Smart and cheap ways to renovate cabinets

You can save a lot of cash by refacing instead of replacing kitchen cabinets, but only if your cabinets are shipshape.

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Smart and cheap ways to renovate cabinets
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Smart and cheap ways to renovate cabinets

If the look of your kitchen cabinets is bringing you down, it may be time to do something about it. This includes replacing your cabinets entirely, or going a more budget-friendly route and refacing your cabinets.

"When a client decides to remodel a kitchen, I'm often faced with the question, should you replace your cabinets or simply reface them," says Steve Clark, owner of RFC of San Francisco, a remodeling and property management company. "The answer to this question depends on several factors, which include a person's budget, the layout of the kitchen, the condition of the cabinets, design, and time."

So, what exactly is the difference between refacing and replacing cabinets? To start, replacing involves removing the existing cabinets and installing new ones, while refacing involves installing new wood veneers on the frame and outer shell, and replacing just doors and drawer fronts.

To figure out what option is right for you, we've spoken to a few experts to get their take on what you should consider when deciding whether to reface or replace your cabinets.

Consideration #1: The Condition of Your Cabinets

The condition of your cabinets is of major importance when deciding whether to reface or replace them.

"Your cabinets are the base for your countertops and storage for your kitchen goods. If they're not structurally sound, they will eventually collapse," says Aja Covell, founder of Investcove Properties, a general contracting firm.

When to Replace: If there's major damage, your cabinets will need to be replaced.

For example, "If cabinets have been sitting in water for any reason, their bases may become warped and structurally unsound," says Covell. "If your cabinets are flaking at the bottom or if there's particle board showing through, your cabinets are most likely water damaged. In this case it's imperative that you replace them."

When to Reface: If the cabinetry is strong but worn, it may be a candidate for refacing - but only if the interior is sound.

"Check that the cabinets are flush to the wall and floor," says Covell, who adds that the strip of wood that sits at the floor of the cabinet is in excellent shape - with no visible signs of damage.

And even if cabinet doors or drawers aren't working properly, it may only be a hardware problem - easily fixed with a reface. Just make sure the cabinets haven't shifted on the wall, knocking everything out of alignment, says Covell. Refacing won't repair structural problems.

[Think refacing your cabinets is the right option for you? Click to compare rates from contractors now.]

Consideration #2: Your Budget

For many people, budget is a key factor when deciding between replacing or refacing cabinets, especially as the price difference between the two is huge.

For a kitchen renovation, for example, Clark says that the largest cost is typically the cabinets.

"I earmark 40 percent of a person's budget for cabinetry. If a client has a limited budget, I ask him or her to consider having the current cabinetry refaced," says Clark.

So how much money are we talking about?

When to Replace: If you have a lot of money to spare. "A new cabinet system can range in cost from $7,000 to $25,000," says Clark. Why such a broad spread?

Clark attributes this price range to the fact that new kitchen cabinets are customizable and thus, you can create the kitchen of your dreams. And besides choosing the wood, finish, and overall style, you can also load up on accessories and upgrades.

When to Reface: Clark's estimate for a professional refacing is typically $3000 to $9000, so if you're on a budget, refacing your cabinets is definitely more wallet-friendly than replacing.

It's good to keep in mind, however, that "the price of refacing is going to be affected by the finishing process - specifically its quality and level of customization," says Sandra Brannock, a professional kitchen designer and founder of Expert Kitchen Designs.  If you want cabinetry that looks like high quality furniture, the finish will reflect a higher price point.

[On a budget? Click to compare cabinet refacing rates from multiple contractors now.]

Consideration #3: Current Cabinet Structure

The most important element of your cabinet is the structure that the door attaches to. The structure gives the cabinet a function and more importantly, it affects the overall price.

"There are two types of cabinets predominantly available on the market, framed cabinets and frameless cabinets," says Darina Staneva, CEO of 27Estore.com. Framed cabinets have a face frame - the picture-like frame on the cabinet's front. On the other hand, a frameless cabinet is a simple box.

It's important to understand this difference as your options for replacing and refacing could depend heavily on which cabinet structure you have or want.

When to Replace: Framed cabinets take more work - and more money - to reface than frameless cabinets. "All the frames have to be finished with new veneers, foil, or varnish to match the new doors," says Staneva. In some cases, it may be less expensive to replace the cabinets, rather than reface them.

When to Reface: With frameless cabinets, the doors cover the entire front of the cabinets. This makes things much simpler when refacing, as the new doors are simply put in place of the old ones.

[Are you ready to reface your kitchen cabinets? Click to find a contractor to help with the renovation.]

Consideration #4: Layout

Whether you're renovating your kitchen or bathroom cabinets, the layout of your room plays a major part in deciding whether to reface or replace cabinets. If you plan to change the shape and configuration of a room, the cabinets may have to be replaced.

Think of it this way: When changing an L-shaped kitchen to a U-shaped one, for example, the sink, stove, and refrigerator may be relocated - along with the cabinets around them.

When to Replace: If you're unhappy with the current layout of your bathroom or kitchen, replacing is probably your only option.  "If you have a galley kitchen now and your heart is set on a kitchen with an island, just refacing may not get you the kitchen you want," explains Dan Fritschen, author of "Remodel or Move?"

When to Reface: Refacing is a great option if you don't intend to change the current layout of your kitchen or bathroom. That's because you can simply replace the cabinet doors for a new look.

What's more, if you decide to keep a majority of the room's layout the same, while making just a few small changes, Fritschen says that "you can certainly reface and add new cabinets," if necessary. "But when you do, be sure to add up the total cost to see if it's really less money than replacing everything."

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