Kitchens Lite

Yes, the housing slump has hit the kitchen industry hard, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. A lot of business is still out there, and savvy kitchen designers and dealers can take advantage of this by rethinking how and with whom they do business.

Consider the following: Nationally, kitchen remodeling came in at $96.2 billion in 2007, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, which is a 24.3% downturn from 2006…yet some 7.6 million kitchens were actually remodeled last year, and that’s an increase of circa 200,000.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this means fewer dollars were spent per kitchen. In fact, kitchens costing under $20,000 increased by 10% last year, according to NKBA. And who better to handle these jobs than kitchen designers looking to grow their businesses?

Sure, these smaller jobs may not seem to be the typical kitchen designer’s clientele, but the uptick in “mini remodels,” or kitchen “refreshening” projects, is actually a great opportunity for savvy kitchen dealers and designers who want to bring in some extra profits – without committing to multi-month projects. After all, while high-end jobs may be a firm’s bread and butter, there’s no reason that kitchen professionals can’t supplement those A-to-Z super luxury projects with some smaller kitchen mini-remodels to keep cash flow steady and fill the gaps between larger jobs.

In fact, offering kitchen “refreshening” services comes with some great advantages. The jobs take less time, and therefore can be more easily slotted in between – or even during – larger jobs. Customers who do between-remodeling “mini upgrades” may well be back at your showroom in a few years’ time when they’re ready to do a complete kitchen or bath remodel.

Whether it’s a simple countertop replacement, an upgrade on hardware and lighting, upgraded appliances, a new glass tile backsplash or a mini remodel to create a “greener” kitchen, the little things can add up. As a result, kitchen dealers and designers can take advantage of the changing economy by adding a “kitchens lite” niche to their business offerings.

Kitchen on a Diet

“I don’t mean to be flip, but the kitchen has obviously gone on a diet,” says Thelen Blum of North Arrow Designs, a San Jose, CA design firm popular with Silicon Valley homeowners who appreciate creative kitchens. “During the boom, people could count on recouping almost all of the costs of a kitchen remodel, but now, people aren’t confident. So they hesitate to plunk down major sums on a new kitchen. On the other hand, they want to do some remodeling to retain resale value and make the house easier to sell when it’s time.”

Indeed, a “mini remodel,” such as replacing the kitchen counters or cabinet fronts, still recouped some 83% of its value in 2007 compared to only 78% for a high-end remodel, according to the latest reports.

However, aren’t those current recouped values still exceptional compared to those of other home remodeling projects?

“Absolutely,” says Elaine Mikk of Cabinet Discounters in Maryland and Virginia. “Homeowners do realize that, just as they are well aware that the way a kitchen looks and functions can make or break the sale of a house. Both are great reasons to remodel their kitchens.”

She continues: “In tougher economic times, you have to approach clients’ projects in a creative and pragmatic manner, but if you do that, there is plenty of business out there. In fact, [as a result of doing just that], our business enjoyed an upturn in the first quarter of 2008.”

While handling less expensive jobs may seem counter-intuitive for design professionals who may have spent many years building a high-end following, this isn’t necessarily the case. Designers explain that upscale consumers will often decide to do a “kitchen refreshening” between remodels to keep their kitchen looking updated or add some luxury amenities. Additionally, high-end consumers looking to sell their homes often do mini remodels on their kitchens to maximize the home’s salability, and then invest the big dollars in their new home’s kitchen instead.

Providing a positive, service-oriented remodeling experience to younger, less-affluent consumers on a budget can also pay off down the road as they gain disposable income and begin to move into the luxury realm.

Stretching the Budget

So what can you do when money is tight? Both Mikk and Blum believe that you can absolutely give a kitchen a new lease on life on almost any budget, and this is one of the messages that Mikk transmits to an eager audience tuning in to her radio show at WMAL-AM in Washington, DC. There, she talks about all of the elements that go into a kitchen, paying a lot of attention to budget.

“At Cabinet Discounters, we start every project with three components,” she explains. “They are: ‘refresh, replace and remodel,’ and we may apply one, two or all three when we are asked for a kitchen makeover.”

If it’s a question of refreshing a kitchen, replacing the cabinet hardware and the lighting can do a lot,” she says. “Let us say the new hardware is chrome. Then put in a new faucet to match and also new lighting featuring that same finish. You’d be surprised how those few changes will update a kitchen.”

Blum notes that something as simple as a new backsplash can do wonders. “Recently, I had a client who wanted to keep the existing cabinets and stainless steel appliances, but wanted to freshen up the room. We found a great deal on a caramel-colored solid-surface countertop, put in a new faucet and a backsplash of glass tile. This backsplash gave the entire space a luxurious look. Remember, a backsplash usually requires minimal material and yet it is a very visible area, so this is an excellent place to splurge.”

She also states that a new floor can be an incredible improvement in updating a kitchen’s look, and in situations where money is tight, she likes porcelain tile, especially when it mimics stone products. She also cites cork and bamboo as choices that are both attractive and environmentally friendly, giving them dual appeal with clients.

To save her clients money, Blum says she often looks for samples from lumberyards.

Another money-saving idea from Blum is to specify a commercial product instead of a residential one. She explains: “Many of these products are cheaper than those intended for residential use, but they work just as well in a home.”

When dealing with budget-conscious clients, she offers tips for saving on appliances: “Every client doesn’t need the super-luxe brand appliance,” she notes, explaining that while high-end appliances offer great benefits, some clients who are working with a tighter budget can find mid-range brands that will meet their needs, both functionally and aesthetically. She also suggests designers seek out bargains for clients who have limited money to spend. “For example, an appliance with a dent on the side or the back will be discounted, and if the dent can’t be seen, what difference does it make?” she says.

Will Gowdy, a designer in Cabinet Dicsounters’ Springfield, VA, store, has another idea for adding extra design bang to a space – without the big buck cost. He notes: “Often, I encounter kitchens with a low suspended ceiling and an oppressive fluorescent light grid. When you break through, you may well find a nice pop-up ceiling above, and it’s already dry-walled.

This is an inexpensive, but dramatic, transformation. A little skimming and changing the existing fixtures is all it takes [to get a great new look]. Sometimes we run into a pipe, which we conceal with angled sides to produce a tray ceiling. Building the angled soffits does require more work, but here again, the result is amazing, and the homeowners always love it.”

Gowdy notes that it also helps if you can design in some upgrades without shaking up the layout too much. “It saves a ton of money if you stick with the original footprint and electrical and plumbing systems can stay the same,” he states.

Counters Count

As one of the most visible kitchen elements, countertops are always important, but never more than when money is tight.
“A scarred, outdated countertop can make an otherwise acceptable kitchen look hopeless,” insists Blum. “Replace it with something fabulous, and suddenly the kitchen shines.”

While natural stone remains in high demand among consumers, natural stone doesn’t have to translate to big expenses.

Indeed, Blum claims there are even bargains in granite, which was once viewed as cost prohibitive to those on a tight budget. This is especially true in the cases where the counter space is limited.

As she explains: “If you take the time to go to different yards, you can find pre-cut slabs of granite, marble and other stones. Some suppliers even manufacture slabs in 2'x8' sizes. The savings in pre-cuts are substantial – I’d say from 30% to 50%. Plus, there’s no waiting time.”

Not surprisingly, among budget-conscious clientele, laminates are doing extremely well, not just because of their lower prices, but also because manufacturers have improved the product. Some designs boast fissured and mottled surfaces that designers say mimic granite and other stone products so well, you have to get within inches to detect the difference. Others borrow the shine of metals, and still others come in pearlized finishes or go retro.

According to NKBA, the use of laminates was up 31.6% in 2007, and granite increased by 28.9%. Solid surfacing was next in line with a 15.5% upturn.

What all of that translates to is more choices for consumers, in a wide variety of price ranges.

Color Changes

Many designers advocate color changes to freshen up a kitchen.

“It can be as simple as changing the wall color,” says Blum, “although I have been known to paint cabinets as long as they are solid and in good shape. I especially like faux painting, but I must emphasize that this only works if the painter is truly expert. Recently I chose a Wenge finish on existing cabinetry, blending blacks and browns in three layers. It looked amazing.”

Zack Simmons, one of the owners of CKS Kitchens, in Durham, NC, tells of using brick red, olive and blue-green stains
on maple upper cabinets.

“It certainly woke up the kitchen,” he says, “but I probably would never have chosen those colors if the owner hadn’t been artistic and bold. The normal rule is to go neutral, especially for elements that have to last a long time, and in case resale is in the home’s near future.”

Mikk notes that she uses a lot of oatmeal, creamy whites and other neutrals. “They are calm and long-lasting,” she says, “and they won’t offend prospective buyers if the homeowner is updating in order to make the house competitive.”

Cabinet Strategies

Designers suggested numerous strategies to minimize the cost of cabinetry when financial constraints are an issue, whether it’s painting existing cabinetry, going with more simple, streamlined styles or putting off some of the interior fittings for the next “mini-remodel.”

Gowdy notes, “When it comes to new cabinetry, it’s less expensive to go with a simple, classic cabinet, a Shaker style, for example. Leaving some of the more expensive interior fittings to a later date is another way to save.”

Conversely, for those clients who already have cabinets they’re happy with aesthetically, but want to add functional value, interior fittings that provide greater accessibility are often a great addition.

Resurfacing or replacing cabinet doors and drawers are budget-busting strategies, as well, which might explain why is booming. Dave Hare, who heads up the Amherst, NY-based company, points out that older cabinets – say from the ’70s – are often so well built that replacing them at the same quality level would be cost prohibitive for some clients. In those cases, it makes great sense to simply refurbish them. The savings over installing new cabinets can be as much as 70%, he states.

Working both directly with homeowners and contractors, offers virtually all wood species.
“We can take a homely, old-fashioned pine cabinet and convert it to luxurious mahogany,” he says, “but the most popular finishes are maple and oak. Once people see how gorgeous their new-old cabinets look, they also want new countertops.”

Of course not everybody is anxious to serve budget customers. Chris Murphy of Topknotch in Roseland, NJ, belongs in this category. “I am not an advocate of quick fixes,” he says, “but I don’t mind if people do a remodel in stages if they start out with a solid plan – and follow it. I have been in business for 31 years, and I have been through this before. Once the economic weather is up, there’ll be a pent-up demand and business will return to normal.”

However, until then, firms like North Arrow, Cabinet Discounters, CKS Kitchens and RefaceDepot will be pleased to design kitchens, whatever diet they’re on.