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How to compare cabinets without gritting your teeth

Here’s a snippet from my latest book (coming out in 2013):

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View from above on the modern kitchen

Amelia is visiting various kitchen showrooms to get pricing for her new kitchen cabinets. After 6 quotes, she’s confused. She asked for maple cabinets with a raised center panel, full-extension drawer glides, plywood construction and a standard stain. The prices she has range from $16,600.00 to $18,600.00.

What is she missing? Are some of the prices out of line? How can she tell the differences? There is sometimes a combination of factors that the average consumer wouldn’t know. Here’s the inside scoop:

How well the manufacturer buys materials. My father gave up making cabinets in the early 1980s because as he said, “Our shop was too small. I couldn’t compete with the manufacturers who were buying millions in plywood, hardware, and wood. They get better deals on almost everything because they’re buying on volume.”

Some slight design changes to the quote to bring the pricing down. Crown moldings, light rail and specialty trims can be expensive in some lines, and cheaper in others. When Amelia returns to the showrooms, she should double-check that all the same trim is included or, in the case of the crown molding, that it is the same height. A smaller height or simpler style can be less expensive.

Design choices: Not all interior fittings are created equal. For example, many of the cabinet lines have two styles of lazy Susans to select from. I’ve also worked with custom lines that have as many as 6 different styles, with $ 300.00 at the low end and $ 1200.00 at the high end. Is the one you’ve included the same in every store? Amelia might check to see if the hardware on the lazy Susan has ball-bearing rollers, or a stop, or wire baskets instead of plastic. Or plastic baskets for all if she wants to keep the costs down.

While she might have asked for plywood, she may not know that not all plywood is created equal. At the low-end is a 3/8” 5-ply. Higher ends are a thicker ¾” 5- to 7- ply. They can come in different grades with knot holes or marks showing in the less expensive quality. Knowing the thickness is a good start and she might also look inside the cabinets to see what streaks, knots and other wood characteristics are showing up.

Are the doors solid wood? I don’t mean a single piece of wood—it would warp. I mean that the center panel of your raised panel door true wood or a composite? There are some door styles out there where the center wood has been replaced with a construction board covered with a wood plywood skin. This can make a significant difference to cost.

What is the finish? The industry standard is a catalyzed finish, meaning the finish is bonded to the wood. This type of finish will not gum or darken where one touch the wood; instead the wood develops a slight gloss over the years. With a catalyzed finish, the wear is eliminated (and so is the waxing and other finishing). Amelia won’t have to use harsh cleansers or soaps to clean her cabinets—merely a mild soap and water.

Finally, just as she double-checked the interior of the cabinets, Amelia should have a good, hard look at the quality of the maple exterior. Does the sample door show darker mineral streaks, pinhole knots, or discoloration? Higher quality maple doors select the clearest pieces of wood and eliminate the rest, which makes the end results more expensive.

Ultimately, when Amelia went back to the showrooms, she discovered that the lowest priced quote had selected smaller crown molding, a basic plastic lazy Susan, and a 3/8” plywood box construction. The costlier line has a 3/4” thick box, a 2-step crown molding that was double the size of the lowest quote, the top-end lazy Susan with chrome baskets, and a ¾” plywood box construction. In addition, the designer had added door panels as paneling for the back of the island.

The difference between low and high quotes was $2,000.00. When Amelia asked for another quote from the lower-priced cabinets with all the options of the higher-end quote, the difference between the two shrunk to a $130.00 difference.

At this point, Amelia has to decide. Perhaps she fell in love with the smooth drawer glides and the chrome fittings of the most expensive quote and knew she’d enjoy them even if she might not get the full return on investment. Or perhaps the doors for the higher-price quote were that much nicer. Or perhaps she decided that to go with the lowest pricing because she’s moving in a year.

Neither choice is wrong. What might have been a shame is if she had gone with the lowest quote thinking the other quotes were “ripping her off”.

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