Monday, March 25, 2013

Skip the general contractor when installing a new kitchen


If you read the title and thought, "What? You can DO that?' Boy, do I have a story for you!

A little about our white shaker style kitchen:
 - it was designed by an architect
 - custom cabinets, oversized doors
 - installed in 2008
 - in sad shape today: dings and faded paint and gouges and water damage and drawers that slide out when kids run by

Over the weekend, our kitchen guy came over to listen to my complaints. He explained the situation to me. Simply put,

"You get what you pay for"

Our contractor negotiated and squeezed the kitchen installer. The contractor insisted on a kitchen for X price. So we have MDF doors (without a melamine backing) and a laquer finish. There are three problems with the quality:

1 - The edges of the mdf shaker doors are sharp, so paint doesn't really stick. Over time, the process of keeping the doors clean (dirt collects in the shaker detail at the bottom), is wearing away the finish.

2 - A laquer finish is not as strong as Polyurethane. Poly would have cost $6-7k more. The kitchen installer recommends to all his clients with children to invest in the poly finish. We didn't have children at the time...

3 - Melamine backing would have enhanced the durability. Our doors aren't warping or anything, so neglecting this detail has not hurt us... yet?

At the time, we were completely unaware of our options. The price we paid for the kitchen seemed awfully expensive to us. I am not sure what mark up padded the numbers.

If we had dealt directly with the kitchen installer, we might have understood our options, and what we were getting for what price. Plus the entire kitchen budget would have been allocated towards the quality of the cabinets.

As it stands, our kitchen could use a new coat of paint. Going poly will require new doors. Ironic, I know, but we still aren't choosing to invest that much in our kitchen. We can buy another 5 years with a few coats of laquer (and two new doors where there is water damage) for a reasonable price. The kitchen guy suggested I go back to the contractor to discuss it. I left a voice mail for the contractor.

We have two other options: Shop around for other painting quotes, or DIY.  Let me know what you think of going the DIY route? I would be doing it by myself. Do you think roller marks vs spray would lessen the percieved value of the doors?

Anyways, the moral of this very long blog post is:
- work with a kitchen installer directly, cut out the general contractor. Call me if you want a referral, I trust our guy, we were just clueless 5 years ago. Of course your contractor doesn't WANT you to do this!
- Invest in your doors!

ps. I feel like this was our dirty little secret. I don't like to complain about our home. I am still in love with it! I really want to maintain it! Maybe this is not realistic when you have kids? I never thought a custom kitchen would be in the pooper after 5 years. If we decide to do nothing, just let it erode (also an option) we will invest in new doors when these finally go. Actually, that's why DIY is appealing, it's a patch until we are ready to invest in the house again.
pps. how is your latest reno holding up? 
ppps. there is no shady blog-related you-scratch-my-back-I-will-scratch-yours conversation going on behind the scenes. I would use this cabinet maker again, if we ever renovate again. We were overwhelmed the first time around. Renovations are not for the meek


  1. Giulia@audrey74.comMarch 25, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    We were lucky that our kitchen was done before we bought the house and that it was done properly. It might not be my first choice (I'd prefer white to the wood), but it's custom cabinetry. Solid wood doors and drawers (with dovetail finish), Cabinets that go ALL the way up to the ceiling, custom pantry. Everything is holding up really well, no scratches, no dings, nothing. The only thing we had to do is reattach the door to the cabinet where we added a slide out garbage can - but that's because we kept sliding the garbage pail back with the door, which was hitting the bracket. The only thing I wish they had done better/different its the granite counter. I wish it wasn't black and there are two chips and a bad seam - that might be our next investment - lighter counters, which would make the wood feel lighter as well.
    I can see your point with contractors - they try and get the lowest price and then they can make the money by being the middle man.
    Good luck! I would get it sprayed because you'd have to sand, and then paint and I think that would just be too much work.

  2. Oh man... that sucks! We went with an Ikea kitchen a year and a half ago, and did it all ourselves. It's still in good condition, but sometimes I wish we'd used a 'kitchen guy' in order to figure out the best possible design for our small space. I'll admit, the idea of a contractor kind of freaks me out in general, because I've heard so many stories like this. Good luck figuring out your solution! I don't have any more suggestions, but if it helps at all, your kitchen still looks good to me, as long as you don't look too closely!

  3. oh man. I'd get some quotes to have the doors sprayed. Painting cabinets is sosososososososo time consuming and the brush marks might really bother you (and a potential buyer). Alternatively you could rent a paint sprayer and spray them yourself which would be cheaper, but you would have to have a devoted space to hang them and do the spraying.
    We didn't spend a ton of money on our kitchen reno because this isn't our forever house and we didn't want to over improve for the value of the house. Is this house your forever house? That's always the question I ask myself when we are about to throw a lot of money at the house.

  4. I know this look isn't for everybody but I've done my last two kitchens in stainless with glass front windows and stone countertops. My contractor hooked me up with a guy who does commercial kitchens for restaurants. It's indestructible and beautiful, and custom (made to measure, high quality hardware, etc) and WAY less expensive than wood or melamine cabinets. I was very surprised by this. Those composite material kitchen cabinets are a rip-off. In the case of your cabinet doors, I'd remove all the fronts myself and take them to someone who can spray them for you and then reinstall them myself. Good luck!

  5. I would suggest getting a couple more quotes just to see what your options are.

    I'm definitely no expert but have done a fair bit of research on furniture finishes... What kind of lacquer did your kitchen guy use? There is a difference between regular lacquer, acrylic lacquer and catalyzed lacquer for example. The catalyzed lacquer is more durable, though less durable than an oil-based poly, but also more easily repaired than polyurethane. For white cabinets you'd want to use a water-based poly, as the oil-based kind tends to yellow, but you'd lose some of the durability that an oil-based poly would offer.

    Also, from my understanding the edges of MDF doors need to be sealed carefully before finishing, otherwise you get that peeling problem.

    But again, I'm not expert, so I still recommend getting a second opinion from another cabinet maker or furniture refinisher.

  6. DIY it yourselves ... check out Young House Love blog for details on how easy it really is (

  7. I agree with the contractor advice. And not just for kitchens - for everything. If a homeowner doesn't have the time or inclination to oversee a project than contractors are good but otherwise it is best to be informed and deal directly with suppliers. In terms of the cabinets, i'd price out quotes on getting the doors professionally sprayed. Its a lot of fuss and mess painting cupboards.

  8. I met with a contractor who said, up front, that he doesn't do any house painting, he puts you in touch with his painter and you deal directly. Not many contractors are willing to give you a referral to one of their trades! In fact, they make a million excuses why they can't do a job if you try to take over some of the project...but, you can't let that stop you...

  9. you are brilliant! thanks for this!!

  10. I would like to see this! I picture open shelving, stainless, but I can't picture the doors!! Sounds amazing!

    Removing them ourselves is a great tip! duh!

  11. hmmm, I don't trust myself with a sprayer!

    I want this to be our forever house, but I am not sure how we will feel when we have two teenage giants living with us!!! We have big kids!

  12. Yah, I love my layout and design, its just the wear and tear!

  13. Ohh..that's tough, it would be hard to scrap granite!

  14. I read your post and while I feel your pain, I feel relieved that we are not the only ones going through this... The same exact things are happening to our kitchen cabinets, installed in 2009!:(

  15. I second this - would love to see photos Caitlin!

  16. Here is a post that is about caulking the tile in my kitchen that also shows some of the cabinetry. The glass fronts are all the way on the end and on all the cabinets on the other side of the island. Makes me think I need to do a post specifically about getting stainless cabinets made!!

  17. We are poised to do our kitchen next year and this is the wisest advice - I will go look at cabinets now better informed. Thank you.

  18. It would be worthwhile to hire general contractor that you can trust.

  19. I've followed you through your every step of your renovation and now that we have submitted plans to the permit office, I am torn about going with a GC or without. Would love to know who your kitchen installer was! Can you share it?

  20. we used lancraft for the cabinets.

    we are doing another reno with a contractor we trust. he also quoted us to change out all the kitchen doors to maple and repaint the kitchen. We are holding off for now but he will come back one winter to set us straight.

    if you know enough trades, or you are willing to wait, i think you can forgo the general really have to be organized and determined and willing to put up with shit ...

    of course even with a contractor there is a lot of BS...

    but anyways, we are going to use our third general contractor, despite the headsaches and annoyances

  21. Will you share the GC??? You can email me privately if you wish.

  22. It will do you no good! he only works with clients he has a relationship with! and he mostly doed entire houses, our job is small but this year he has an opening for a bunch of reasons...