Kitchen Remodeling: An Overview

Kitchen remodeling projects range from simple upgrades of surfaces and appliances to deep renovations that "gut" the kitchen down to the studs and more or less start over. Generally speaking, the more changes you make, the more steps are involved. Cosmetic changes may allow you to use the kitchen during the work, while bigger transformations can mean you'll be eating take-out or microwaved meals for quite a while. Your decision to do the work yourself or to hire it out won't likely alter the basic steps of the process, but it will certainly affect how much the project costs and how long it will take.

Home improvement kitchen view installed in a new kitchen cabinet
credit: photovs/iStock/GettyImages
A major kitchen remodel is one of the most expensive renovations you can do.

Kitchen Makeover or Bigger Remodel?

For most homeowners planning a kitchen update, the dividing line between a cosmetic makeover and a larger remodel is the decision to keep the old cabinets or to replace them. Cabinets play an important role because they largely define the layout of the kitchen and they represent a significant portion of its value (or replacement cost). Keeping your old cabinets means you're limited to the basic footprint they create. You can always remove a cabinet or two, or perhaps add an island or even swap some appliance locations, but keeping existing cabinets usually means you'll have pretty much the same layout, countertop space and appliance arrangement you've always had.

By contrast, when you completely replace your old cabinets, at some point your kitchen will be little more than an empty box, opening the door to numerous possibilities. It will also likely increase your budget by $5,000 to $10,000 or more (that's just for the cabinets), and it will completely disable your kitchen for several days, if not weeks.

Custom kitchen in various of installation base cabinets
credit: photovs/iStock/GettyImages
Replacing cabinets allows for easy layout changes.

Overview of a Simple Kitchen Makeover

A typical kitchen makeover involves redoing some or all of the surfaces and often upgrading one or more appliances. The cabinets stay in place, but the countertop might be replaced as well as the flooring. Appliance locations stay the same, as do the essential utilities—plumbing and electrical. The process usually starts with the cabinets and ends with the appliances:

  • Cabinets: Emptying and cleaning the cabinets. If they're getting painted, the doors, drawers and all hardware pieces are removed, and the doors and cabinet boxes are painted separately. A more extensive makeover may involve refacing the cabinet boxes and/or replacing the cabinet doors. Cabinet hardware usually gets replaced unless it has vintage appeal.
  • Walls and ceiling: Wall and ceiling surfaces typically get scrubbed and painted, and this can happen along with the cabinets. Old light fixtures can be replaced anytime after the painting and cabinets are done.
  • Countertop and sink: If the countertop is getting replaced, it's usually best to do this after the mess of painting and cabinet work are over. A new sink or faucet goes along with countertop installation and may be part of the installation, such as with an integrated sink that's the same material as the countertop.
  • Appliances and flooring: Major kitchen appliances slide into cabinet and/or countertop spaces, so they usually go in after the countertop. Most types of kitchen flooring can extend under the appliances. If the flooring will be replaced, this work precedes the new appliance installation.
  • Finishing touches: Finishing elements, such as switch plates, undercabinet fixtures, towel bars and window treatments, can be added whenever it makes sense in the process. Backsplash tile and other wall treatments follow the cabinets and countertop, since these finishes usually are custom-fit into the backsplash space.
Contractor installing a new laminate kitchen counter top
credit: photovs/iStock/GettyImages
Countertops mount to the kitchen's base cabinets.

Overview of a Mid-Size Kitchen Remodel

A mid-size remodel usually follows a similar sequence to a makeover, but it likely involves cabinet removal, drywall patching and some changes to the plumbing and/or electrical elements. When the cabinets get replaced, most likely so do the countertop (and sink and faucet), as well as the flooring.

The first stage, the "demo," is removing the appliances, cabinets, countertop and flooring. This exposes the walls and subfloor, making it easy to run new electrical circuits and add or move outlets, switches and light fixture boxes as well as make plumbing changes (if the sink, dishwasher or fridge is moved).

With the plumbing and wiring done, the walls and ceiling can be patched and painted, to ready the room for all the new installation. This follows the same basic order as a makeover: cabinets, countertop (and sink), flooring and appliances.

Overview of a Major Kitchen Redo

A large kitchen renovation starts with the same demo stage as a mid-size remodel but usually includes removing wall and ceiling drywall to expose the structural framing. At this point, the kitchen area is a blank canvas, ready for changes to partition walls, borrowing space from neighboring rooms or even bumping out an exterior wall or building an addition. Work of this scale is similar to new house construction, with the added challenge of tying into the existing structure and neighboring spaces and finishes.

Renovation concept - room during restoration
credit: Sinenkiy/iStock/GettyImages
A major remodel is a lot like rebuilding.

First, the framing changes are made, which may include moving or adding windows or doors. The structural changes are followed by utility work. If the electrical upgrades are significant, or the house has been added onto, the job may include upgrading the home's service panel (breaker box) or adding a subpanel to supply the new electrical circuits. In addition, alterations to the heating and cooling (HVAC) system in the area are likely to be necessary.

With the utilities taken care of, finishing begins, starting with new drywall. Then the space is turned back into a kitchen: cabinets, countertop, flooring and appliances.

DIY vs. Contracted Kitchen Remodels

Whether you do your own remodeling or hire a professional contractor, the same basic order of tasks applies because it follows the most logical demolition and construction sequence, although a contractor, with the help of a crew or subcontractors, might be able to work on more than one aspect at the same time. Homeowners usually don't have the tools or manpower to do this.

The main differences between a DIY and pro job are time and money—and, for many people, possibilities. If you tackle a kitchen remodel yourself, it will cost less money and probably take more time—potentially a lot more time. Pros aren't just good at what they do; they're also fast at what they do, and they do it day in and day out. DIYers approach most projects as first-timers, with all the research, pitfalls and second-guessing that comes with it.

Kitchen fitters.
credit: sturti/E+/GettyImages
Pros add to your budget but can get you into your new kitchen much sooner.

There's also the question of legality. Many mid-size and almost all major kitchen remodels require permits. This means the work must pass inspections. Homeowners may or may not be allowed to do their own plumbing and electrical work; if they are, they may have to pass a competency exam just to get the permit. Again, more time added to the project.

Finally, there are the possibilities. If you dream of a dramatically transformed kitchen that's open to the adjoining rooms and is filled with natural light and pricey amenities, do you have what it takes to do this? Do you know how to frame in a new window, tear down (potentially load-bearing) walls and hang expensive cabinets? If not, a contracted job probably makes a lot more sense.


Philip Schmidt

Philip Schmidt

Philip Schmidt is author of Install Your Own Solar Panels, The Complete Guide to Treehouses, and 18 other home-related how-to books. A former carpenter, he has been a full-time writer and editor for over two decades, teaching DIYers about houses and everything we do with them.