Sara Davis  /  Getty Images file
Your kitchen might never look like this, but following a few simple tips you can have a successful remodel project. This kitchen is from a model home designed in conjunction with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.
By Herb Weisbaum contributor
updated 11/30/2006 4:52:46 AM ET 2006-11-30T09:52:46

My wife and I took the plunge last summer. After years of talking about remodeling the kitchen, we decided to do it. It’s quite an experience — the dust, the noise, and all the strangers coming into the house. And of course, we had to live without a kitchen for a few months.

But it was worth it. We love the results! We spend most of our time in the kitchen and adjoining family room, so we get to enjoy the new space every day.

A kitchen remodel tends to have a high rate of return on investment. In most cases, it will almost pay for itself when you sell the home.

Even so, “Don’t think in terms of appreciating the value of your home,” cautions Bob Markovich, the Home Editor at Consumer Reports magazine. “You really should be doing a kitchen remodel for you.”

According to the National Association of Realtors 2005 Cost vs. Value Report:

-- The average “upscale kitchen” remodel cost $81,552 and had a payback of 84.8 percent.

-- The average midrange “major kitchen” remodel cost $43,862 and had a payback of 91 percent.

-- The average “minor kitchen” remodel cost $14,913 and had a payback of 98.5 percent.

You can’t do anything until you figure out how much you’re able or willing to spend. That means doing your homework — read magazines, visit showrooms, talk to friends and neighbors who recently remodeled. It takes a lot of time to do all this. But I can tell you, it’s worth the investment.

There are a number of free online calculators that can help you decide what you want and how much it will cost, including one from Consumer Reports and one from an industry trade group.

No matter how well you plan, expect the project to “cost more and take longer than you think,” cautions Sherry Ackbar, Good Housekeeping magazine’s home editor.

“Embrace that, and don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean the contractor is trying to be underhanded. Things just come up as the project proceeds.” So set aside a little extra money — 20 percent of the total cost is a reasonable amount — to cover the unexpected.

Here are more tips:

Shop for a contractor
Get bids from several contractors. Remember, while price is important, choosing the company with the lowest price “is not always the best idea,” warns Sara Ann Busby, vice president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

“It could be the quality of the materials the builder selected is different,” she notes, “or it could be that he or she missed something.”

Make sure the job specs are the same for each company. That means you need to be very specific about the products and materials you want used.

“Your idea and my idea of a high-end countertop may not be the same thing,” Busby says. “That seems to be out biggest problem — people don’t get what they thought they were getting quality-wise.”

Check out the contractor
Finding a good, reputable contractor is more important than price. I frequently hear horror stories from consumers who had a contractor start the job and then disappear, leaving their kitchen torn up and unusable.

Ask the contractor for:

-- Proof of a current license and insurance coverage — liability, property damage and workers compensation.

-- A list of suppliers. Call them to see if the company pays its bills on time.

-- A list of past customers. Talk to former customers about their experience. Did they get what they wanted? Are they glad they hired this contractor? Did the crews show up on time and clean up at the end of the day? Did the project come in on time and on budget? Ask if you can visit them to see what kind of work was done.

Before you sign anything, find out more about the contractor. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau and your state’s Attorney General or Consumer Protection office.

You also need to do a gut check. How do you feel about this contractor? Remember, you’ll be dealing with this person for months, so you want someone you’ll feel comfortable talking to,  someone who listens and who is flexible.

“It needs to be a fun, enjoyable experience,” designer Busby says. “If it’s not, you’re not dealing with the right people.”

Buy the right stuff
There are ways to get a nice look without going top-of-the-line. “You just need to know where to save and where to splurge,” says Consumer Reports Bob Markovich.

For our new kitchen, we went with a manufactured quartz counter top; made from ground-up quartz bonded together. To me it looks every bit as nice as granite or marble, and there’s a huge selection of colors and designs. This manufactured stone, such and Cambria, Silestone, and Zodiac, is tough and relatively maintenance free.

Tests by Consumer Reports show that when it comes to flooring materials, “fake beats real.” Vinyl was best for long-wear and resistance to stains, sun and moisture.  Plastic laminate, (Pergo and Shaw are the top sellers) are tough and relatively easy to install.

Markovich says the plastic laminates “did far better overall than the pre-finished solid wood flooring you see in all the real estate ads, and certainly better than engineered wood, which is the wood veneer you see so often.”

Set up a payment schedule
You never want to pay for the entire construction project up front. In most cases, your down payment should be no more than 25 percent of the total contract price.

The contract should spell out the schedule for the rest of the payments, either based on specific dates or project points, such as when the electrician starts or the cabinets are installed.

Don’t make the final payment until everything is done, the final inspection is completed, and you are satisfied with the results.

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