To reduce costs, Sherry and Joe Warsaw hired a carpenter to replace the doors of their kitchen cabinets.

Evy Mages, The Washington Post

Secrets of budget-friendly remodeling

  • Article by: DEBORAH K. DIETSCH
  • Washington Post
  • October 6, 2012 - 3:16 PM

Kitchen and bathroom renovations top the list of improvements for increasing the value of a home. But this labor-intensive remodeling can get expensive. Even without changing room layouts, the simple job of replacing finishes and fixtures can cost more than the price of a new car.

What builders call "pull and replace" remodeling can run $12,000 to $22,000 for the average 5-by-7-foot bathroom and $29,000 to $52,000 for a 12-by-12-foot kitchen, estimated Rick Matus of Bethesda, Md.-based Case Design/Remodeling Inc. "As soon as you start moving plumbing, electrical wiring and walls, the costs go up substantially from there," he said.

Budget-minded homeowners are finding solutions in the $10,000 to $20,000 range by making do with existing appliances and fixtures, refinishing kitchen cabinets and shopping for bargains. Some suppliers and builders, in turn, are responding to the recession-driven demand for cost-conscious kitchen and bath remodeling with package deals aimed at guaranteeing the costs of materials and labor.

"At first, there was no way I was going to spend $18,000 to $25,000 to remodel a bathroom," said Hannah Laufe, an attorney in Vienna, Va. "But to get what we wanted, my research showed that was the amount we needed to spend."

Laufe and her husband, Richard Miller, a teacher, decided to renovate the outdated master bathroom in their 1960s rambler. The couple tapped Case to remodel the space based on the firm's new renovation program. For $13,000 to $25,000, the company will demolish an existing space, remove lead paint if necessary, and install backer board and tile. New plumbing fixtures, vanity, towel bars, lighting and painting are included in the price.

Laufe and Miller had a choice of designs in contemporary, traditional and transitional styles, but within a narrow range of products. They chose a maple vanity with a granite countertop, a glass shower door and marble-look-alike porcelain tile on the floor and shower stall, spending about $20,000 on the project. "It took less than two weeks to complete," Laufe said.

Partial makeover

Management consultant Cope Willis and his wife, Sophie, spent about $9,000 to partially remodel their bathroom. They kept the existing toilet and pedestal sink, and hired a handyman to install a new bathtub and finishes. "We worked within the existing constraints of the bathroom to keep costs down," Cope said.

New subway-style tile around the tub, marble tiles on the floor and beadboard wainscoting create a clean, traditional look in keeping with the character of the couple's 1938 Colonial.

Most of the renovation dollars were spent on the installation -- about $6,000. Budgeting that amount is realistic, according to several experts who say labor accounts for 60 to 70 percent of bathroom remodeling costs.

"To save money, do as much as you can, like installing the toilet and doing the painting," said Dominic Piccininni, senior director in merchandising for Home Depot, which offers free DIY workshops on bathroom repairs.

Matus recommends using leftover remnants of granite for vanity tops instead of ordering an entire slab.

"But don't scrimp on faucets," he said. "The big-box stores typically sell faucets with plastic cartridges, not metal, that don't last very long. You don't want a leaky faucet after two years."

Applying large tiles on floors and walls is another way to save money. "With 12-by-12-inch tiles, you have less grout lines and labor costs, and they can make a room appear larger," said Mina Fies, chief executive of Synergy Design & Construction in Reston, Va.

Instead of replacing a tub or a shower stall, Piccininni recommends installing glass doors to create a fresh look and reduce costs. "If your plumbing is all good, you could do your whole bathroom yourself with a new shower head, toilet, vanity, sink and light fixture for under $1,000," he said.

But even an experienced DIYer may not have the expertise to update a bathroom in an older home. "If the house has galvanized water pipes that are in bad shape and need to be changed to copper, that will require plumbing skills," said architect Bruce Wentworth of the Wentworth Studio in Chevy Chase, Md.

Moving adds cost

Kitchen remodeling costs less when major fixtures are swapped out rather than moved to new locations. For a typical kitchen, about 12 by 12 feet, a budget of around $13,000 will allow a builder to install new countertops, backsplash, sink and faucet, hardware and lighting, according to Matus.

But it won't pay for cabinets or appliances, he said. "Plan to spend another $16,000 on cabinets and $7,500 on appliances for an average kitchen."

Few kitchen designers will consider a makeover for less than $20,000. But Savena Doychinov, of Design Studio International in Falls Church, Va., is trying to make that budget work in a condo kitchen by leaving the refrigerator and flooring in place and using stock rather than custom cabinets.

The cheapest and easiest part of a kitchen overhaul, the designer said, is changing the countertops. She recommends plastic laminates over granite to save costs. "They have come a long way in design," she said. "They now look like stone and are very durable."

Saving on cabinets

Experts agree that the biggest expense in remodeling a kitchen -- about 35 percent of the overall renovation costs -- is replacing storage with new cabinets and drawers.

To reduce costs, Maryland homeowners Sherry and Joe Warsaw hired carpenter Mike Van Meer of Van-Walker Woodworking to replace the doors of their 1990s kitchen cabinets with more contemporary white oak veneer.

"The cabinets were in good shape except for their hinges and faded color. Buying all new cabinets would have cost us three times as much as the new doors," Sherry said. The retired couple spent about $11,000 for the woodworking.

Replacing or refacing doors is easiest and most cost-effective for frameless cabinets, commonly called European-style. The doors are sized so they fit over and conceal the edges of the cabinet box. "You can just replace the door and the hardware," said Van Meer.

More standard American cabinets feature a frame around the opening of the box that is used to secure the door to the cabinet. Because this frame is visible, it has to be refaced along with the door.

Don't have the money to replace or reface old cabinets? Van Meer recommends buying new door handles. "Little things like changing the hardware can give you a new look."

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