Replace or Reface

In a recent survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers by New York-based management consulting firm Booz & Co. Inc., 55 percent of respondents said they would rather get the best price than the best brand. Designers and dealers in all remodeling arenas are recognizing this new consumer finds saving more satisfying than spending, so they must offer a range of solutions to cater to this customer.

“Pricing is always an issue, but today it seems more critical to the average homeowner,” says Barry Tuttle, president of Absolute Kitchen and Bath Marketplace LLC, Surry, Maine.

The cost of cabinets can be a pricey line item and, therefore, a determining factor in a buyer’s decision. When customers ask for advice about cabinetry, Tuttle encourages them to focus on durability rather than cost. “It is folly to save $1,000 today, only to be forced to remodel again in five years,” he says. “Working with a talented and honest designer can often save a homeowner from making mistakes and, in the long run, save him or her thousands of dollars.”

To meet a wide range of remodeling budgets, the cabinet industry provides a number of solutions within stock and custom cabinetry. In addition, homeowners may choose to reface existing cabinets.

Custom vs. Stock

Dennis Gehman, president of Gehman Design Remodeling, Harleysville, Pa., says since 2009 his customers are far more concerned with price. To meet customer budget criteria, he recommends stock cabinets as a smart alternative to custom. He says stock cabinets can offer many of the features found in custom cabinetry.

“Many clients wouldn’t know the difference between custom and stock,” Gehman says. “A good designer and true craftsman installer can work as a team with stock cabinets and make them look really good.” To customize a stock cabinet, Gehman recommends adding amenities, like drawer inserts, Lazy Susans and spice storage.

“Selection is part of design and only the client knows for sure what they like or don’t like,” Gehman adds. “The biggest challenge is that some clients aren’t sure whether they’ll like it until after everything has been installed. A good designer will ask questions, show photos of finished cabinets, and use door samples to find out what the client likes and doesn’t like.”

“Custom cabinets are built to order and not necessarily built better than what you might find labeled stock or semi-custom,” Tuttle explains. “I prefer to design a quality kitchen with a budget in mind. There are many ways to create a personal touch without adding a large expense.”

To create an economical personal touch, Tuttle suggests adding details, such as baseboard mouldings with toe cutouts instead of the traditional toe kick on the base cabinets. This treatment is a minor investment that adds considerable visual appeal.

“Most homeowners are looking for something timeless, durable and affordable,” Tuttle says. “The days of heavy-carved detail and ornamentation have given way to simpler concepts that will live on.” Tuttle has seen an increased interest in cabinets with traditional styling, such as inset doors and drawers.

Although low-priced cabinets may seem appealing to budget-conscious homeowners, the cabinets probably will not have the lifespan of better-quality products because low-priced cabinets tend to be built from particleboard or plywood. A remodeler should consider advising homeowners that most cabinet dealers offer good, better and best product categories with pricing that varies according to design and material.

“Some homeowners make a poor choice and purchase low-quality goods,” Tuttle remarks. “Remodeling is the time to improve the quality of life and market value of the home.” When working with cabinets, Tuttle recommends conducting a thorough interview with clients to determine their goals, likes and dislikes, as well as establish a workable budget.

“With that information, I might make recommendations like adding storage organizers and lighting, increasing counterspace and resale value, and creating a space that won’t go out of fashion,” Tuttle explains. “Remodeling is a great time to set things right.”

Refacing

Refacing allows the customer to change his or her cabinets’ appearance without completing an extensive and costly renovation. Regardless of how the exterior of the cabinets look, refacing can give the customer nearly endless design options.

The modern refacing process also is less intrusive to the customer’s daily life than ripping out and replacing cabinetry. “If you replace the kitchen cabinets, you won’t be using the kitchen for at least a week and a half,” advises Sam Stoltzfus, president and owner of Lancaster, Pa.-based Keystone Wood Specialties. “If you reface, you can keep using the kitchen.”

To determine whether refacing is an option, a remodeler must open the cabinets and examine the interior. If the structural quality is good and the customer simply wants a new exterior look, the cabinetry is a good candidate for refacing. For a complete updating of the cabinets, only the main box of the cabinets is kept. Doors and drawer fronts are removed and discarded and, if drawers are faulty, they also can be replaced.

The customer and designer select the door style and matching veneer desired. Because only the original box is kept, the customer can choose any design, regardless of the original pattern. After scuffing the original finish, wood veneer is applied on the stiles, rails and sides of the cabinets. Then new doors and drawer fronts are installed.

New knobs, drawer pulls and hinges offer an added wow factor to the refaced cabinets. Under-cabinet, low-voltage lighting also adds a dramatic design element. Modern, efficient shelving and storage options, like pullout shelves and knife holders, also can enhance the customer’s appreciation of refaced cabinets. If the customer needs a slight alternation, such as removing an out-of-date trash compactor, the cabinet dealer often can provide a one-off cabinet that matches the new style and fits the open space.

Stoltzfus estimates refacing is approximately one-half to one-third the cost of new cabinetry, depending on product choices. However, it isn’t an option in every remodel. For example, when customers update countertops, structural integrity is an important consideration. Ellie Baker, interior designer and owner of Kenmore, Wash.-based Soleil by Design, cautions, “If you’re going to put granite slab on the cabinet, you may need to add additional support because the cabinets may not have originally been built to support that weight.”

Whether a customer wants a mere kitchen spruce-up or a complete renovation, budget will be a strong determining factor when it comes to choosing cabinetry. Fortunately, a wide range of cabinet products exists to provide even the most frugal consumer with a dazzling look.

Harry Spaulding writes from Boston about construction and construction materials.

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