Renovation time: Common sense, money and power tools involve saviors and heartaches

There are many issues to consider when it comes to renovating a house. Time does not stand still. The marketplace is in constant ferment. New solutions are constantly arising.

Some of the big questions are obvious ones. How do your kitchen cabinets look now? If you raised a family in that kitchen, then the odds are the cabinets look like you raised a family there. You may want a new look. If you ever sell the house, you just know that the buyers will sniff when they look at those old cabinets.

What should you do? Hire someone to make new cabinets from scratch? Buy them online and put them in yourself? Get an online cabinet maker to come in and put in their custom cabinets?


Talk to contractors and carpenters and you will quickly learn some truths that are as self-evident as those penned by Thomas Jefferson 240 years ago. One is that in hiring for many jobs you benefit from experience. “In the real world,” says Ralph Popo, who has been a contractor for decades in Ulster and surrounding counties, “things are neither plumb nor square.  That’s when you hire experience.”

Take that corner in the bathroom that you thought the cabinet would just fit in neatly because it was a right angle? When you actually put a square in there to check, it turns out that it’s not square!

This is particularly true of older houses. “Oh, yeah, things move, you don’t notice it, but houses change shape,” says Popo. Every winter the house contracts, and it expands again in the summer. Over the years that leaves changes.


Joe Russek, another contractor, paused in the middle of a restaurant renovation to talk about ways to create a good look renovating a kitchen while retaining something in your bank account.

“All comes down to your budget,” says Russek. “If you go the handcrafted route, that’s serious money. Fifteen thousand and more. Much more. There’s really no upper limit. At the other extreme, how about paint? Go on line, check Pinterest for ideas to repaint cabinets.”

Russek notes the time factor. “Handcraft will take much more time,” he says. “So if you’re satisfying the eye of a designer and you have a Rockefeller-sized wallet you can achieve pretty much anything. But remember, you pick something up in a big-box store or at Ikea you can literally put it in in a day.”

Most contractors don’t think that most inexpensive cabinets and other items are all that great. “Particle board,” sniffs Popo. “How long do you think it will look good if you use it?”

That said, many people have bought Ikea products and been happy with them.Please be aware that skilled Ikea-assembler folks can now be found online in almost any area of the country. If finding how to attach X to D using tool F is more than you can face, you can hire someone to tackle that. Again, it is an equation of budget, time and abilities.

Russek is all for do-it-yourself in the right circumstances. “Saving money, assembling things yourself is fine, if you were good at shop or took a course somewhere in woodwork,” he says.

Popo chimes in, “Bottom line is, anyone can do it if you have enough tools. Almost everything comes down to having the tools for the job.” That’s where time and the market have changed the game.

“Power tools,” says Popo, with another of his ominous chuckles. “All you gotta have sometimes is more power tools than brains!”

Combine with a smartphone and the internet, and you can, in theory, do any job yourself, just Googling constantly to get the details. Almost. As Popo notes, “I’ve seen things on Google that are just not correct. Go back to the real world, things aren’t square, aren’t plumb.”

Here’s another major point to keep in mind. Labor is much more expensive than material in ninety percent of cases. Keeping hired labor cost to a minimum can save you money. Invest in tools. When buying tools, remember the carpenter’s rule: The more power you have the easier it is to do the job.

Popo’s suggestion is to learn by doing. “First, get the tools. Then build something as a practice job: a doghouse, a shed, something that will forgive mistakes. Don’t start out with a power sawzall and the woodwork on your staircase.”

Not as simple as you thought?

A slightly different path for the aspiring do-it-yourselfer is to hire someone who has all the right tools and learn from him or her. Have them do a job that you know is beyond your own powers, and study what they do and what tools they bring. Keep notes.

If those custom cabinets are what you’re determined to have, then the internet is where you have to shop. There are far too many choices there to even begin to list them. A lot of really cool ideas are out there. Check out Shelf Genie for one. Where you have two hard-to-use shelves under the countertop now, you could have three or four neat sliding drawers, both horizontal and vertical. A lot of design power has been put into this area. Before you reinvent the wheel, spend an evening or three surfing and checking out what’s available.


Other makers address concerns about things like formaldehyde. Kitchen Magic claims that its wood is always North American and never Chinese. Others promise superior craftsmen who will install everything. There are rebates and package deals, too.

For a reality check on this, talk to real-estate brokers, especially if you’re going to sell the house in the foreseeable future.

“Remember. it’s a balancing act,” says Gail Vesely, who sells real estate in Ulster County. She has a list of questions and suggestions.

“What kind of market are you in? How much is the house worth?” she asks. “Spending a fortune on a kitchen or some other renovation may not pay for itself. Consider cheaper alternatives. If you have older cabinets made of real wood, take good care of them. Real wood shelves don’t bend and warp like the particle-board ones. Update the hardware, the places that show the wear and tear. Paint! That can make a very big difference, and it’s much less expensive than taking out the old and putting in new.”

Everyone agrees on certain basics: Study the project you have in mind. Do some measurements, see how square or not the angles are. Consider the cost of buying lots of tools, and balance that against the cost of bringing in a contractor. Keep in mind your own abilities and be honest about your limits. When buying custom stuff, research, research, research, and then E-bay! And note how frequently people say, “Might just need another good coat of paint!”