Replace or reface kitchen cabinets?

This Old House

(Photo credit: Kolin Smith, ThisOldHouse.com)

Mary Saunder disliked the cabinets in her kitchen from the moment she moved into her Bowie, Maryland, home. "They were metal, the color of bronze," Saunder says, "but my husband's motto was 'If it ain't broke don't fix it.'" When her husband passed away last February, Mary decided it was time to act. "I couldn't stand it any more," she says. But rather than spend the $25,000 or $30,000 redoing the kitchen with new cabinets would have cost her, she settled on a simpler, cheaper and far less intrusive solution.

Motivated by a newspaper ad for Sears' kitchen-cabinet-refacing service, she scheduled an appointment and signed up. After two visits to take measurements and show her the new finish and hardware options she could choose from, Sears moved in. Two days and 29 cabinets later, Mary's kitchen was transformed. "I'm 100 percent satisfied," she says. Total cost: $9,100.

Mary Saunder is fairly typical of thousands of U.S. homeowners who make the decision each year to reface rather than replace their cabinets. "The truth is," says Gerald Baldner, founder and president of Kitchen Solvers, a refacing franchising firm in La Crosse, Wisconsin, "some of the cabinets built 20 and 30 years ago are more solidly constructed than most modular, prebuilt cabinets today. So when it's time to redo the kitchen, it often doesn't make sense to start from scratch."

The basic refacing project consists of installing new cabinet door and drawer fronts and covering the exposed face frames of the cabinets with a matching wood or plastic veneer. Most jobs take two to four days, depending on kitchen size and extras like replacing counters or adding an extra cabinet.

[Need help refacing your cabinets? Click to find the right contractor now.]

The work itself is a standardized progression of tasks, generally handled by one or two craftsmen. They begin by removing doors and drawer fronts from cabinets and roughing up the old finish on face frames and side panels to prepare them for the new covering. They then glue and sometimes nail the new finish over the old, the nail holes filled and the seams and edges trimmed to make them unobtrusive.

New panels or molding are used to trim out the exposed undersides of the upper cabinets to give them a finished look, and the base cabinet toekick is replaced. Finally, new cabinet doors and drawer fronts are attached, and new hardware is mounted on each of them.

There generally are three finish options: plastic laminates, rigid thermofoils (RTF) and wood veneer. Refacing laminates come in a wide variety of solid colors and wood-grain looks. Slightly more expensive than RTF, laminates nevertheless lack malleability, which means they're limited to plain cabinet door styles when compared with RTF. RTF can be shaped and molded in a range of styles, including arched and cathedral doors, raised panel and eyebrow raised panels.

When Refacing Doesn't Make Sense
Refacing isn't for every kitchen. Most important, it doesn't address the issue of a poor kitchen layout. "If you go to the expense of refacing and still end up with a nonfunctional kitchen, you've wasted your money," says Cyndi Cantley, of Cantley & Co., a certified kitchen designer in Birmingham, Alabama.

Other conditions that rule out refacing include existing cabinets that are beginning to fall apart or aren't well built to begin with; metal cabinets that are rusting; and larger structural issues, like floors that have settled and left cabinets out of kilter. If you have any of these problems, you shouldn't consider refacing.

What Refacing Costs
How much you pay for refacing depends on the size of your kitchen, the materials you choose and how many options you elect to include. "Our typical refacing job runs $4,000 to $5,000," says Gerald Baldner of Kitchen Solvers, which has 105 refacing franchises in 30 states. "And that includes countertop, trim, molding, valences, new toekick, shelf and drawer liner, as well as accessories and tax."

According to Carl Hyman, owner of Alure Kitchen Refacing in East Meadow, New York, which serves an upscale clientele and refaces about 150 kitchens a year, his company's average job runs about $8,500 (including countertops). The average refacing job by Sears, which operates its refacing business through its own employees in some states and through licensees in others, costs $4,000 to $6,000. As with any remodeling project, your best bet is to get a number of different quotes.

[Compare cabinet refacing quotes. Click to find the right contractor now.]

The bottom line is that it comes down to personal taste. "You can take the same kitchen and do the plain-Jane refacing for $3,000 or, for $8,000 or $9,000, do it with wood, Corian countertops, a new sink and some bells and whistles," says Brian Titus, of Cabinetpak Kitchens, which operates refacing companies in Washington, D.C., and Ohio. Whatever you pay, it's bound to be significantly less than the cost of a new kitchen.

Companies like Alure, Kitchen Tune-Up and Kitchen Solvers, which offer both refacing and full-remodeling services, maintain a complete remodel runs on average twice as much as a high-end refacing job. Kitchen Solvers' Baldner cautions customers who have been told at home centers and other retailers that they can have new cabinets installed for about the same price to calculate carefully. "There are a lot of costs added on that most people don't think about when considering kitchen remodeling," he says. "If you get a quote on new cabinets, make sure it includes handles, molding, installation, sales tax, delivery charges, refinishing your walls if the new cabinets don't line up with the old, any required plumbing or electrical work."

And then there's the prolonged disruption and mess that come with a full-scale remodeling job. "We're selling convenience as much as we are cost savings," says Murray Gross, president and chief executive officer of Dallas-based U.S. Remodelers Inc., the refacing licensee for Century 21.

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