Ask the Right Questions When Remodeling Your Dream Kitchen

There’s a lot to get right when it comes to updating your kitchen. NWQ caught up with experts from around the region for advice on every piece of the kitchen puzzle.

Assembling the perfect kitchen is a lot like a puzzle - every piece has to fit just right.

There’s a lot to get right when it comes to kitchen remodeling. Cabinets must be built to last. Appliances must fit. Floors must be durable enough to withstand kitchen messes and lots of traffic, but still be attractive. And don’t forget about those countertops, which today do double duty as workhorses and objects of beauty. Since there are so many pieces to the kitchen puzzle, we caught up with experts from around the region to get some advice.

It Starts With Design

The first step is finding a designer, who can help to create a unified look. We spoke with Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane, 6346 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, who has 30-plus years of experience in kitchen design. She sells cabinets from Grabill, Holiday Kitchens and Haas.
NWQ: What services can you offer, as a designer?
Feuillerat: I offer complete design consultation services for kitchen and bath remodeling. I also sell cabinets, with samples you can see in the showroom, and I have relationships with contractors who can remodel your kitchen beautifully and affordably.

Most kitchens last 20 to 30 years before needing an update. To make maximize the timelessness of a remodel, designers suggest avoiding trends.

NWQ: What questions should I ask, as I shop for a designer?
Feuillerat: Think about the timeframe to complete the remodel, from start to finish, because realistically, some designers and contractors give too short a timeframe. Homeowners should ask what kind of experience designers have, and whether they’ve done only new homes or remodeling, because there’s a significant difference in capabilities, efficiencies and ideas. Also ask if the designer’s subcontractors are qualified and insured. If all sounds good, your last step might be to ask for references and pictures of past projects.
NWQ: How long does the average kitchen last?
Feuillerat: I’d say, on average, about 20 to 30 years.
NWQ: So how do I get the most from my kitchen design?
Feuillerat: Realize that some things that are done today are trendy. I can steer clients in the right direction of whether it’ll be a trendy or a timeless kitchen, depending on their preferences and budget. I’ve updated kitchens that were 40 years old, and I’ve done some that were only 15, and projects that cost a few thousand dollars or tens of thousands. I’m doing one right now that I did only nine years ago, because a different person owns the house. That’s unusual, but it’s fun to improve upon my previous work.
NWQ: What’s typical turnover time for a remodel?
Feuillerat: The average kitchen is usually four to six weeks. Really elaborate work might take longer. Homeowners should ask their designer how long it will take to get materials, how long the installation will take and ask for references, so you can double-check what they’re telling you. It’s a gorgeous investment in your home, and you want to do it right by hiring the right designer.

Cabinets are King

One of the biggest, and perhaps longest-lasting, investments in the kitchen is cabinetry. We spoke with experts from three local suppliers about the latest features and some common mistakes in this category. Sue Bryant, co-owner of River Valley Kitchens & Baths, 5261 Swanson Road, Roscoe, has been in the kitchen business for 4 years. River Valley’s designer Dawn Levins has created kitchens for 15. River Valley’s contractors do complete remodels, and its showroom offers countertop, faucet and flooring options.

To maximize the timelessness of a remodel, designers suggest avoiding trends.
To maximize the timelessness of a remodel, designers suggest avoiding trends.

NWQ: What cabinet lines do you offer?
Bryant: We’re the only Wellborn Cabinet dealer in northern Illinois. They were used in past HGTV Dream Homes, they’re American-made, family-owned and they have products available at all price points.
NWQ: What questions should I ask when cabinet shopping?
Levins: Look at how the company backs up its product with a warranty, and find out what variety it offers in products and styles. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed. The hard part is that customers don’t always know what they want, so you have to try and be a good listener. It sometimes feels like a treasure hunt.
NWQ: What are some exciting new features for cabinetry?
Bryant: We’re seeing a lot of pullout features, like corner drawers instead of lazy Susans, spice pullouts, pots and pans pullouts, microwave drawers and styling with moldings and glass doors that you can add to semi-custom lines. It looks like it was made specifically for that house.
NWQ: Are there common mistakes to avoid?
Bryant: When you price compare, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. For instance, homeowners could be shopping around, and we might quote them on a very basic cabinet. That number is lower than something that’s got all the bells and whistles, with roll-out drawers and trim and extra features. Those add on to the cost. Also, before you do a stone countertop, make sure you’re happy with your cabinets and your layout, because it’s like icing on the cake. You don’t want to have to go back and replace cabinets after a stone countertop is installed, because it’s way more work and more expensive. Do it right the first time, versus piece-by-piece.

NWQ: How can I make the most of my kitchen makeover?

Levins: Stay away from trends, and if you’re going to indulge in a trend, make it a paint color or add-on accessory, like hardware, that’s easy to update. Don’t pick a countertop that’s in lime green, because it’ll seem stylish today, but in a few years you’ll think, “I can’t even handle coming into my kitchen,” and there’s a $6,000 investment down the tubes. Try and do things that are transitional, that you can close your eyes and imagine whether in 10 years from now this kitchen will still be modern. A lot of people stick with organics, like wood, stone and tile, because they have longevity.
Pam Mathews, Marling HomeWorks, 1138 Hwy. 14, Janesville, has been designing kitchens for 15 years. Marling carries cabinets, countertops, flooring, hardware and lighting, and provides full remodeling services.
NWQ: What cabinet lines do you carry?
Mathews: We’ve got standard contractor’s lines. I use a lot of Merillat Deluxe; Merillat Masterpiece (a semi-custom version of the Deluxe); KitchenCraft; Fieldstone, which is a full custom line; and MasterBrand, which has an umbrella of companies, such as Aristokraft.

The “blind corner” cabinet above makes better use of corner space and stores more goods than traditional lazy Susans.

NWQ: What common mistakes do homeowners make?
Mathews: A big thing we see is that many people believe they need a lazy Susan. A ‘blind corner’ cabinet may sound like an outdated option, but it really can give you space in certain situations. I like to plan as if I will be living in that kitchen, and sometimes this can be a better solution, as opposed to cramming several small cabinets into a corner. I was just working with a woman who wanted to add the big, easy-to-reach corner cabinet. I showed her how the blind corner compared, because it was easy to open and created two easy cabinets out of the space.
NWQ: Show me some cool new features in the showroom.
Mathews: Tall pantry pullouts are a hit. Pullout wastebaskets and mixer shelves are nice, too. Baking and cooking seem to be making a resurgence. On the mixer shelf, you can keep your appliances accessible and out of the way. You can pull them right out to a comfortable working height. There’s a grommet for your cord to stay out of the way, and when you’re done, you swing it back under the counter. This uses an entire cabinet, but depending on convenience and how often you use it, the feature could be very convenient.

NWQ: How should homeowners do their homework?

Mathews: Many customers get ideas and information online. That’s a great source to start with. You can see what door styles and wood species are available, and it will help streamline your ideas. When you come into a showroom, the variety of styles is overwhelming. If you can describe your style, that will help to narrow down your options.
NWQ: How can I make the most of my cabinet update?
Mathews: Take an inventory of what you’ve got and what you can live without. A lot of people have been living in their kitchens for years, and they’re used to seeing things one way. If they go through the kitchen and think: “I can’t live without this, but this stuff can go away,” it helps to organize their needs. Maybe you don’t need a big pantry, or more counter space. By listening to your current needs, we can design the space effectively and quickly.
Adrian Kannarr, designer at Andco Kitchens & Baths, 540 S. Perryville Road, Rockford, has been designing kitchens for 14 years. Andco offers full-service design and sells cabinetry, countertops, hardware and lighting. Its contractors cover all aspects of demolition and construction.
NWQ: What cabinet lines do you carry?
Kannarr: We carry Aristokraft, Kemper and Koch. We just picked up the Omega Dyansty line, and Kemper’s Echo line.

Rustic cabinet finishes show off natural wood grain and knots.

NWQ: What do homeowners need before they start shopping?
Kannarr: It definitely helps if you have an idea, budget-wise, of what you’re comfortable with for your whole project. I know people might not understand the cost, if they’ve never remodeled their kitchen. They might not know if it’s going to be $5,000 or $50,000, so they need to know what they’re comfortable spending. We can point them in the right direction, based on whether they’re staying in the home, selling it soon, or what their overall goal is for their kitchen.
NWQ: What colors and finishes are most popular?
Kannarr: A lot of kitchens are going back to darker colors. We’ve actually been selling a lot of rustic woods, like the rustic birch from Aristokraft. It just seems to be one of the top sellers. It’s got knots everywhere and it’s a good value as well. You’ll always have maple and cherry and darker colors, but rustic woods are catching on.
NWQ: What are some popular, exciting new features?
Kannarr: Something newer that’s just starting to get noticed is the soft-close feature on doors. They’ve had it on drawers for a while, and on some custom-line doors. But now they’re available even on the stock cabinets. Soft-close works like a hydraulic cylinder, allowing the drawer to close slowly. No more slamming cabinets.
NWQ: Since cabinets are such a big component, am I better off updating everything else at the same time that I update cabinets?
Kannarr: We’ve had customers update other parts of the kitchen before the cabinets. They update the floors, but then the cabinets look old, so they update those. But they have to keep the exact same footprint of the cabinets, since the new flooring is already installed. They’ve limited themselves to what they can do to change the layout. So looking at the big picture all at once can save you headaches in the long run.

A Hot Topic: Appliances

When it comes to kitchen efficiency and functionality, the right appliances are essential. We spoke with two Rockford appliance companies to learn how to select appliances that are right for your situation.
Darwyn Guler is owner of Guler Appliance Company, 227 Seventh St. Guler offers a full range of kitchen appliances, including high-end wall ovens and cooktops.
NWQ: What questions should homeowners consider, when shopping for appliances?
Guler: In today’s shopping environment, the consumer should be aware of energy efficiencies that can save you money. Ask about delivery and installation costs, whether the appliance has warranties and, most important, does the dealer have its own service and parts department to back up the product?

Some appliances, like dishwashers, are built to standard sizes. (GE Appliance photo)

NWQ: How do I ensure that I have the right fit – not just that I have the appliance I need, but that it literally fits in my home?
Guler: Measuring for height, width and depth is the first thing to do before you go out to shop and buy. Write it down and bring it with you, so you know what works. If you know your space is 36 inches wide, you know you can find a refrigerator for that spot. Dishwashers are fairly standard, at 24 inches. Ranges are fairly standard, at 30 inches. When it comes to built-in ovens and hoods and cooktops, those have to be measured very accurately.
Brad Born is vice president of Al Grace Appliance, 811 W. Riverside Blvd. Al Grace offers a variety of kitchen appliances, washers, dryers, televisions and mattresses.
NWQ: What are some common mistakes you’ve seen?
Born: One mistake is improperly measuring the space where the appliance goes. Some appliances are large, so can they even fit through the door? Look at your home and make sure it can accommodate this particular refrigerator. Some older homes have smaller areas and smaller doorways, so be ready to receive this appliance, get it into your home and have it fit your space.
NWQ: How long can I expect a new appliance to last?
Born: They all have their own lifespans. Ranges are still up in the 12- to 15-year lifespan. Today’s refrigerators last around 10 years, maybe a smidge more. Dishwashers are eight to nine years, and microwaves are less than that. What’s interesting is the difference in customers’ reactions to those numbers. A younger person, in their 20s, is accustomed to things lasting a lot less than what I’m used to, and I’m 59. A younger couple comes in and says their microwave is a few years old and they need a new one. I’m waiting with my flak jacket because I think they’re going to beat me up, but they’re just used to it. I get older customers, and they’re ready to beat me up because it only lasted 12 years.

Countertops – More Than a Pretty Face

Countertops come in a variety of prices, surfaces and selections. The most common are laminates, other synthetic materials and stone. We spoke with Rick George, co-owner, Lonnie’s Stonecrafters, 2529 Laude Dr., Rockford, who specializes in granite and quartz countertops, about the difference stone makes.

Granite countertops can last forever, but must be measured accurately.

NWQ: What should I know about purchasing granite?
George: A lot of people are surprised that it’s so affordable. They’ll go and buy some other high-end countertop thinking granite’s out of their range, and it’s not. We educate our customers, because for a lot of them, it’s their first-time stone purchase. We help them with colors, and they can physically see the stone they’ll purchase, versus picking from a tiny sample.
NWQ: Why is precision measurement so important?
George: We can fabricate a job perfectly for whatever the measurements are, but if the measurements aren’t accurate, counters won’t fit, and they won’t work. We use a laser to measure everything. We scan the cabinets and the walls, creating a digital template. We don’t care if someone’s walls aren’t square or have waves in them, or their cabinets aren’t set perfectly square. We can build to exactly what we measure.
NWQ: What differentiates granite from other products?
George: I can’t speak for other products, but I know that with granite, there’s no better surface. As far as durability goes, it’s the most scratch-resistant product out there. It’s stain resistant, it’s used on exteriors of skyscrapers and it’s used on grave markers. If it can withstand what Mother Nature does to it, then it can withstand what homeowners do to it in their kitchens.

Floors That Save Work

The right flooring can make a difference in both the function and appearance of a kitchen. We spoke with Lindsay Heitz, designer at Floor to Ceiling, 701 E. South St., Freeport, about selecting kitchen-appropriate flooring. Floor to Ceiling is a full-service interior design showroom, with a full menu of products, including cabinetry from Mid Continent, Kemper and Omega.

Flooring choices depend on how much wear and tear the kitchen will see.

NWQ: What flooring trends are popular?
Heitz: An emerging trend right now is tile that looks like wood. It’s used a lot in commercial applications, and many people don’t even realize it. The tiles are still grouted like a ceramic tile, but with a smaller grout line, so it’s not as noticeable. This product is contemporary and beautiful. This linear look is very popular right now, where we incorporate tiles that are 4 or 6 inches by 24 inches, and some that are 12 by 24 inches. It’s all about linear, no more squares.
NWQ: If I update just the flooring, what should I consider?
Heitz: I like to look at what surface is currently installed, and if it needs to be torn out or if we can go right over the existing flooring. A lot of times in kitchens, you have to think about the dishwasher and refrigerator. Are we adding height from the thickness of the new flooring so that the dishwasher will get blocked in, or the fridge won’t fit under the cabinetry? Keep in mind the height transition to the flooring in other rooms. We’ll measure and quote at no charge, because we like to ensure that the customer is getting not only the right flooring, but also an accurate estimation on cost of material and labor.
NWQ: Tile, wood, vinyl and laminate are still popular choices. How can I know what works best for my kitchen?
Heitz: I like to ask homeowners how much wear and tear they will have on the floor. Do they have kids, do they have pets, or are they just a single person or a couple? You don’t want to show them something that doesn’t fit their needs. Most people request that it be durable and easy to clean.

Let There Be Light

It’s hard to cook when you can’t see your work. We sat down with Randy Krup, owner of Krup Electric, 1125 Railroad Ave., Rockford, to talk about solutions for brightening up any kitchen.

Pendant lights are a popular way to add accent lighting to any kitchen.

NWQ: What are some popular new products for kitchen lights?
Krup: These new LED lights are pretty exciting. The LEDs don’t have the same government restrictions as incandescent and fluorescent lightbulbs. Plus, manufacturers are making inexpensive retrofitting kits that help you to transform an ordinary recessed light into an energy-efficient light that’s as bright as the competition. Most homeowners love them because they’re a lower wattage, give lots of light and save energy. Plus, they produce virtually no heat, unlike your standard incandescent bulbs.
NWQ: What questions should a homeowner ask an electrician before a job?
Krup: Homeowners have to talk to the electrician about what they want. Do they want a lot of light? Ambience? They’ve got to be up-front so the electrician knows what to install. With a demonstration, customers can see what they’re buying. If you’re building a new home, owners don’t always think about all of the details of a project because they’re just happy to have a new home. In a remodel, homeowners know what to expect from their kitchens, because they’ve been there so long.
NWQ: What mistakes do homeowners commonly make?
Krup: Far too often they go to the big box store, and in many cases, they’re not buying a quality fixture. If anything breaks, it’s hard to find parts to fix it, if you can even find those parts. What’s there today probably won’t be there tomorrow. I think your best bet is a lighting specialty store. Unfortunately, our region doesn’t have many. There’s one here and there’s one in Belvidere. Some kitchen dealers, though, will sell lighting, or can help you find a good product that you can trust.
NWQ: Suppose I just want to update a few kitchen lights. Is this a DIY project, or is it better left to experts?
Krup: I don’t think it’s a DIY, and I say that not just because I’m in the business. We see so much on the job. I was on a job this morning where it was a DIY, and not only are the homeowners dissatisfied with their results, but they spent a lot of money. We’re talking about electricity here. There are codes and materials and, if done improperly, a job can haunt the homeowner. If they ever go to sell the house, they might have a home inspector asking, ‘Who did this awful wiring?’ It won’t pass code and they’ll have to have it redone.

Putting it All Together

Although kitchen remodeling can be daunting, you don’t have to tackle it alone. There are ample experts who can ask you the right questions and lead you to a final result you’ll love. Most people agree that the kitchen is the heart of the home and no room is more important. ❚