time to replace the whole cabinet."

Even then, Kelsey adds, check on eBay for surplus stock. "It's amazing what you can get for a fraction of the cost."

With that overview in mind, WalletPop drilled down on some specifics with Dondi Szombatfalvy, lead designer with Bella Domicile, Inc., in Madison, Wisconsin, and Gary Nealon, president of RTA Cabinet Store in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

Q. When does it make economic sense to refurbish kitchen cabinets?
Dondi Szombatfalvy: Refurbishing a kitchen can mean any number of things: one person may be updating to sell their home, some are trying to improve the day-to-day functioning of their space, and others are looking for a design change so the space will better fit their lifestyle. Depending on your specific objective, the investment you make in the kitchen can vary greatly. It is estimated that you will recoup 87-125% of what you spend in the kitchen when you sell your home.
Gary Nealon: There are several factors that should be considered: 1) the age of the existing kitchen (if the kitchen is fairly new, refurbishing them may create enough added value for it to make sense) 2) the condition of the cabinets. If the cabinets are in great condition, a simple paint job may create a whole new look in your kitchen for very little money. If the cabinet boxes are solid wood and in good condition, but the doors are outdated, replacing the doors is still an inexpensive way to update your kitchen 3) if the cabinets are deteriorating, or are made of particleboard/fiberboard, replacing them might make the most sense economically and add the most value to your house.

Q. What are the most affordable options?
DS: A common misconception is that refacing your cabinets is the most affordable option. This is not usually the case due to the labor involved to work with cabinets already in place and it does not address issues with poorly functioning elements like drawers, lazy susans or cabinet door hinges. A full remodel lets you make changes to your layout for better function as well as take advantage of improvements in technology that include superior cabinet finishes, ball bearing-full access drawer glides, soft close door mechanisms and a host of interior accessories to get the kitchen roaring with functionality. Sometimes making the update affordable might mean replacing countertops, cabinet hardware and adding a tile backsplash instead of revamping the whole kitchen. These changes can really make a huge difference in the look and function of the space.
GN: In order of affordability would be:
1) repainting your existing cabinets and updating the hardware
2) replacing the doors and veneering the face frames
3) replacing the cabinets altogether. This one can have the widest range of cost, depending on what type of cabinets you put in (Ready-to-Assemble, Stock, Semi-Custom, or Custom). By using Ready-to-Assemble cabinets, you can still replace your entire kitchen for under $3,000 (depending on the size of your kitchen). A custom kitchen can cost upwards of $30-50,000 just for the cabinets.

Q: When can you do it yourself and not?
DS: It is recommended the budget for a kitchen remodel project be no more than 25% of the value of your home. So if you don't already have a table saw, compound miter saw and nail air gun (and know how to use them), you may want to leave the work on your investment to an experienced professional, like a NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) Certified Remodeler. A lot of folks underestimate the skill needed to install a cabinet so that it is perfectly level when the wall, ceiling and floor usually are not. If you want to defray the cost, maybe you could do your own demolition. Actual pricing varies greatly depending on how extensive your project is and the quality of the materials. When planning your budget for a basic remodel, figure about 40% for cabinets, 20% for countertops, 20% for labor, 15% for flooring, 5% for other (a new faucet, lighting etc.). Appliances would be outside of this formula.
GN: This will depend on your home improvement skill level, and whether you choose to simply replace the doors or replace the cabinets entirely, but I have seen complete novices replace their entire kitchen. A general rule of thumb that we tell people is, if you have to start moving walls, plumbing or electrical, and you don't have any experience with it, it is probably best to leave it up to a professional contractor.

Nealon ends with one last tip for those in the market for new cabinets. One of the biggest mistakes people make when shopping for cabinets, he says, is focusing too heavily on the door style and not enough on the material of the boxes themselves.

"Solid wood or plywood cabinet boxes are going to hold up much better to normal wear and tear than a particle board or fiberboard cabinet box because they are not as susceptible to water and moisture," he says. 'Plus, the screws and hinges on particleboard cabinets tend to loosen over time due to the nature of how the material is formed."
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