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FIXIN'S FOR YOUR KITCHEN

Americans this year will spend $26-billion on kitchen remodeling.

If you've ever redone your kitchen, you may have felt as though every penny of that $26-billion was coming out of your pocket. The average kitchen created last year by certified kitchen designers cost $22,100. One-third of all kitchen remodelings cost less than $10,000, still a hefty chunk of change.

Yet remodeling a kitchen remains one of the best ways to increase a home's value. A minor kitchen remodeling, costing about $8,500, will return 94 percent of the investment nationally and 107 percent in the South if the home is sold within a year, according to Remodeling magazine's 1996-97 "Cost Versus Value" report, which estimates how 12 typical remodeling projects affect the resale value of homes around the country.

"It is a big investment," acknowledged Scott Williams, manager of the new Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse that opened in September on W Waters Avenue in Tampa. "People have a gut feeling, "Let's do the kitchen, it's a good thing to do,' but they don't know how good of a thing it can be."

Do homeowners suffer sticker shock when they walk into a home center or sit down with a remodeling contractor?

"Yes and no," said Janis Strassenreiter, who works with remodeling customers at Home Depot on 22nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg. Home Depot is the nation's largest kitchen remodeling retailer, with nearly 357,000 jobs this year at a cost of $2.2-billion.

Most shoppers have done at least some homework, said Strassenreiter's department head, Pete Winter. "They've done independent research. They read Consumer Reports. They take the initiative."

Strassenreiter asks customers how long they plan to stay in their home. If they're remodeling to sell, "I won't suggest the top of the line," she said. If they intend to remain in the home, "I'll steer them toward the top."

Remodeling contractors and retailers in the industry offer these tips to help consumers spend wisely:

Have some idea of what you like. "Pictures cut out of a magazine showing the style they like, that really helps a lot," said Daniel E. Ashline, who heads the St. Petersburg remodeling company that bears his name and was recently named Florida's Remodelor of the Year.

When Strassenreiter starts working with customers at Home Depot, she encourages them to pick out a style of cabinet they like. If her first price quote is out of reach, she said, she can find a similar line of cabinets at a lower price.

Take a walk through a home center or a plumbing showroom or kitchen center. Look at the products. Look at the prices. Take some notes.

Spend on one thing, save on another. Winter might advise putting most of your money toward new cabinets, because you'll live with them for a long time. Cabinets typically represent about half the cost of a kitchen remodeling project, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

Then, Winter suggests, use a modestly priced laminate (the brand name everyone knows is Formica; figure $15 to $25 a running foot, which is 12 inches long by 25 inches wide) on your countertops. Two or three years from now, when you've saved some money, replace the laminate with a solid surface such as Corian or granite ($85 to $100 a running foot).

Don't set yourself up for disappointment. "Oftentimes people have this idea, "We'll get new cabinets,' but they don't realize that doing a kitchen is more than just the cabinets," said Williams of Lowe's. "They can replace the sink, the faucet, the appliances, the floor. Those enhancements can add a finishing touch to their project."

New cabinets and countertops will look great, but they may make the worn flooring and tired wallpaper look even worse, remodeling experts say. A different style of cabinet may not occupy the same space as the old ones, revealing gaps in the flooring.

"The worst thing you can hear from a customer is, "I didn't think it would turn out like this,' " said Tony Huszai, project coordinator for Home Depot.

Little things add up. When you buy a sink, you're buying just that: a sink. The faucet and strainer basket are additional. The toe kicks, protective pieces where the cabinets meet the floor, are probably not included in the price of the cabinet. Tilt-out drawers on the fronts of sink cabinets, plate racks, spice drawers, decorative molding on the tops of counters, appliance garages, door hardware _ these are the extras that can add up fast. Do you have to have $25 door and drawer pulls now, or can you live with something that costs $2?

Isn't it amazing that Dean Johnson and Robin Hartl on TV's Hometime can complete a remodeling project in just a half-hour? Yet it seems to take forever when it's in your home. And there's the inconvenience, the noise, the dust and dirt.

"We're not working in your home, you're living in our job site!" quipped contractor Ashline. About 95 percent of his jobs take place in occupied homes, he said. "You're going to be in somebody's home for three or four months, and the laundry has to be done, the dog needs to be walked, the homeowners want to park in the driveway without getting nails in their tires. You have to work around their schedule, get the pulse of how they live."

Some remodeling contractors will go the extra mile (at extra expense), Ashline said: creating a washer-dryer hookup somewhere, or a temporary kitchen, draping the work site in plastic sheeting that they set up and take down each day, picking up trash.

A sense of humor and realistic expectations are vital, Ashline said. He cautions his clients that a remodeling project is like jogging: At some point you hit the wall. That's the time when "nothing satisfies the customer; everything you do is wrong. When we hit that point 2{ months down the road, I tell my clients: "Remember what I told you about the wall? We're at the wall.' This is a natural human reaction; everyone regroups and gets the energy to continue on."

Remodeling a kitchen represents an investment not only of money, but also of time.

"People come in here on their lunch hour with something scribbled on a piece of paper. Everybody wants their kitchen computer-designed without measurements," said Home Depot's Winter. His store, like most other home centers, offers a design service, including computer-generated floor plans and drawings of proposed kitchen layouts.

"They should give themselves one to two hours" to walk around, look at products and materials and get some idea of what's available, he advised. "It's a big investment and they have unreal expectations: "I want a kitchen and I want it now.' And the husband and wife must both take part."

Many times, remodeling contractors say, what one partner wants, the other doesn't. Or they're using the same words, but each means something different. It's important to get everyone on the same page early on.

Remodeling experts make this plea to customers: Don't tie the completion of a job to an event such as a wedding or holiday.

"There are always delays. Nothing is perfect. Installers' schedules conflict, or there's concealed damage when a product arrives, or one pivotal item is back-ordered," without which the installation cannot begin, said Home Depot's Huszai.

Just how time-consuming remodeling can be is a lesson that Ruth Davidson learned in 1995 when she and her family bought a home in the Jungle Prada area of St. Petersburg. Before they moved in, they hired Ashline to remodel the kitchen and family rooms and create a second-floor master suite with an office, where she now conducts her law practice.

"It's a time-consuming process for the person," Davidson said. "Definitely, you're there making decisions all the time. It becomes a job for you _ not a full-time job, but a job."

The Davidsons _ Ruth; husband Phil, an orthopedic surgeon; and three sons, now 7, 6 and 4 _ faced many decisions: "Everything from fixtures, to the quality of wood doors, to molding, carpet, tiles, appliances. It's a lot of decisions. I really don't think it was that bad, just time-consuming," she said.

"It helps to have the sort of job where you could run out to the house for an hour in the morning," Davidson said. "If you're the kind of person who wants to know things are getting done the way you want them, you'll be around."

She offered two other pieces of advice to homeowners who are thinking of remodeling:

"Anticipate that it will take up a certain amount of your time and try not to make it into a stressful but a fun and pleasurable experience."

"There will be headaches and some unexpected expenditures, so be sure you've allowed leeway in your budget for them."

What will it cost?

Thinking of remodeling your kitchen? Many homeowners have no idea of the costs of various components: flooring, cabinets, countertops, lighting. Here's a look at some of the choices _ and the prices. All prices are estimates and can vary widely depending on style, maker and quality. You'll pay more for very high-end custom products; you may pay less if you find items on sale.

Flooring

Sheet vinyl: $1-$10 per square foot.

Laminate (made by Pergo, WilsonArt, Formica, others): About $6 a square foot.

Ceramic tile: $3.89-$6.50 a square foot.

Countertops

Laminate (brand name Formica): $15-$25 a running foot (12 inches long by 25 inches wide).

Solid surface (brand name Corian): $85-$100 a running foot.

Solid-surface veneer: $45-$75 a running foot.

Granite: $85-$100 a running foot.

Adding custom beveled edges will increase the cost of any countertop.

Cabinets

Stock 30-inch-wide base cabinets (mass-manufactured, in standard modular sizes): start about $135 for flat-panel laminate, up to $250 for recessed-panel oak.

Stock wall cabinets (30 by 30 by 12 inches) range from $100-$220.

Semicustom cabinets, a step up in price, offer more door styles, finishes and materials and are generally of better quality, with more hand finish work and stronger materials.

Custom cabinets, the most expensive, are made to order. Typically they involve higher-quality materials and construction methods, more hand labor and higher-quality hardware.

Spice rack: $21-$80.

Appliance garage: $130-$150.

Wine rack: $115-$215.

Roll-out shelves: $20-$100.

Sinks and accessories

Stainless steel sink: Can start as low as $50 for a basic sink; typically, $150-$220. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the steel, and the quieter the sink (18-gauge is better than 22).

Enameled cast-iron sink: $200.

Corian sink: $750-$900.

Faucet: $150-$450. All-metal fabrication (primarily extruded brass) and plastic or ceramic disk cartridges instead of washers are recommended for drip-free operation.

Inexpensive sinks are typically shallower (5 to 7 inches deep) than expensive sinks (8 to 10 inches deep). Disposals and double and triple sinks increase the cost.

Lighting

Recessed cans: $15-$25.

Fluorescent under-cabinet lights: $18 per foot and up.

Halogen under-counter "hockey pucks," $20-$30 plus a $35 transformer.

Ceiling fan with light kit: $30-$230.

Skylight: $1,200-$1,500.

Solar tubes: $600.

Sources: Tampa Bay area retailers, National Kitchen and Bath Association.

What's cooking?

Which features do new-home buyers most want in their kitchens? The items are listed with the percentages of respondents who ranked them as "desirable" or "essential/must have." The survey, conducted for the National Association of Home Builders, included 3,800 home shoppers.

Large counter space 95

Space for table and chair 85

Double sink 89

Walk-in pantry 83

Built-in microwave 70

Light wood cabinets 67

Drinking water filtration system 60

Island work area 55

Source: "What Today's Home Buyers Want," National Association of Home Builders

For more information

Every other year, Remodeling magazine conducts a cost-versus-value survey, determining the effect on regional resale value of 12 remodeling projects. The 1996-97 report is available online at http://www.remodeling.hw.net (click on library, then on resources). Here you'll also find excerpts from a new book, How to Find the Contractor You Really Want. The home page offers a step-by-step virtual reality tour of a kitchen remodeling project.

Kitchen and Bath Custom Planner is a quarterly magazine published by American HomeStyle and Gardening magazine, sponsored by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Aimed at consumers, it offers thorough, detailed and clear descriptions of products and appliances, including price information, advice and industry standards. This is an excellent starting point for home remodeling projects. Available at newsstands, grocery stores and the magazine racks at home centers; $4.99. A brief version is available online at http://www.kitchen.net,the Web site of Kitchen and Bath Business, a trade magazine. The site is focused on consumers, with plenty of tips for do-it-yourselfers and thorough, helpful planning and shopping information. In the "Kitchen Fixin's" section, view pictures and information about many kitchen components, including prices, then compile and print out a shopping list.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association's Web site, at http://www.nkba.org, offers design and safety tips, questions and answers, extensive checklists and planning advice.

Home improvement veterans Gene and Katie Hamilton, authors of 12 books and a nationally syndicated column, share their do-it-yourself knowledge at their Web site, http://www.housenet.com. They offer advice in four areas: home improvement, lawn and garden, and (coming soon) home decorating and shopping for home items. There's a library of past articles, including one on deciding whether to do a job yourself or hire someone.

The HomeArts Web site, at http://homearts.com, offers remodeling and decorating information from a variety of magazines, including Country Living, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, Bob Vila's American Home and Popular Mechanics. Here are helpful archives of information (the Popular Mechanics files are particularly useful) and virtual tours of rooms and homes.

Maytag offers "Smart Solutions to Problem Kitchens," a 34-page, magazine-format kitchen planner. Before-and-after floor plans, 31 rules the professionals use, ways to determine what's wrong with your current kitchen, information on "kitchen ingredients" including cooktops, ranges, wall ovens, microwaves, ventilating hoods, refrigerators, dishwashers, compactors, sinks, faucets and countertops. Send name, address and $2 per copy to Maytag, Dept. 36PRMT, Newton, IA 50208.

_ Compiled by Homes Editor JUDY STARK

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