3 Kitchen Reno Lessons I Learned the Hard Way, So You Don’t Have To

published May 21, 2023
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Renovated kitchen with gray cabinets, navy walls, and bar with stools
Credit: Dana McMahan

It’s all worth it when it’s done, but getting from the gory before to glorious after is not an easy path when it comes to a major kitchen renovation. (Well, any renovation of any space or proportion, honestly.)

I’ve renovated a bunch of kitchens in my career, but none like the one in the Victorian-era home that my best friend and I bought to fix up and sell. The whole house was a to-the-studs reno, but the kitchen was even more dramatic; we had to go down to the foundation, so for a while we were balancing on floor joists over dirt when we walked in the back door. See some wacky pictures here.

And this total tear-out meant a chance for a blank slate, which actually generally makes a lot of things easier — no working around, well, anything. But it also leaves room for a lot of things to go sideways … and sideways they went.

There are things you have to learn the hard way, and we certainly had our share. Here are some things I wish I’d known that could have made this experience more adventure than misadventure.

Beware of tile leveler.

We went with a beautiful, large-format tile in the kitchen, putting a lot of thought into how to set it (on an angle, beginning on an angled wall with a window). And it was great! Also? It was set on top of a great deal of “self-leveler,” which was absolutely essential with tile so large. Here’s why: The larger the tile, the less forgiving it is of any unevenness in the floor. By the time the installers poured oceans of self-leveler, we had crept up in height, stealing vertical space under the cabinets, which had already been set. Can you guess when we discovered this? When the plumber arrived to install the dishwasher. The dishwasher was suddenly “too tall” to slide under the countertop, because of the height of the tile floor below it. 

At this point, there’s no option to tear out the entire room. I called the local appliance store and told them our problem, hoping there was such a thing as a shorter-than-usual dishwasher. It felt like we narrowly avoided a serious problem when they told me someone else had just had a similar issue, and they had an answer: a universal design dishwasher, meant for use in a kitchen that’s accessible to people with disabilities. This dishwasher is adjustable, allowing you to raise or lower it, and presto! It fit. 

Credit: Dana McMahan

Deal with the exposed brick first.

Finding original brick is like a pot of gold in the renovation world, and we were super excited about the brick chimney that was hidden behind the crumbling plaster. From demo day, we knew it would be an amazing feature. It was in pretty rough shape, but it was kind of hard to tell just how bad among the mess and debris of the construction zone. Still, we had it addressed by (who we thought was) a masonry professional, but once we had the kitchen nearly done, we could tell they had done a terrible job — so we had to do it again. Sigh.

This mason, although he did great work on the chimney, didn’t cover up the new cabinets, counters, or appliances while he worked — in fact, he ran the range hood while he was grinding the mortar. You can guess what that led to: fine, red dust coating literally every inch of the kitchen, from the tile grout to the cabinets, completely clogging the inside of the range hood. I can’t even tell you the number of hours it took to clean up the mess.

Yes, he should have done a better job protecting the new kitchen, but if we had just done it at the beginning of the project, the mess wouldn’t have mattered. 

Don’t take any job for granted.

It would be nice to think that professionals would do a professional job, but if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you can’t ever assume people will do things correctly. That means you have to watch like a hawk. We had a project manager who left supervision of nearly everything to me (which is another story for another day), and I just couldn’t be there every minute. 

So when the kitchen ceiling went in and was painted, I was just so excited to see that fresh white ceiling, I didn’t even think about the things that should have been above it — until range hood install day. We did an island hood that mounted to the ceiling above the stove, and I was on hand to be sure it was placed correctly — so I got to see the installer’s face when he realized there was no bracing in the ceiling for mounting. Yep, there was nothing but drywall, so the hood couldn’t be installed. That beautiful new ceiling? Had to be ripped open to have the range supports set, and then redone. That cost time, money, and, as always, more mess. 

These are just a few of the things I wish I had been more cognizant of when I started this major kitchen reno.

What are your greatest regrets about kitchen renovations? Comment what you learned the hard way below.