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Kitchen cabinet upgrades "Custom" goes mainstream
Photo of a kitchen
Premium cabinets for less  
Photo courtesy of Diamond Cabinetry, Judith Watts
How can you tell a premium kitchen cabinet from a basic one? In the past, if you saw dovetail joints inside the drawers, you knew you had a high-end model. But that distinction has blurred as manufacturers offer premium features at lower price points.

Most of the cabinets we tested include these stronger joints. More style choices are also moving basic “stock” cabinets closer to the midlevel “semicustom” cabinets that span the gap between basic and made-to-order “custom” units. What's more, you'll find more semicustom lines that offer range-hood covers, elaborate crown moldings, and other custom options.

That's welcome news, considering that cabinets often eat up roughly half of a remodeling budget, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a group that trains and certifies kitchen designers. But you can also pay a higher price for lower-quality cabinets.

We compared a cross section of matched base and wall cabinets. We chose tight-grained maple, which, with cherry, is gaining on oak. Most models are sold at Home Depot and Lowe's, which account for about half of all residential sales. We evaluated premium lines sold at Expo Design Center, Home Depot's high-end division, along with midlevel models from local stores. Here are the details:

More storage options. You'll find more low-priced basic cabinets available with pullout shelves and full-extension drawers. Both features eliminate bending and hunting. Opt for a premium cabinet, and you can get full-extension drawers with a “soft-close” feature that stops them from slamming shut.

Better basic models. You'd think that ready-to-assemble basic cabinets would be less durable than pricier units. But two we tested from Mills Pride and Ikea withstood our wear tests better than some more expensive brands.

The catch: These offer fewer choices in door designs, box sizes, accessories, and trim. And you must allow for an hour or more of assembly time for each set of base and wall cabinets.


How to Choose

Once you've chosen a look you like, see Types for an overview of what you'll get at typical price points. Then keep these tips in mind as you shop:

Do the choosing yourself. Readers who chose cabinets based solely on the advice of contractors, designers, or architects were twice as likely to report a problem as those more involved.

Put your money where it counts. You can probably get away with a box made of particleboard rather than plywood. But well-built drawers and guides are critical, since they get the most use. Many brands allow you to upgrade the drawer guides.

Focus on convenience. Work-savers include a lazy Susan, a pull-down soap and sponge holder, and deep pot drawers.

Skip the nonessentials. For example, glazing, while nice, typically adds 10 to 20 percent to the cost.

Factor in the work. Installation can easily cost more than 50 percent of the cabinet cost. Set your budget accordingly.


Doing it right: planning for a safe installation

Of the nearly 2,000 readers we surveyed who recently remodeled a kitchen, more than half spent at least $5,000 on cabinets. A good job protects that investment by preventing boxes that can warp, doors that won't close or sit flush, and wall cabinets that can fall.

Check references. Talk to suppliers and former customers to confirm proper business practices. Ask for copies of insurance certificates as well.

Check credentials. Having certification in kitchen and bath remodeling from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry is a plus. It requires five years in the industry and passing a full-day exam.

Have the plan handy. That way, when the installer comes for the estimate, he can account for the heights and types of new wall cabinets, soffits, locations of electrical outlets and plumbing, and other variables.

Factor in your old cabinets. The installation estimate should include demolition and removal of your existing cabinets.

Shore up the wall mountings. Have your installer reinforce wall-cabinet mounting strips if they're made of thin particleboard.


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