Sometimes, It Doesn’t Pay to Cut Corners

Before jumping into a remodeling project, it’s important to set some parameters, and to cover your expectations with a quality designer. There are temptations to save money and time, but doing things the right way brings a sure-fire payoff.

So, you’re ready to remodel. You want something that looks nice but won’t break the bank. And, chances are you want the job completed within a certain timeframe. But starting out, it’s hard to know what’s even possible.

There’s a conventional wisdom in the remodeling industry that suggests clients want three things: they want the job done in a certain timeline and within a certain price point, while upholding a high quality standard – but they can’t have it all. Or can they?

“You can definitely have quality at a reasonable price,” says Brian Hogan, owner of Hogan Design & Construction (HDC) in Geneva. “It’s all about design. If you talk to someone and you set expectations upfront about budget and what you’re thinking, there are quality options at almost all price points.”

Many a homeowner finds it tempting to cut corners – maybe they source materials themselves or hire an outside contractor and do a little DIY. In some cases, that’s OK, say local kitchen and bath designers, but there are certain areas where a solid investment makes all the difference.

Those homeowners who are willing to make smart decisions during their remodel reap huge rewards when they avoid the temptation to cut corners.

“We like to balance the reality of expected costs with how it relates to project scope very early in the remodeling process,” says Christine Jurs, co-owner with husband Todd of Advance Design Studio, in Gilberts. “We’re talking about how to get the best value for the investment, and that’s how we approach the conversation with our clients.”

(Blue Ribbon Millwork photo)

Hire the Right Help

There’s a temptation for some homeowners to save money by designing their own kitchen or playing general contractor on a project. The results don’t always turn out as anticipated.

“I like to say that remodeling is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, but there are 300 pieces and none of them exist until you make them,” says Jurs. “You have to make every piece and then make it fit perfectly in order. People who have never renovated don’t understand all of the pieces.”

Reputable, professional kitchen and bath designers have the knowledge and experience to pull together an entire project from start to finish. They understand big-picture ideas of design and spacing, and they also know the smaller details, like building codes and aesthetics.

Clients who design a space themselves risk placing components in the wrong place, making it harder for certain things to open or function correctly. These are areas where a professional designer knows what to look for, say Megan Lebar and Kelsey Bechtel, designers at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock.

Good designers also use their instincts to tease out details and alternatives most clients hadn’t considered.

“We’re asking the right questions to understand what you really need,” Lebar says. “I love standing in a kitchen with a client and saying, ‘What do you love and what do you hate here? What do you use most in your kitchen? What do you wish you had or wish wasn’t there?’ Starting with their priorities ensures that we focus their budget on the areas that matter most to them and how they use their kitchen.”

Citing one example, Lebar says she might suggest a good ventilation hood if the client loves to cook. For the client who cooks very little, there are other priorities.

As important as it is to find the right designer, landing the right contractor makes all the difference, too.

“The contractor piece is so important, because it’s going to affect how everything can look in the end,” says Lebar,. “How is the crown mitered together? Is it a nice touch, or is it an eyesore because it wasn’t done properly? Is there a gap in your ceiling because they didn’t build up the crown molding? Or, did they not use the fillers properly, and now you have a cabinet hanging over your cooktop?”

This is why it’s risky for people who try to handle contracting or installing on their own.

“I like to tell people this all the time: What we do is not easy, even for us, and we do this for a living,” says Jurs. “We have professional relationships in place, and it can be challenging in today’s market with supply chain issues and labor issues causing unforeseen upsets and delays.”

Good designers can connect clients with a reliable contractor who will fit their price point. While firms like Blue Ribbon have a network of contractors to work with, other firms, including Advance Design Studio and Hogan Design and Construction (HDC), offer the added bonus of bringing all or most services in-house.

Advance Design Studio follows a detailed process designed to work hand-in-hand with the client. The idea is to develop a realistic budget in tandem with the design process, says Jurs. The result is a set of clear expectations between designer and client.

At HDC, estimators and designers are in constant communication with each other and the client. As clients pick out details like cabinets, appliances and tile, they can see how those choices affect the bottom line and adjust accordingly.

“They can see the impact of their decisions, so there are really never any surprises,” says owner Brian Hogan. “Nobody likes surprises.”

This back-and-forth can sometimes be stressful, Hogan says, but it’s healthy, too. He believes it’s far better to have those difficult conversations early on than to confront them in the middle of construction, when time is of the essence.

“Nobody likes to spend more than they anticipated, but everyone likes to know what they’re going to spend and not be surprised,” says Hogan.

Clients are sometimes tempted to outsource small jobs to their friend-of-a-friend or some other connection in an effort to save money, and while there are some places where designers will encourage a little money-saving, this approach is risky in some situations.

Design-build firms have the benefit of overseeing the whole project and owning the results to warranty their work.

“When you bring in someone from the outside, like your sister’s son’s friend, we can no longer guarantee every aspect of the finished product,” says Hogan. “Say you bought the light fixture and had someone else install it. It goes bad, and he doesn’t call you back. We can’t do anything about it. So, it feels like you’re saving money, but ultimately you’re not.”

(Advance Design Studio photo)

Put Your Money Where It Counts

There’s a good reason why remodelers like to discuss budgets upfront. The difference between a $50,000 remodel and a $100,000 remodel is slim, says Jurs, and clients don’t always appreciate the distinction.

“I can tell you the more changes you make the more expensive it’s going to be,” says Jurs. “It may be more than the kitchen. It could also be the flooring that runs through your whole first floor, it’s the millwork that’s attached to the flooring, and it’s your new color scheme. It’s a domino effect.”

Jurs often begins by asking what the client must have in the project and what they think would simply be nice to have. These lists become a set of priorities – and that, in turn, helps the designer to create realistic solutions that satisfy the homeowner’s goals and objectives.

“If people are open and willing to share where they would like to be financially, then we can develop a much better target together early on,” says Jurs. “If we can’t accomplish everything on their wish list initially, we can shift gears quickly and make suggestions that will help them to reach a beautiful solution for both their design and pocketbook.”

No matter if your budget is high or low, there are some areas where it’s best to do it right the first time.

For Lebar and Bechtel, cabinets are one place where quality should never be sacrificed. Most designers have access to a variety of cabinet lines, each one catering to certain strengths and price points.

“If the client wants a paint finish, that’s where we’re going to focus your budget, because that paint finish makes a big difference,” says Lebar. “It could look the same from high end to low end, but how long is it going to last? How is the detail going to look at the mitered joints when the wood expands and contracts with humidity? There’s always a chance you’ll see a line there with a painted finish, but a good cabinet company takes steps to sand and apply a thick, high-quality, heat-cured finish that results in a more durable paint finish long-term.”

Countertops are another area where the extra investment makes a difference, says Bechtel. For the family that uses its kitchen daily, a durable quartz countertop brings low maintenance and enduring elegance.

“Cambria quartz is an investment that comes with a lifetime warranty,” says Bechtel. “They mine their own stone, and so they’re able to use the highest-quality materials to achieve a clarity of colors and patterns.”

(Advance Design Studio photo)

Consider Smart Alternatives

Regardless of your budget, a good designer knows how to work at your price point without sacrificing quality. There are many ways to get something that’s just as good, but with a more comfortable pricetag.

“You sometimes sacrifice some of the little things, the bells and whistles,” says Hogan, “but you can always get a finished product that looks very similar at all levels.”

Appliances are an easy starting point.

“Professional-series appliances, like Wolf and Sub-Zero, are very high-end,” says Hogan. “If you’re looking at a 40-inch range, a Sub-Zero fridge and a microwave hood you’re probably starting around $25,000 for your appliances. But there’s the GE Profile series that has a very similar look and feel that costs maybe 35% less.”

Tile, lighting fixtures, hardware and plumbing fixtures also come in a variety of finishes, so a suitable alternative is easy to find. Farmhouse apron sinks are attractive but more expensive than traditional under-mount sinks. Semi-custom cabinets come in limited increments, but they often carry a lower pricetag than fully custom units. Wide-plank flooring costs more to install, but a more standard width still looks great. Lighting options abound, and even undercabinet lights come in a variety of price ranges.

“We can do a really good, basic set that’s going to give you the right warm color temperature so the lighting doesn’t feel sterile,” says Lebar. “You don’t need all the bells and whistles, but for the client who does want a wow factor, we can go all-out with the LED undercabinet lighting that changes colors and is controlled from an app on your phone.”

Cabinets can come with add-on features including extra pull-outs and accessories, and while they’re handy, they’re not always a top priority.

“At the end of the day, some of those interior functions, like a drop-in drawer accessory or pull-out base cabinet organizer, could be added later,” says Lebar.

“Focus on the high-quality cabinets first,” adds Bechtel. “We can leave space for future organizational things. Besides, many people aren’t really sure how they want to organize their kitchen, so this gives them time to figure it out.”

The larger a remodeling job the higher the investment. When a project gets more expansive, professionals like Jurs may encourage their clients to think in phases. The “10-year plan” or something like it allows clients to invest in big priorities now while preparing for additional work down the road.

“If you want to do your kitchen and bath but you don’t have the budget to do them both the way you want, why don’t we start with the one and then plan to do the next one in a year or two when you’re ready?” Jurs says.

(Hogan Design photo)

Suit Your Taste

There’s one question you can ask that’s sure to rankle your designer: “What’s everyone else doing?”
Home remodeling is about individual taste, and the final product should bring joy to its users – not regrets. Because it’s your home and your living space, it’s important focus on your own wants, needs and tastes.

In one of Bechtel’s recent projects, the client wanted to blend a new kitchen with an old hutch, china and dining table from her late mother.

“So, I made sure in my design I included a pair of cabinets that tied into the hutch design and gave her a space to display the china,” says Bechtel. “When you looked at the whole kitchen, these were two standalone pieces but they no longer looked random.”

“Even when you’re on a budget, don’t neglect your individuality,” adds Lebar. “It’s a beautiful kitchen that fits your home because you’re in it. It’s about you.”

Happy clients can’t help but share the results, as the HDC crew sees on a regular basis.

“We’ll have people who invite us over so they can enjoy sharing what we’ve just installed,” says Hogan. “They’ll say, ‘We have a chef coming to use our kitchen and we want for you to come,’ or they’ll invite us over for a barbecue.”

There’s no such thing as a perfect remodel, says Jurs, but what really matters is the final result. When it all comes together and the end results are stunning, that’s when clients truly understand the value of doing things the right way.

“The most satisfying result is when the project turns out better than envisioned,” she says. “There was a client years ago who hugged me at the end. She said, ‘I know you told me to trust you at the beginning. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but now I’m so glad I listened to you.’”