I’m Pregnant With My General Contractor’s Baby….and Other Things That Can Go Wrong With Your Kitchen Remodel

A year ago this month we began planning our knock-down, tear-out kitchen remodel.  By the end of April, a dust wall was up and there was no turning back. Out with the old, in with the new. On the cusp of improving our quality of life, we soldiered on through hot plate meals and utter disorganization. And I found out, a week into it, that I was pregnant with baby number 3.

Thankfully, our General Contractor was not the father, although he was the first person to whom I broke the news.

Severe morning sickness ensued, making the screech of power tools against cinder block that much lovelier. Decisions and details I swore would matter to me to make this the most perfect kitchen were neglected. The ounter top templater laid out his dixie sticks and I sat nearby watching him until my churning stomach allowed me to stay no longer. I didn’t hover. I didn’t chime in. I didn’t question every measurement.  I planned for the overhang a half inch deeper. I wanted the sink reveal negative. Every small detailed was accounted for in my plans. Except conception. Of mice and men, people.

But I am a roll with it kind of woman. Especially since my kitchen is very near perfect for me and my baby came in December without incident–a wonderful bonus.

Nevertheless, I thought it a great idea to make a list of common problems people face during their remodel so you can plan ahead and avoid these pitfalls.

Follow these tips and get the kitchen you love.

1) General Contractor Woes  Shop around, choose wisely and check references. The start of the relationship with a GC is often hearts and flowers but may deteriorate rapidly if the homeowner makes changes mid-remodel, the job goes longer than planned or other things that cut into the GC’s profit margin come up. Check and double check the materials you are getting and remember, just because you hired a GC doesn’t mean it is going to be an easy ride. You still need to stay on top of things and make sure you get what you are paying for. Read and re-read your contract. Make sure every detail is spelled out so there are no surprises.

2) Cabinets Dis-Order  You specifically told your kitchen designer you wanted all plywood boxes, easy close drawers and no stile in the middle. What you got was MDF boxes, drawers that slam shut when you look at them and a mix of double door cabinets with and without stiles. Now you are on the phone cursing and crying, trying to get what you paid for. First, check your contract to make sure that all these details are spelled out in black and white. Avoid agreeing to terms like “standard” without researching what the cabinet line considers standard. Buying cabinets is a lot like closing on a house. The contract is long and there are a lot of boring details, but you really need to know what you are getting ahead of time. Don’t neglect the details such as what style and size crown molding you are getting. Throw the word “standard” out the window because unless you are purchasing stock cabinetry, nothing is standard. Order door samples, look at them in the natural light of your kitchen space. Be aware that some woods, like cherry and exotics, darken as they age. The more you educate yourself on the details of your materials, the less surprised you will be when the packaging comes off your cabinet boxes.

3) Tile Trouble  Most of the problems that arise with tile are related to installation. Make sure the person doing your install is comfortable working with your specific tile choice. Not all tile is created equal. There are a varieties of thicknesses that contribute to the ease or difficulty of installation. If you have a specific pattern in mind, lay it out on graph paper for your installer. Using natural or handmade tile? Specify that you want the installer to alternate boxes when choosing tiles so the lots are properly mixed. Your tile setter should begin from the center of the wall to assure symmetry at the edges. And don’t forget to seal your tile and grout as part of the installation.

4) Counter Top Crisises  The number one complaint I see people bemoan is the placement of seams. First of all, be realistic. If you have a monster sized island and pick a stone that requires multiple slabs, you are going to have a seam. So much hullabaloo about not having seams has been made and I want you to know this: having a seam or two is not a sign of kitchen design failure. A good fabricator will closely match the color of the stone with epoxy when joining the seam. Since stone slabs are cut like a loaf of bread, the movement or design of the stone can be bookended to create symmetry and continuity. That being said, if a poor seam is done with mis-matching epoxy, do know that the epoxy can be dug out and the seam re-done. This is easiest to do when the epoxy is wet so don’t be afraid to speak up.  Another big issue with stone counters is placement and cutouts. Make sure you go to the stone yard with your design and have them blue tape the template onto the slab so you can see exactly where the cuts are going. Once the cuts are made, it is impossible to change.

5) Hardware Horrors  Placement of cabinet pulls and knobs can really make a homeowner take up drinking. So much money spent on cabinets and this final detail–the jewelry of the kitchen–can really make it or break the look. Decide ahead of time if you want the hardware centered or a bit towards the top of the drawer. Have a preference for where your knobs go? Speak up before the drill bit gets spinning. Don’t assume the installer will know what you want if you don’t speak up. While errors on wood door fronts can be puttied and stained, painted cabinets will show the damage of a misplaced pull. Better to get this right the first time.

6) Fireclay Flubs and Plumbing Pitfalls  You’ve fantasized for years about your white fireclay apron front sink and now it is finally here. The custom cabinet has been carefully cut. The heavy sink hoisted into place with a few creaks and groans but both the sink and cabinet survived. All that’s left is the installation of your garbage disposal, a no-brainer for your plumber who’s been in the business for decades. Okay. Stop right there. Does your plumber have experience installing garbage disposals on fireclay sinks?  Seriously. Go ask him now. This is not a typical installation. If he over-tightens the flange your warranty is null and void an you will be staring at a web of hairline carcks every time you wash at your high end sink. If you must have a garbage disposal on your fireclay sink, make sure the plumber does not over-tighten the flange. Hover. Nag. Repeat. Don’t worry if he rolls his eyes, talks about you on his cellphone in his truck or simply tells you flat out that you are the biggest pain in the ass. There are other plumbers out there. But this sink…once installed, it’s yours. You will have to take your countertops off to get it out. Fixing this one is a big expense that you will be on your own with so make sure it goes right the first time. The flange should be tight but just tight enough.

7) Domestic Disputes  You’ve both been looking forward to this remodel for years. You are happily married, in love and now you are about to complete the dream by getting a new kitchen. You’re having a blast shopping together, discussing details. And then one of you starts to fatigue. And then the credit card bills start arriving. And you’re both hungry. And your house is a mess. Be warned: you will fight. There is hardly a marriage that can make it through a major remodel without a down and dirty spat. Just know it is the spackle speaking. Get out of the house, get yourself a decent meal and for crying out loud, talk about something other than switch plate finishes.

8) This Old House  Remodeling an old house is both fun and rewarding–a project that definitely appeals to those of us with an inherent love for old things. However, once those ancient walls get opened up, be prepared for the unexpected. Chimneys, dumbwaiters, plumbing, dead bodies–you never know what you are going to find once the horse hair plaster is broken up and hauled away. You may discover a threatening mouse infestation that prompts you to spend money on a pest control contract as well as new wiring. Appliances may need to be relocated due to structural elements that cannot be worked around without a considerable upcharge.

9) Seasons Change  Your GC told you it was a 4 week job. That was 6 weeks ago and the walls still need to be mudded. Plan for the remodel to take longer than you could possibly imagine. Don’t plan to have Thanksgiving dinner at your house if your remodel is scheduled to start end of October.  It’s a possibility that things will go smoothly and you will have a sink and stove to cook at, but it is also a possibility that your stove is on backorder and your relatives’ plane tickets are non-refundable. Our remodel began in April. My daughter’s birthday was in June. We ended up holding her birthday party in  September. Just saying.

10) Money Matters  You are a master at the spreadsheet and think you’ve got your costs under control. Great. Still, add on an extra 10 to 20% because you will go over budge. Don’t argue with me. It is a given. Have that money on hand or at least access to it through a line of credit because the work will take longer than planned, you will be eating out longer than expected and sometimes the very thing you think is going to save you money will end up costing you. For example, that sand and finish wood floor that cost dollars less than the pre-finished is going to cost you double to install.

Think of this list as a prophylactic against unplanned…events. You can avoid costly errors that will be with you for the lifetime of the kitchen or however long you are in your house.  You may move. You may remodel again once your kitchen turns 18. But what you do during construction definitely influences the outcome of the kitchen. Everyone wants a smart, beautiful kitchen. Pay attention to the above details, eat well, get plenty of rest and exercise and you will have a healthy remodel.