Kitchen Remodel: Where to Begin

By Kate Riley September 24, 2015

When someone comes to me and tells me they want to remodel their kitchen my heart skips a beat. Whether it’s a friend or another blogger or an email from a reader, all of a sudden I’m engrossed in their story and want to know about their plans because I just LOVE a great kitchen remodel story!

This year we completed two kitchen remodels (this one and this one) and I’m about to begin a third! My younger brother and my sister-in-law have requested my help in remodeling a kitchen in a home they just purchased here in the Bay Area. I’m thrilled for them and can’t wait to get started! The question from my SIL who is a busy nurse with two small children (a toddler and newborn, I remember those days!) asked me (insert sigh) “Where do we begin?”

Here is one angle of the kitchen in the house they just purchased, it’s neither large nor functional, and with two small children and two working parents, it needs to work with their lifestyle, so I’m excited to guide them along in their remodeling journey.

nate 1

Sooooo… what’s my best advice on how to begin? These answers are more generic but relevant to anyone who is pondering a kitchen remodel:

Reface or Remodel? Are we looking at a kitchen that’s functional but just not your style? Are the existing cabinets quality? Does the layout make sense? In that case you’re probably in a situation where it’s best to reface or repaint cabinets and perhaps upgrade appliances and the backsplash. New doors, countertops, and tile can go a long way to transforming a kitchen with a layout that makes sense but just needs a refresh. Cosmetic remodels are far easier to tackle than a completely renovated space.

Architectural or Structural Issues. If you’re in a situation where the layout doesn’t make sense or the cabinets are really old and you want to start fresh with new everything then the first thing to consider is architectural or structural changes. Is it feasible to take down walls or move appliances around? Both issues should be addressed with a general contractor because they can impact the cost significantly and may require permits.

Hire the Right Professionals. I have some friends in my hometown who are about to begin their kitchen remodel, yet another project I hope to blog about! Their first question to me was “Do you know a good contractor?” which is a very important step! The best way to go about hiring a contractor to do any structural changes or installation is word of mouth by talking to people in your area, also through websites like Angie’s List, or look at portfolios on websites like Houzz. Interview 3-5 and work with someone who gets you, who understand what you want, and who you establish a good rapport with.

Flow. Before meeting with a contractor and even coming up with a cabinet plan, always consider flow. A good kitchen cabinet designer can help you with this process. In a kitchen with an island there must be proper spacing around it: 42” at a minimum preferably 48”. The cabinet and appliance plan must make sense! For maximum efficiency, keep in mind the work triangle – that connection between the sink, refrigerator, and range. Think about where you want to be when you prep your food, cook your food, and then serve your food.

wood lower cabinet white upper cabinets

Cabinet Design. This is where you get to pick what suits your style, choose kitchen cabinets with a wood or painted surface and also consider functional upgrades, smooth glide drawers or pull out recycling. If you plan to sell the home in less than a few years, it’s best to make choices that will appeal to a wider market.

Storage. One modern kitchen trend that is gaining in popularity is to remove upper cabinets and replace them with pretty tile to make the space feel less cramped or to add open shelves, but this can limit your storage options. There are so many different ways to approach storage and other considerations like where to place a microwave, so it’s good to work with an experienced kitchen cabinet designer.

I find it most helpful to make a list of everything you use on a daily basis that you will store from dishes to cookware to small appliances and identify the cabinet where it will go. It doesn’t all have to be stored in the kitchen, dishes can go into the dining room, seasonal or infrequently used items can go in the garage, attic, or basement.

Orono residence CliqStudios Cabinetry, ©Karen Melvin Photogrpahy

Be Realistic. Budgeting for a kitchen remodel needs to include all the expenses from cabinets to countertops, appliances and fixtures, labor, and all the tiny details in between. Cliq Studios offers a quick quote to give you a ballpark idea what a cabinets will cost. As I mentioned in this article on lessons learned from our most recent remodel, building in a 15-20% “unexpected expenses” cushion is wise. Also it’s my experience kitchen remodels always take twice as long as planned, so if you think it will be done in four months, plan for eight!

During a full kitchen remodel, the process generally goes in this order: 1) demolition, 2)  architectural changes and new drywall, 3) prep electrical in preparation for appliances/light fixtures (also gas line if moving gas appliances), 4) install flooring.

Once the scene is set then 4) install cabinets (I recommend professionally), 5) fabricator creates countertop template 6) connect plumbing 7) install countertops, 8) install sinks and appliances (again I recommend professionals), 9) trim cabinets, 10) install tile backsplash and hang open shelves (if any), 11) attach hardware.

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For those of you who have gone through a kitchen remodel, tell me what you wish you knew in the beginning that affected your renovation? What advice can you share based on your experience on where to begin when considering a kitchen remodel?

*This post is sponsored by Cliq Studios, all opinions are my own, see the kitchen designed with Cliq Studios cabinets here.


  1. Great list and ideas but I don’t see Marriage Counseling in that list! Almost got divorced in Home Depot over cabinet hardware. Much like childbirth…you eventually forget the pain and have a great product in the end.

  2. I second Kate….maybe this is why your SIL involved you ;) I remember thinking IKEA was Swedish for DIVORCE when we bought cabinets. LOL

  3. I have just completed a total reno/gut job in 4 weeks flat. Contractor told me 4 weeks, I was expecting 8 so I was not ready with the final touches (knobs, lights, etc)

    3 things that I would have done differently:
    a) be very very precise in where you want your electrical switches. I know it can be difficult as you have yet to live in the new space but now I must redo alot of switch :(
    b) have all your finishing touches ready… the hardest thing for me was my gooseneck kitchen sink light. I am not experienced with dimensions and it took me 3 tries to get it right/understand it. :( Same with knobs/pulls. There are a million to choose from as well as combination as well as placement! …I ended up ordering both online which added time/delayed the process.
    c) i have slide in oven, wish i went with cooktop with wall oven/micro built in. creates more of a custom look but I had a dang budget ! :(

    Just me 2 cents…. Can’t wait to see what you do with this space!

  4. Don’t forget the permit process. And this may require more detailed plans than you have. Just an aside: when I did my permit process, my contractor handed them the hand-drawn plans I had created (they were mostly to scale but certainly not an architect’s plans). The permits were approved.

    • That advice is worth its weight in gold Valarie, you will avoid a world of trouble following it. I love these ideas and will keep them in mind when we redo our kitchen. I will post the pictures of the project if anyone is interested.

  5. We went through a major remodel without a designer. While we were delighted with the final result, I was unaware of the immense decision fatigue we experienced. So. Many. Decisions. And since I cook, and my husband didn’t, I valued function over form, while he was all about the aesthetics. So those battles caught me off guard. I wish we’d discussed that going into the process, but we just didn’t know.

    Two things I was vaguely aware of, but didn’t completely understand their importance:

    Drawers. I read obsessively, and one thing that came up time and again was to put in as many drawers as possible. 85% of my lower cabinets are drawers, I wish I’d gone with more. Drawers beat doors any day. All of my most used pots and pans are in drawers, seasonal stuff is behind doors.

    Under cabinet lighting. My sister had gone through this, and one thing – the ONLY thing – she suggested was to put in under cabinet lighting. My husband thought this was any easy budget cut to make, but I held firm on this (but lost my prep sink!) and we’re both so glad I did. The difference when we turn on those lights is AMAZING! Really brings the kitchen to life.

  6. I am (hopefully) almost at the end of a kitchen “lipstick” job. They were supposed to be done in 4-6 weeks starting the second week of June. I got lots of great word of mouth recommendations on the contractor and the designer had worked with him before many times and had great things to say. He is no longer great. He is a lying, irresponsible, unprofessional jerk. All they needed to do was: paint cabinets, install new appliances, put up new backsplash and new lights, paint all walls, ceilings, moldings and doors. Here are the extra questions I would ask that I did not:
    1. How many jobs will you be doing while doing my job?
    2. What is the name of your best _____ guy? I want him on my job. Ask this about every single job you need done and then you or your designer write their names down and double check that that is who is doing each job.
    3. Make very sure that if other jobs interfere with your job that you are notified and given the option of what to do, instead of the contractor putting inferior people on your job.
    Can you tell how much I loathe my contractor? ?
    One of the little details we did was change out the vents covers. We got new ones from Pacific Register. Aesthetically, a huge improvement.

  7. I forgot to say that I highly recommend Maria Killam’s renovate with confidence webinar. I was utterly confident in my cabinet, trim and backsplash choices because of it. I wish I could take her True Colour Expert seminar in person, now that she is holding them in the States.

  8. Uggh. There’s just so many things to do. I’m now in doubt whether we’ll pursue our kitchen renovation next week. Maybe I need some keen planning. Thanks for the article!

  9. Backsplash, backsplash, backsplash — I STILL don’t have a backsplash, 4 years afer I built my home. Too many choisces and I can’t settle on any one thing. Wish I had a tip for that, but obvs, I’m in no position to give advice on this one . . . . .

    • Laura J…go with subway tiles for your backsplash in a color that compliments your counter. Sounds like you are making it too hard. Good luck

  10. We are within weeks of completing a total gut-job kitchen renovation where we have DIYed all design and labor except installing the quartz countertops. It has taken us MUCH longer than we anticipated. We thought it would take three or four months but we are now in month 10. It’s probably good we didn’t know or we may not have started. :) And we are now going to be sooo much more realistic in scheduling the rest of the projects in our house.

  11. Pick timeless, classic materials. Shaker cabinets, carrara marble, and white subway tile will never go out of style.

  12. Some great advice! My favorite design in a house is Kitchen or Bathroom I feel like really are the heart of the home and make a BIG difference when you truly find the one you love.

    Lauren Baxter | Lovely Decor

  13. We are just starting ours (once we can tie down a contractor, the hardest part!). I shopped many cabinet stores until I found one with professional designers, locally owned. I spent $300 to get them to design it (total gutjob), and it was the best money I’ve ever spent. They came up with ideas we had never considered, and the final plan is completely different than anything I imagined! They were awesome since we paid for their time, I feel like I have a comfort level I never would have had otherwise. Now…to settle on a contractor!

  14. I have the hardest time envisioning the best kitchen layouts. We’re going to do a back to the studs reno (insulation and the “house guests” that come with country living need to be remedied) in the next few years, so I’m gathering all of the advice I can.

  15. We are few weeks ??away of completion of kitchen remodel, we refinish the cabinets since they are in a good shape,they could be more functional interior wise but I can live with them:), we are happy with the company doing the job (countertop,backsplash, new sink, cabinets), however had to hire someone else
    for the floor otherwise would cost us TRIPLE (never understood why the difference) anyway it is a small kitchen, people would tell us how hard is to retile if you get someone who does it all the time! decided to
    go with reputable flooring company and the installer completely mess up!!! horrible installation, the tiles
    have a tremendous lippage that you trip on them….I have to say the company stood behind us and know that it is safety issue and they have to reinstall the tile BUT that was supposed to be done prior to
    cabinets, but they have to reorder tiles and meanwhile people from the kitchen company wants to finish
    the job, my husband got frustrated and said go ahead and schedule the painters for the cabinets, they
    almost done (don’t have a working kitchen for 2 wks so far) but now tile people have to come back to do the tile again and hope for the best that they don’t damage the paint job in the bottom cabinets !!
    I have not asked yet how long we should wait, honestly this week I just ok, whatever, tired of my temporary living room kitchen, buying food or microwave, getting stuff from the refrigerator that is in the garage…. i just keep saying…just..keep swimming….will get there….

  16. Kitchen remodels/updates can be extremely stressful. Planning ahead of time for everything, down to the tiniest detail will make the process go more smoothly. Will there be changes along the way? Absolutely, but hiring an experienced Kitchen Designer should be FIRST on your list. An NKBA Certified Kitchen Designer will help you understand the process, interview both of you for your wants, needs and vision for the space. We can mediate differences of opinions and draw the design with floor plans and perspectives to help you visualize the space. We can help you choose the details BEFORE you get started. Refacing, cabinet replacement with minor footprint changes, or a total gut and remodel are all options a Certified Kitchen Designer is experienced at helping clients with. Having plans in hand with a Scope of Work, will allow you to get an accurate bid from Contractors to compare. Also, depending on the jurisdiction, a stamp on your plans from an NKBA Certified Designer is acceptable for pulling a permit. has referrals for your area, as well as tips for homeowners on kitchen and bath remodels.

  17. We love our newly remodeled kitchen, and the contractor was pretty great. However, I wish we had installed outlets inside the pantry cabinets, and situated the microwave behind closed doors. This would have saved a bit of space, and improved the aesthetics.

  18. Thanks for publishing this article and also for all the helpful information by the commenters too! I am remodelling my kitchen next year and feeling out of my depth. I especially loved your order of steps – that was the bit I didn’t have a clue where to start from and how to proceed, as I’m not yet at the point where I am ready to hire someone to talk me through it.
    I am pinning this article for next year, but at least I know that I can get a builder through now to tell me if a couple of things I want to do are feasible and affordable :-)

  19. Great list of the beginnings of remodeling. You also have to remember the accents and decorations that you will have in there. You want to get a full scope of the project before starting it. If you check out our site, you can find plenty of decorative home decor.

    That last image of the white kitchen with the gray backsplash and green accents looks amazing. It is a great modern looking kitchen with plenty of functional space and storage.

  20. The first suggestion is the best, I think, because depending on the answer, one may save oneself a huge amount of angst and possible agony. Lucky for me, since I’m on and always will be on an extreme budget, I’m looking at a smaller reno plan. My kitchen is small but functional enough (and can’t really change footprint anyway) so I’ll be painting my oak cabinets, removing one light-blocking upper, getting new countertop/backsplash, new appliances as needed, new lighting fixtures (no cans), etc and, one day when my big boat comes in, new wood-look porcelain tile a la your Reno house throughout my open and busy #10 envelope tile/carpet/tile floor plan..

    Last image of the white kitchen w/gray backsplash and green accents is beautiful but what dingdong designer would put the microwave in the corner over a corner counter where only a basketball player could easily and safely reach to put heavy things in and take heavy, hot things out. And people think those of us who prefer the microwave over the range/cooktop are the dingdongs!

  21. My wife and I are considering a kitchen remodel, so I appreciate your straightforward tips. The tip that really stood out to me was the one about hiring the right professionals. I like that you said to ask around and see if others know of a good contractor. Do you know if there are contractors that specialize in renovations and are they better to use than a general contractor? Thanks for the info!

    • It just depends on the contractor Nathan, most do both I assume but I think there may be ones that specialize in new build v. renovation or vice versa.

  22. I really like your tip about making sure that you hire the right professionals when it comes to redoing your kitchen. We have been thinking about redoing our countertops for a while now and going with granite. Hopefully, we can find someone to work with the help with the whole process. We will be sure to keep these tips in mind, thanks for sharing!

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