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How to Accomplish the Stress-Free Kitchen Remodel

My friend Jim, who lives in Cleveland, OH, contacted me six months ago. He and his wife were about to sign a contract with a remodeler to do a major kitchen remodel job. He signed the contract within 36 hours of emailing me and the contractor started the job two weeks later.

Jim and his wife are still doing dishes in his bathtub and the social fabric at their house has a tear in it bigger than the gash in the hull of the Titanic when it broke in two over 100 years ago.

What went wrong? How can you avoid the nightmare that Jim's now living in real time each day? It's so easy.

Degree of Difficulty: Two Hammers out of Five.

Step One: Any remodeling job is just like building a house. You have to start with a sound foundation. The basis for a kitchen remodel job are the detailed plans and specifications you have drawn for the job. Specifications are written instructions that normally don't fit on the plans. They explain quality standards and exactly what materials are used where.

Step Two: Understand I'm not talking about a simple plan you draw up on Google SketchUp in 30 minutes using assumptions about your kitchen. I'm talking about a highly accurate blueprint plan that's drawn 1/2-inch per foot in scale. It's accurate to within an eighth of an inch in the measurements. The plan also has accurate elevations of each wall of the kitchen once complete.

An elevation is a two-dimensional drawing of what the kitchen cabinets and countertops would look like if you stood facing the finished product. This drawing shows exact locations of electrical outlets and even the handles on the cabinets and drawers.

Step Three: You must select every single item that's going to be in your finished kitchen before you bid the job. Don't fall into the Allowance trap. Allowances are death on a stick. They are financial booby traps and slick salesmen use them to pitch you a lowball price for a job. When you list every single item, appliance, fixture, etc. on the plans and in the specifications, the contractor can't make a successful argument for more money to do something AFTER the contract has been signed. He had access to what you wanted in the bidding stage since you put it on the plans and in the specifications.

Step Four: If you're ordering custom cabinets where stain colors are critical, then place the order and get the cabinets delivered to your home before you start the job. Inspect the cabinets to ensure they're accurate in size and the finish is exactly what you want. Jim's waiting for his third set of cabinets as I type this. Yes, two times before they've been wrong.

Step Five: Before you sign the contract, have the contractor give you a schedule of the work. It can be simple just showing at the end of each week what will be complete. I used to do this on all my jobs and rarely did I get behind schedule.

Step Six: Think about the real amount of time it might take to do tasks. For example, a plumber may have no trouble installing a new sink drain line in a day, but it's doubtful a drywall contractor can hang, finish and sand an entire kitchen in just three days. It is possible to fast-track a drywall job and use special fast-drying joint compounds, but rarely does a contractor do this. A typical drywall job may last five days.

Step Seven: Don't fall into the Where's-the-Contractor trap. Too many people pay the contractor too much money early in the job and then you wonder why he's not showing up. Money is the only leverage you have with the contractor. You rarely pay for things in advance in the real world. Why would you even consider doing it with a contractor?

Step Eight: The good contractors have charge accounts with all their suppliers. They don't pay the suppliers in advance for materials except a deposit on special order items. They don't pay their employees in advance. They don't pay their subcontractors in advance. So for them to ask for money in advance for things they don't pay for in advance is not logical.

Step Nine: Get an itemized quote from your contractor for each phase of the job. Agree on payments that align with this breakdown as each phase of the work is complete and to your satisfaction. It's not unreasonable for you to write a check at the end of each week so long as work is progressing and you always have slightly more money remaining than there is work to do at your home.

Summary: The key to a stress-free kitchen remodel lies in a fantastic set of plans that are so good the contractor doesn't ever have to ask you a question about anything. Get as many materials as possible to the job site before you demo out your old kitchen. See about setting up a temporary kitchen with your old cabinets in your garage so you're not using your tub as a sink!

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