Guidebook, Step Seven: Renovation Challenges

Leaking pipe

What happens when problems occur?

Step seven of the design process addresses some of the challenges you may face during your renovation. While most problems can be avoided through careful planning, all kitchen renovations are bound to uncover a surprise or two. Here are a few of the most common challenges faced in kitchen renovations, and some suggestions on how to minimize them through careful planning and fact-finding.

Design failures.

Everyone has stepped into a bad kitchen and thought, "Who designed this?" Some common mistakes made during the kitchen design process include:

  • Poor workflow. Kitchens are task-focused rooms, so designing for daily activities is essential. But even if the key access areas - sink, cook top, refrigerator - are properly placed, workflow can be hampered by poor positioning and scaling of other elements in the room. Sometimes, the desire for one feature can impair usability in other ways. A center island is a popular way to increase work space in the kitchen, but make an island too big and it's usefulness is diminished - the work surface can become too large to use effectively, and the island itself will become a cumbersome barrier to walk around. Overemphasizing the desire for "more work space" has resulted in a crowded kitchen with impaired workflow.
  • The wrong type of storage. Many kitchens don't need more storage; they need better storage. Without discussing your family's unique storage needs with your kitchen designer, you may end up with the wrong shelving and drawer configurations, or inefficient placement of essential cabinetry.
  • Cramped walkways. Putting too much or the wrong scale of cabinetry into a room can result in narrow work aisles. While your local building codes may allow for a narrow space between the range and other objects, remember that minimums are just that - the absolute minimum you should consider for your kitchen. Narrow aisles will cause "pile-ups" when more than one person in your family attempts to use the kitchen simultaneously.
  • Awkward or limited outlets and switches. Power outlets always seem to be at a premium in kitchens. Not only are we using them to power our coffee makers and mixers; we plug in our phones, laptops, radios, and dozens of other gadgets. Adding outlets is inexpensive, particularly while other electrical work is being performed, so make sure you have access to power everywhere you will want it. Frequently, kitchen renovation plans don't address how the flow of the space will change if cabinetry is being reconfigured. Remember that light switches may need to be moved for convenient access.

Understanding potential pitfalls will help you ask the right questions when putting together your custom design.

If you're working with a professional kitchen designer, you can be confident that he or she will protect you from these textbook design failures. Even still, entering into the process with an understanding of these potential pitfalls will help you ask the right questions when putting together your custom design.

Changing plans.

The old saying, "Hindsight is 20/20" applies to kitchen renovations as well. Many homeowners who didn't devote ample time to thinking through their requirements discover that they overlooked essential features during the planning phase. While some changes are easily and inexpensively incorporated into the plan, other alterations can be budget busters and add substantial time onto the project's duration.

The best way to minimize plan changes and "job creep" - where the scale of the project slowly grows to encompass more of your home - is to plan well in advance and plan thoroughly. Allow yourself time to make changes during the brainstorming phase. Remember that, after you start doing serious research on what you need and want for your kitchen, you are likely to find a multitude of sources for inspiration. That's great, but it does mean that what you thought you wanted when you started the planning process will not be exactly what you want by the time your G.C. pulls into your driveway to start work. Don't rush yourself, talk through the project with your designer and contractor, and be explicit with the details of your plan.

Unanticipated complications.

There's always the possibility of a surprise or two lurking inside the walls.

Your contractor thinks he or she knows your house, but there is always the possibility of a surprise or two lurking inside the walls. Depending on its vintage, there's a chance that your home includes outdated electrical wiring, decaying plumbing, or other hidden hazards. In some situations, licensed electricians and plumbers will demand that the problems be rectified to bring the room up to code. It's ultimately important for the safety of your family and reliability of your home, but this can bring added expenses and delays. Ideally, your contractor or the electrical and plumbing subcontractors he or she hires will have worked on other homes in your neighborhood and will know what to expect once they start pulling off the drywall.

Inaccurate bids.

While contractors strive to bring their projects to a close without going over budget, it does happen. Inaccurate bids are a frequent source of budgeting failures. Your contractor could potentially underestimate the number of hours required to complete a task, omit essential expenses, or build the numbers around less expensive parts than you had intended to use. While it can be difficult to spot these inaccuracies without firsthand experience on a renovation project, here are a few suggestions on how to double check when reviewing your contractor's proposed contract.

  • Underestimating hours. Labor costs comprise a substantial portion of any renovation project's budget. Talk to your contractor to get a handle on exactly who will be working on every phase of the project and how much time will be allotted. Ask if the bid is fixed. Should additional time be required to complete the project, find out how that would be billed and what allowances would be made for small overages. Ask your contractor to explain how you will differentiate between added hours of work due to changes you request and added hours due to workers simply exceeding the contract's estimates.
  • Omissions. Did your contractor neglect to include a few essential SharkBite valves for your sink's plumbing? While buying a $20 part here and there doesn't seem like much, the cost of these little omissions can add up. Ask your contractor if he or she has allocated some portion of the budget for oversights like this, as well as parts that may break during the renovation process. Hard costs are what they are, but you will be happier if you establish an allowance for some of these small expenses than run over budget.
  • Price discrepancies. Your contractor budgeted for a $200 faucet, but the one you want is closer to $500. Step through these line items together before finalizing your contract to ensure that you are setting realistic estimates for the cost of parts.

Quality issues.

It's in your G.C.'s best interests to fix any problems promptly.

Not every paint job is perfect. Newly installed plumbing can leak. Outlets can intermittently fail to function. Tile can be misaligned. While your general contractor likely came highly recommended, lapses in quality can happen. While problems like these can be upsetting, do your best to stay calm while addressing them. Remember that it's in your G.C.'s best interests to fix any problems promptly and ensure that you are completely satisfied. Review progress on a daily basis and take note of anything that seems wrong. Review any quality issues with your contractor or job site supervisor on at least a weekly basis so that they can be resolved while the appropriate crews are still on-site.

After the project is complete, go over the kitchen with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Review any remaining issues with your contractor to create a written "punch list." Coordinate a completion date for the resolution of any outstanding problems; your contractor will be eager to move on to his or her next job, and you'll be more than ready to start enjoying your beautiful new kitchen.

Not every kitchen renovation runs without snags, but keeping the above problems in mind will help you to establish a better plan, ensure you and your contractor are in total agreement, and make it easier to work through challenges without frustration should they occur.

Kitchen Design Process Guidebook:

  1. Understanding the Big Picture
  2. Defining the Project
  3. Identifying a Style
  4. Hiring a Kitchen Designer
  5. Making Informed Budget Decisions
  6. Dealing with Contractors
  7. Renovation Challenges

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