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Remodeling Insider Secrets

We asked veteran remodeling pros to unpack their tool kits of resources, shortcuts, smart advice, and clever tricks for upgrading a space without breaking the bank.

When it comes to remodeling, professional designers, contractors, and tradesmen aren’t so different from the rest of us:

When remodeling, they appreciate saving a buck too, whether they’re working on their own homes or have budget-minded clients to please. So we asked veteran remodeling pros to unpack their tool kits of resources, shortcuts, smart advice, and clever tricks for upgrading a space without breaking the bank. Read on for their insider secrets:

1. The top request when remodeling….you guessed it… Kitchen: Lower-Grade Granite Slabs

Check out lower-grade granite slabs when remodeling or shopping for countertops. Fall in love with a top-tier stone? Often there’s one that’s nearly identical at a lower price. You may find essentially the same look that a high-priced Group D slab has in Group C for $2,000 to $3,000 less. “There’s nothing inferior about the quality of a lower-grade stone,” says Karen Richmond, a kitchen designer in Portland, Oregon. “It’s probably just from a quarry in South Dakota instead of Brazil.”

2. Kitchen: LED Adhesive Tape Under Cabinets

Skip pricey LED under-cabinet light fixtures if they require running new wiring. Instead, go for LED adhesive tape lights and save up to $500, including labor. Available at home centers, these peel-and-stick flexible LED circuit-board strips come in various levels of brightness and can be cut to length. Best of all, they plug into any outlet, such as one for a wall-mount microwave or an over-the-range vent hood. “Add a plug-in radio-frequency remote-control unit, and there’s no switch wiring needed,” says contractor Dean Bennett, of Castle Rock, Colorado. To try: Armacost Lighting 12 foot LED Warm White Tape Light, about $70.

3. Kitchen: House’s Timeline as Reno Guideline

Before sinking big bucks into a kitchen remodel, factor in how long you’ll live in the house. Pricey upgrades like stone countertops make sense even if you expect to move in just a few years, because the quality is easy for buyers to see, says Susan Serra, a kitchen designer in Huntington, New York. But consider passing on custom cabinets unless you’re staying put for at least 10 years. “Stock cabinets could save you $20,000 over custom,” says Serra, “and many buyers probably won’t fully appreciate the difference.”

4. Kitchen: Open Shelving for Stylish Storage

Consider open shelving instead of standard upper cabinets. Sleek and floating, supported by painted wood brackets, or made from salvaged planks, they offer storage space that can amp up your kitchen’s style. Depending on materials used, you could easily save half the price of installing cabinets with doors.

5. Kitchen: Sparingly Use Expensive Tile

Use pricey tile sparingly to get a custom-backsplash look for less. Run a single course of premium stone or glass tile horizontally, two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the backsplash, filling in with lesser-priced field tile. Fifty square feet of glass tile, installed, can cost $3,000; use a fraction of that and save a bundle.

6. Kitchen: Furniture for Extra Space

Work in some furniture to boost your storage capacity. Rather than choosing a built-in pantry cabinet, hit an antiques store for a freestanding unit. “In many regions, antiques have come way down in price due to the economy,” says Serra. You might find a buffet or hutch for $1,000 to $2,500 less than what a cabinetmaker would charge.

7. Kitchen: Spend and Save on Hardware

Invest in top-of-the-line hinges and glides, and save on knobs and pulls. You need hardworking mechanical parts to stand the test of time, but almost any style of decorative hardware can be found at an affordable price. Spend $4 for a home-center knob rather than $15 for a designer one; multiply that outlay by the 40 knobs in a typical kitchen and save $600. Get a designer touch by varying the material or finish on an island or between upper and lower cabinets.

8. Kitchen: Mid-Priced Appliances

Skip pro-style appliances. Today’s mid-priced ranges offer plenty of power, convenience, and stainless-steel good looks for $10,000 to $20,000 less than their pro-style counterparts. Says Serra, “That’s a lot of money you can invest elsewhere in the kitchen.”

9. Kitchen: Paint Before Cabinets and Backsplash

Paint kitchen walls before installing cabinets and backsplash tiles. That way you can simply roll the walls without having to cut in around the cabinets, saving time and protecting the new woodwork from brush marks. Even with touch-ups after the install is complete, this order of work speeds up the job, saving you $200 or so in labor costs.

10. Kitchen: Three Levels of Lights

Add recessed lights over your kitchen island when pendants are being hung. Lighting pros recommend three levels of kitchen illumination: ambient (recessed or flush-mount), accent (hanging or pendant), and task (under-cabinet). If an electrician is already snaking in wires for pendant lights, consider adding wiring for recessed cans at the same time—and save yourself the cost of a second service call, suggests San Francisco lighting designer Jody Pritchard.

11. Kitchen: Durable Semigloss Paint

“Consider semigloss paint on walls in a back or basement stairwell used by kids. Yes, it’s shiny, but it’s also ultra-washable, prolonging the life of the paint job by several years. Invest in top-quality paint, and you’ll save hundreds over the long haul.” —Rich Maceyunas, a pro painter and wallpaperer in Waterbury, Conn.

12. Kitchen: Diagonal Tiles as Accent

Use diagonal tiles as a focal point, not to cover an entire backsplash or floor. “Angling tiles has a huge impact on the installation cost,” says Bennett. With a diagonal design, every edge tile—around the perimeter of the installation, around obstacles, and against any inset or border tile—must be cut. That increases material costs by 20 percent and labor by about 200 percent.

13. House: Save on Lighting With Paint

Cut lighting costs by opting for light-colored walls and floors. You’ll get more mileage out of every lumen by bouncing around the available light and need 20 to 30 percent fewer light fixtures in a room.

14. House: Forgo Carpet Pad Upgrades

Make less-expensive carpeting feel more luxe by upgrading the pad. Upgrade from a ¼-inch foam pad to a½-inch one and save the $200 to $500 price tag of a plusher carpet. “And unless you’re installing a berber or other low-pile carpet, don’t let a salesman talk you into a higher-density pad,” says flooring expert Matthew Glaser, of Louisville, Kentucky. “It creates a stiffer feel and will wear out the carpet more quickly.” In general, you should opt for a 6-pound pad instead of an 8-pounder.

15. Outside: Limit Plant Colors

Concentrate color in a small area to help you landscape a big yard over time. Limit plant colors—and choices—for a big-impact display on a limited budget. Instead of using five daylilies in five different colors, for instance, plant one large group of the same color daylily to build volume and mass. “Using color to create one focal point can help distract the eye from unlandscaped areas,” says Scott Daigre, a garden designer in Ojai, California.

16. Outside: Go With Native Plants

Choose native plants or non-natives that are adapted to your climate. These will require less water and fertilizer to thrive in your area. You could save $20 per plant over 10 years and, since they’re more likely to survive drought and neglect, possibly replacement costs too.

Feel free to share and let me know if you’d like to remodel soon.

Glen Betts
Glen Betts
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