Jennifer's Kitchen: Real-life Lessons from a Real-life Renovation

Jennifer's Kitchen: Real-life Lessons from a Real-life Renovation

Nancy Mitchell
May 6, 2014

Name: Jennifer Pade
Type of Project: Kitchen remodel
Location: West Village, New York, New York
Type of building: 300 square foot apartment in a co-op building

We've been following along with Jennifer's kitchen renovation every step of the way, and last week we got to see the beautiful finished results of lots of hard work and nail-biting and unexpected decisions. In this, the very last post in Jennifer's Renovation Diary, we're going to take a look at the lessons she learned along the way.

Now that the project is over and you're looking back on it, what are the most important lessons you learned through the remodeling process?


1. Get a schedule of work from your contractor. This will help you determine whether the project is on track. Very important if the work has to be finished within a certain time period.

2. Make sure you have every team member’s contact information before the project starts. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s something I forgot to do. And at the end of the first day of demolition (because of a communication mixup), one of the workmen left a big mess of debris in the building hallway. My super didn’t know how to reach the contractor and I didn’t have his phone number. So I had to track down my architect so he could call the contractor, so the contractor could call the super to arrange a cleanup before residents began coming home from work. This would have been resolved much more quickly if I’d just made sure to have the contractor’s cell phone number from the beginning!

3. Keep a folder that contains every piece of paper related to the project: receipts, bids, schedule, etc. I referred to paperwork in that folder a million times during the project, whether it was to find a phone number for the appliance store or to review the architectural plans.

4. Keep a spreadsheet of estimated costs vs. actual costs. This helped me keep all the numbers in one place so that I didn’t have to go digging through paperwork to find out what I actually paid for something compared to what the salesperson estimated. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you want to know where your money is going, put it all one spreadsheet and update as things change or get added.

5. Be flexible with appliances and materials. I had to switch out the appliances I wanted — twice, because of space and electrical considerations (a 24”-deep Summit refrigerator rather than the 28”-deep Fisher & Paykel one I was so set on, for example. Or a 120v oven as opposed to a 240v.) But even though the appliances I ended up with were not my first choice, the ones I ended up with are terrific. It’s not as huge of a deal to get a different brand or model as you might think it would be when you’re idealizing everything at the beginning of the project.

6. Leave room in your budget for unexpected plumbing and electrical work. I read this on Apartment Therapy BEFORE my renovation and I still wasn’t sensible enough to follow the advice. I took a huge hit on electrical costs because of unexpected issues and it caused me to go over budget almost from the beginning of the project.

7. Order the appliances before you order the cabinetry. Another piece of advice I had in advance and ignored. As a result, my “24-inch” dishwasher did not fit in a 24-inch cabinet and the cabinet had to be modified to fit the dishwasher. This could have been avoided if I’d ordered the cabinetry after the appliances had arrived and been measured.

8. Be prepared to not get everything you wanted. An architect friend warned me ahead of time that no one ever gets everything they want in a renovation process. It was true in my case as well, either because of budget or lack of space. And although it’s sort of frustrating, especially after you’ve spent so much time and money on the project, I can certainly live without a broom closet or more drawers . And you can always figure those things out later if you still want them.

9. However, be very direct from the start which elements are important to you. I was very determined to have a few things that I never got (like a pull-out pantry, which I’m still smacking myself for not making it happen) because I got distracted by other things. So they got shifted down the priority list over time. And by the time my budget had been reached and exceeded, I just couldn’t justify the cost/time/labor. Had I worked harder to keep them at the top of the list, I could have easily given up some other things that just weren’t as important to me. Ultimately, you’re the one responsible for making it happen.

10. Don’t let yourself get talked into things you don’t want. It was important to me to be open to the process and to learn from the experts. After all, that’s why you pay them! But don't let anyone tell you what you should have if it feels wrong for your situation. because starting the day after everybody else goes home, you’re the one who lives with the results. So don’t get talked into things you don’t want, or you’ll be living with them for a long time.

11. Assume that virtually everything will change at some point in the process and be open to those changes. This will keep you from going out of your mind. And anyway, change can bring about unexpected and interesting results!


11. Be kind to everyone who’s working for you and thank them often. Yes, you’re paying them to do the work. But everyone on the team — architect, contractor, super, builder, plumber, electrician — is helping you create the kitchen/bathroom/apartment/whatever of your dreams. I LOVE my new kitchen and I’m so grateful for the level of commitment and skills that were available to me to help make it a reality. So I made sure to let everyone know how that I appreciated their work.

If you were to do this again, what would you choose to do differently?

I would take the preliminary budget I was given and add 25-30% to it. My architect told me to plan on going over budget by 5-10%, but there are too many unexpected things that can happen. I know everyone says a renovation project will cost more than you budgeted for, but I didn’t realized it could happen so quickly! Plus, there will be little things you’ll want as the project progresses (dimmers on the lights, nicer backsplash tile, etc.) that you might not have budgeted. Plan for that, too.

Did your schedule go as planned? What took more time than you thought it would? What took less time?

The project took two weeks longer than was planned. Much of the subcontracting was dependent on the building work, so my plumber and electrician had to wait for things to be completed and then come back to finish their work. But I also asked for things that extended the length of the project (choosing to install flooring in my kitchen, living room and bedroom instead of just the kitchen, for example.) So I was just as responsible for the extra time as anything else. Given the changes, my contractor still managed to stay very close to the schedule.

What is your next project going to be?

Putting money back into my savings account! Seriously though, for now, I’m going to just enjoy my beautiful new kitchen. Maybe in few years I’ll think about updating my bathroom to be as efficient and modern-looking as the kitchen. But for now I’m content enjoying the finished product!

Any other final lessons?

Doing a renovation project like this can be stressful, and the number of decisions you have to make seem to be endless. (Towards the end of the project, I asked a friend who drove me to IKEA to choose the cabinet door pulls for me because I felt like I couldn’t make even one more decision!) But once it’s over, the stress fades away and you have the satisfaction of seeing the beautiful results and knowing that you’ll get to enjoy the new room for years to come!

Thank you so much for letting me share my kitchen renovation project with you. Knowing that I’d get to share what I learned with you made the whole experience more exciting. And I hope it encourages some of you to start a long-awaited renovation project of your own!

This concludes Jennifer's renovation diary. You can check out the full series to see the whole renovation process, step-by-step, or you can explore all of our Renovation Diaries.

The Renovation Diaries are a new collaboration with our community in which we feature your step by step renovation progress and provide monetary support towards getting it done in style. See all of our Reno Diaries here.

(Diary text: Jennifer Pade, Images: Pablo Enriquez)

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