This article is part of our latest special report on Design, which is about getting personal with customization.
All happy kitchen renovations are alike — and they live mostly in our dreams. “The existing space is tight and usually comes with restrictions,” said Sami Haxhija, a contractor in New York City, ticking off the difficulties. “You have unmovable and unleveled walls, pipes, gas lines and electrical work that often need to be relocated and upgraded according to new codes, and areas where only custom millwork will fit.”
A decade ago, when I bought an apartment on the Upper East Side that looked like it hadn’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration, I fearlessly set about modernizing the 95-square-foot kitchen. I thought I knew all the rules: arrange appliances in a triangle for easy choreography; build a mock island to make sure it’s the right size; specify three kinds of lighting: overhead, spot and accent.
Ultimately, the job involved three contractors and more mistakes than I thought possible. All the while I asked myself: How do you know what you don’t know? And why doesn’t anyone truly guide you through this horrific process.
Bolstered by expert advice, here are some lessons I learned along the painful, exhausting, disappointing and finally happily completed way.
Don’t take a contractor’s previous work at face value. When my first contractor led me through an apartment that he said he was responsible for renovating, the owner wasn’t present. Who is to say all the work was his? Perhaps he just painted. “See at least three or four examples of a contractor’s work that you will specifically be hiring him for, especially when the owner is home,” Mr. Haxhija advised. “If you’re doing a kitchen and he only shows you bathrooms,” that’s a concern. “If he says the owners are away or not available to speak to, that’s another.”
Don’t go it alone. My first contractor hired the designer and millworker. “Never hand everything over to one contractor. Hire a professional kitchen designer who will design your kitchen, bring you samples and explain everything to you,” said Hilary Farr, an interior designer and co-host of the television series “Love It or List It.” The designer is “there to navigate the process and be the liaison between you, the general contractor and his trades, with your interests solely as a priority.”
A signed contract is not enough. Nate Berkus, the interior designer and author, recommends that you ask the contractor for a list of “every single decision you will need to make, and the names and contact information of the vendors, electrician and plumber they’ll be using. Then research them.” You should also request a timeline, schedule and list of items that won’t be allowed in your building. “If you live in a high rise you probably can’t have a gas stove,” Mr. Berkus noted. “You should receive these before you hand over a check.”
Design for you. I’m a minimalist who rarely cooks. My first contractor insisted that additional cabinets and a hood over my stove were crucial for resale. I’m glad I stood my ground and didn’t sacrifice the clean, nonclaustrophobic look I wanted. The next owners, who may or may not be cookware hoarders, can easily build storage.
Don’t forget the samples. Take home samples of everything you ordered from specific lots so you can make sure the items you ultimately receive are a match.
Stick to one appliance brand. This creates visual consistency, and if something breaks, an authorized repair person from the company can fix what’s broken while assessing the rest of your machines.
Make sure the appliances are a standard-enough size. If you build your customized cabinets around, say, an ultranarrow refrigerator, and the appliance dies, you will want to be sure the space can accommodate a replacement. Mine does not.
Know who’s installing the cabinets. The installation should be done by a representative of the manufacturer, whether it’s an IKEA installer, or a millworker employed by your contractor whose work you had an opportunity to see. The two subcontractors who installed my cabinets had nothing to do with their fabrication and thus made a hash of the job. They cut an important wall panel too short and used a wrong color piece of wood to correct the problem, later denying that there was any problem at all. Ultimately my third contractor painted the cabinet for a seamless match.
Cardboard should not be used to align a backsplash. Which is how my second contractor’s lead guy decided to proceed. The cardboard, which was sitting on the counter, wedged under the backsplash, couldn’t be removed. The entire backsplash had to be chopped out and replaced.
“You may have to halt the project if you instinctively know something isn’t right,” said Bryan Sebring, owner of Sebring Design Build outside of Chicago. “Go online and research how a backsplash should be done. Watch YouTube videos. Bring in a second opinion after they have left for the day to assess the project.”
Ask for a preview. When the kitchen tiles were laid, the grout color I chose was not what appeared on the floor after it dried. Oh right, the contractor said. The colors on the package and in-store sample are often misleading. If he had done a patch test with a few tiles and let me see the dried version first, we wouldn’t have wasted days scraping out the first color and re-grouting the entire floor.
Inspect everything nightly, especially things you can’t easily see. One morning I woke to find an inch of water covering the newly tiled floor and spilling into my office. The subcontractor had neglected to fully turn off the valve of a pipe that hadn’t been attached to a sink. It was being used to supply water for the crew and slowly leaked all night. Part of the office floor had to be replaced along with many pieces of now-warped customized cabinets. Another tip: Place water alarms by all unfinished piping.
Take photographs and videos in real time. When my (second) granite countertop was mounted (the first had arrived damaged), the installers took two small chunks out of my freshly plastered and painted walls and deeply scratched the new appliances. If I hadn’t documented this while it was happening, I would not have had the evidence that let me be reimbursed for the ruined work.
Ask for what you need as soon as you figure it out. When the new countertop arrived, the installers used white caulking, which contrasted with the black granite surface and my now-warm-gray walls. I asked if they had another color that would blend better and was told yes, just not with them that day.
Painting should come last. Start with a sample test; your wall color may look different once your lighting has been installed. This also gives the team time to clean and let dust settle before applying final coats. It sounds like common sense, but if the correct steps had been observed, my paint probably would not have peeled off the walls.
No one will ever be as passionate about the project as you. I thought I was being specific; my contractors and their teams considered me difficult and controlling. They insisted I was in the way and making the process take longer. Don’t let anyone talk you out of being present, or making sure your vision is being executed correctly. That is your right.