Kitchens and Baths


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Bath Remodeling

(February/April 2000)

The original bathroom in a Virginia Hills house may be small by contemporary standards. Still, with a little updating, you can create a beautiful bath that will add to the beauty of your home. In this article, we'll begin to discuss some of the upgrades that are needed and some that you might like to have. We'll finish up this discussion in the next issue, and then well talk about a new bath for the basement.

Bath Ventilation Fan

The first upgrade you absolutely must make to the bathroom is the addition of a ventilation fan. While there is a window in the bathroom, it never gets opened, and the warm moist air from the shower stays in the room. A fan will stop the problems of peeling paint and will decrease the growth of mildew. Installing a fan is a fairly easy project, and a professional electrician should have no trouble doing it.

If you object to noisy fans, take heart. While they are more expensive, you can buy very quiet fans these days. Installation involves cutting a hole for the fan in the bathroom ceiling, mounting the fan to the attic trusses, cutting a hole in the roof, and running a vent line to that hole and the outside cover. Do not vent any fan directly to the attic. It must vent outside! Installation only requires some minimal carpentry skills. The difficulty is the installation of the required electrical line. While there are a number of places in the attic from which you can tap into an existing circuit, the problem comes when you try to run the switch down into the wall because of the way the wall is framed. Professional help is a good thing here.

If you want a fan with a heater, or you want a wall heater in the bathroom, you will need to run a new circuit. Wiring for the upstairs or main floor of a Virginia Hills house was originally only two 15 amp circuits. One controlled the overhead lights and receptacles in the back half of the house and the other controlled the same for the front half. This isn't sufficient for today's electrical demands, and any electric heating will seriously overtax the existing circuits.

Sinks and Commodes

I'm quite fond of the original Virginia Hills sinks, but if you don't like yours, or it's cracked and chipped, you'll want to replace it. At a minimum, you'll probably have to replace the faucet. You may want a pedestal sink or a vanity. In either case, don't try to increase the size of the sink and the cabinet, if any. You can move the sink closer to the tub, but you can't go closer to the commode without restricting its space and violating building code.

In my experience, the price difference between very nice sinks/vanities and cheap ones isn't all that much. I'd spend extra money here. On the other hand, unless you want gold plating, a medium-priced faucet will be just as good as the most expensive models.

Commodes have undergone a major change in recent years with Federal law mandating 1.6 gallon flush models. While the original 1.6 gallon commodes did not flush well, more recent ones do an acceptable job. One model that I'm satisfied with is the Kohler Wellworth Lite, but there are other good brands and models available. Installing a 1.6 gallon flush toilet upstairs won't cause a problem in terms of clogging up your drain lines because your sink and shower "wash" that line. What that means is that they flow into the same drain right after the commode does, so there will be ample water to keep the line clear.

While installing sinks and commodes is not difficult for a fairly handy do-it-yourselfer, you may encounter other plumbing problems. While Virginia Hills houses were plumbed with copper pipe, I've seen galvanized extensions running out of the copper to feed the commode or sink. If so, these should be replaced, as galvanized pipe will close up over time. If you aren't getting good water pressure at the sink, this may be the reason.

Additionally, you may find that the metal drain pipe is leaking at joints. It's common that the cleanout plug (a round 5" plug used for accessing the sewer) on the main drain line below the bath is leaking. Rust is a major sign of a leak. Sometimes much of the drain must be replaced. This isn't a major job if it just involves the horizontal runs, but working on the vertical cast iron main drain is less easy. Most replacement these days is done with PVC. It doesn't clog nearly as easily as metal pipe, but you'll hear more noise in the basement when water runs through the pipes.

Part II

In this second article on remodeling bathrooms, we'll look at the problem of the window over the tub, replacing the tub itself, electrical requirements, and cabinets and mirrors. While you can do some of this remodeling yourself, much of it will require professional assistance.

The Window Problem

The typical window over the tub is a never-ending maintenance problem for most homeowners. When our houses were built in the 1950s, fewer people took showers instead of baths, and bath fans were rare. As a result, bathrooms needed an operable window to vent the room, and placing it over the tub was no problem. Showers, however, dumped large amounts of water on the window ledge, causing the steel windows to rust and the wood in the walls to rot. Also, a clear window created a privacy problem for people standing in the shower.

If you've installed the bath fan as I recommended in the last issue, you no longer need an operable window. A fixed window will be less of a problem as it has no hardware to open and close it, and it will seal more tightly against drafts. If you're installing a new window, you can buy an opaque glass pane to prevent people from seeing into your bath. Still, you'll have to deal with the problem of water on the ledge.

I recommend installing some kind of waterproof solution for the window frame. Tile works well if you aren't expecting it to keep out more than a bit of water. A tile frame for the entire window can look very nice. If you install tile, however, make sure you have a good barrier under it to keep water away from the framing. Contrary to popular belief, the grout in the tile joints is not waterproof. Another solution would be using a material like Corian to frame the window.

Even after you've covered the frame, however, you still want to keep water away from the window. While there is such a thing as shower curtains for small windows, I recommend hanging a shower curtain liner across the back wall slightly higher than the front curtain, high enough to cover the window. If you want to let the light in (and you have opaque glass in your window), you can hang a clear curtain liner. Otherwise, you can use a curtain that matches the bathroom decor. If this makes the shower too dark, consider an additional light over the end of the shower away from the shower head.

Bathtubs

Removing a tub is not a pleasant job in a Virginia Hills house, and I'd recommend keeping the existing tub if it is in good condition. The original tubs are made of cast iron, and the only way to get them out is to break them into pieces with a sledge hammer. Also, the tile above the tub is installed on a mortar bed with metal lath embedded in it. Removing it is the worst job imaginable. You must break it up with a sledge and cut the lath with a reciprocating saw. It is a long hard process that any professional remodeler will tell you is the job he'd least like to do.

If, however, you do replace the tub, consider a small whirlpool. Many manufacturers now make whirlpool tubs that fit the exact same space that the old tub came out of. It won't be an inexpensive installation, but you'll have added a true luxury item to your bath.

Electrical Work

If you're having the bath completely re-done, you'll need a new electrical circuit. The days when an electric razor was the only appliance used in a bathroom are long gone. Current code requires an independent circuit to carry the load of such things as hair dryers which use a lot of current. Your whirlpool tub will certainly require its own circuit as well.

Electricity and water do not mix, and electrical code requires that all receptacles in the bath be protected by ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI, those receptacles with the buttons). . Also remember that if you install a light or fan over your tub or in a shower, it must be UL approved for a wet location.

Cabinets

Cabinets and mirrors are a matter of personal taste. I only have two tips. If you install a cabinet over the toilet, be sure it's high enough so you have access to the toilet tank. Second, if you are replacing the mirror and its lighting, consider replacing the overhead light with lights on both sides of the mirror. That arrangement gives a better and more even light on your face.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2000



Bathroom Tile

(June/September 2000)

This month, we'll continue our discussion of bathrooms by talking about tile. We'll discuss how to rescue existing tile to save you the effort and expense of a new tile job. Next month, we'll talk about tearing out the old tile work (if necessary) and re-tiling the wall or floor.

The good news is that bathrooms in our houses were built right! The tile around the tub/shower and the floor tile was laid on a mortar bed. Today, that kind of work would be considered an absolutely top-of-the-line tile job. The bad news is that such work is very difficult to remove once it's in. If you aren't unhappy with the (usually black and white) color scheme, it's far easier to repair the existing work than to tear it out and start over. Even a good cleaning may do wonders for the appearance of your bathroom.

Saving Existing Tile

The biggest problem with existing tile is often that the grout between the tiles has become dirty or discolored. This is usually easy to fix with a toothbrush, some elbow grease, and a good grout cleaner available at your local home center. This is particularly true of the floor tile. While cleaning is a lot of work, the cost is minimal. The cleaner itself is usually a mild acid, however, so use gloves and insure that the bathroom is properly ventilated when you do the job.

If the grout itself is soft and crumbly, it needs to be removed and the wall or floor needs to be re-grouted. If there isn't a lot of grout to remove, you can buy what is known as a grout saw. This is a diamond-tipped blade about the size of a razor blade (or smaller) that is in a holder of one kind or another. Be very careful with the grout saw. If you overshoot the grout line, it's very easy to scratch a tile. And because the saw is a hand tool, removing lots of grout is a fairly laborious job. To re-grout, you'll have to go about 1/8" deep into the existing grout or the new grout won't hold on the wall.

If you are going to be removing a lot of grout, you'll want to use a motorized tool. Dremel, makers of the rotary tool (www.dremel.com), sell a special grout removal kit for use with their rotary tools, and Fein sells a grout removal blade for use with their detail sanders. There may be many others. I've done some extensive areas by hand, and unless the old grout is soft or is falling out, it isn't a fun job. Remember that grout is really mortar! I'd buy a motorized tool or hire a pro. If you're doing it yourself, be sure to use eye protection!

If a tile is cracked, you can remove it and replace it with a new one. The best way to go about this is to cut out the grout all around the tile, then drill the tile's center with a tile bit several times to make a hole big enough so you can get your chisel in it. Next, carefully crack the tile by gently hitting it with a hammer between the corners and your hole (making sure you've gotten all the surrounding grout out first, or you'll do damage to surrounding tiles). Once the tile is cracked, you can simply lift out or chisel out the pieces.

There is one warning to replacing tiles. 1950s tile trim was slightly larger that today's trim pieces. Trying to replace single black trim pieces will either give you slightly larger grout lines or will force you to remove all the trim from the broken piece to the floor or corner. While you can order custom made pieces, this is very expensive and usually takes several months.

Patching the base tile around the room perimeter can be an equally frustrating job. Originally, the drywall was run to the floor and the rounded over base tile was attached with mortar behind the tile. Many of these are now loose and will come out with gentle pressure. However, once you've started removing a tile, you many end up with all of them loose, as the grout is all that is holding them in. The easy fix here is to remove them all, install a strip of 1/2" Durock or Wonderboard behind them (screwing it through the drywall to the studs), and using a tile mastic to attach the tile to that backer.

Maintenance

Once you've replaced tiles, you should seal the new grout with a good sealer (and repeat this once or twice a year). This keeps the moisture and dirt out. You should also replace the caulking around the tub-wall and tub-floor lines if it starts cracking or growing mildew that can't be removed with a tile cleaner. Remember, keeping water out of your walls is the secret to a long-lasting tile job.

Part II

Let's conclude our series on bathrooms with a discussion of what to do if your bathroom tile isn't worth saving or you just hate the color and want it all gone.

Removing the Old Tile

In the original Virginia Hills home's bathroom, the wall tile was laid on a mortar bed that was floated over metal lathe. This is a very strong and very permanent job. It's also very difficult to remove, one of the worst jobs going. The way it's usually done is with a huge sledge hammer to bust up the concrete, then with a reciprocating saw to cut the metal lathe. The wall comes down piece by piece, and these aren't very big pieces. Of course you're likely to do serious damage to the tub if you aren't extremely careful. Some people have had success with tiling over the existing tile instead, and if you're willing to take a risk on the adhesion of the new tile, that alternative is easier. A compromise is to chip the old tile off the mortar base. That too offers only a limited likelihood of success and is a long, slow process. If you're in this situation, consulting a professional is a good idea.

If the tile was laid over drywall or green board, your job is much, much easier. Pull the drywall off the wall and the tile will come down with it. Don't waste your time trying to take off individual tiles. You can tear down the old tile, hang new green board, and install the new tile in a fraction of the time it would take to remove the original tiles one by one.

Behind the Tile

In the 1950, tile men floated a mortar bed for quality jobs. In a wet area, such as around the tub or shower, that was really the only choice. Today, most tile jobs in those areas use cement backer board. While it isn't waterproof, this product (available under the brand names Durock and Wonderboard, among others) will not fall apart if water gets to it. Indeed it can be submersed in water without suffering failure. Before cement backer board came out about 15 years ago, tile was sometimes laid over green board, a special moisture resistant kind of drywall. Do not use green board in wet areas! If moisture gets through the special paper on top, the green board will turn to mush. It is not intended for use in wet areas.

Why do I keep raising the concern about water penetration? Simply because concrete isn't waterproof! The mortar joints in the tile itself will let water through given enough water and enough time, even if there is no cracking. Once water penetrates those joints, green board starts to deteriorate. Cement backer board will survive, but again, with enough water, some will pass through the backer board and into the wall.

For this reason, the first thing that goes on the wall is a poly vapor barrier. This will keep water away from the insulation and wood studs in the wall cavity.

The cement backer board should be installed with screws or nails (non-rusting preferred) over the vapor barrier. The recommended method is to put the rough side of the backer board facing out toward the tile. This is because the rough side is for use with mortar and the smooth side is for use with mastic. The pros generally prefer to use mortar in wet areas.

The Tile

If you've gone to all this trouble for a new tile wall, consider decorative tiles or a pattern in your wall. This isn't much more expensive and gives you a custom job. Once the tile is laid on the wall, it must be grouted. You can also get colored grouts to give a different appearance. Remember, however, if you customize with a color scheme or appearance you like, someone buying your house may hate it. The nice thing about the original Virginia Hills tile scheme is that it is still acceptable today, albeit a bit bland.

Finally, you should seal your grout. The sealer prevents dirt from getting into the grout and helps a bit with the waterproofing. Look on the sealer bottle to see how often they recommend applying sealer. Six months is about average.

Floors

Tile can be more easily laid over existing tile on floors. The key here is to use a thicker tile intended for a floor, not the thin ceramic wall tile which will crack. If you raise the floor, you may wonder how to deal with the toilet since the flange on the pipe coming out of the floor will now be lower. While you can buy a piece to raise the height of the flange, using an extra wax ring on the toilet, one with the rubber collar, usually works just fine.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2000



Toilets – Repair or Replace?

If you're having problems with your toilet, is it time to replace it? The answer is a strong "maybe." In many cases, you can repair a toilet you already have so that it functions better than it did when it was new. In this article we'll discuss the factors that go into making the decision whether to replace or repair.

In 1994, Congress passed a law mandating low flush toilets to save water. New toilets sold in the U.S. may use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. For a number of years, the low flush toilets from many manufacturers didn't flush very well, often requiring two flushes to completely clear the bowl – thus defeating the purpose of a low flush toilet. Further, because of the smaller water spot, many of the newer toilets needed more cleaning than the older toilets. Even today, many of the less expensive toilets don't always clear the bowl; to get one of the toilets that flushes more effectively, you may have to move up in price, and even then, high price (say above $300) is no guarantee of a good flush. Read ratings and reviews of each brand before you buy!

Before you replace a working or repairable older toilet, then, you have to ask yourself about how important "saving" water is to you. I've put the word saving in quotes because older toilets that use twice or four times as much water to flush don't make water vaporize or vanish. The water is flushed into the sanitary sewer, treated by the municipality, and goes back into the surrounding rivers. Yes, I know some municipalities don't do very well at fully treating waste water, but it's not rocket science. If your area has adequate rainfall, and has plenty of water locally, you may not consider the water savings very important in the grand scheme of things. If you live in California where water must be imported from hundreds of miles away and is far more expensive, you might feel differently about this.

If you don't have environmental concerns, the question is how long it will take for the new low flush toilet to pay for itself with savings on your water bill. The answer is generally "a very long time" depending on the local charge for water. In localities where water is not in short supply, most of the water bill is paying for facilities – supply pipes, sewers, and water treatment plants. The cost of the water itself is minimal, and it will take decades to make up the difference between the cost of a new $300 toilet and a repair. If you're handy, you can fix the four things that go wrong with a toilet for no more than $20-30 in parts. Ask yourself if the toilet flushed well at some time in the past. If so, it's probably worth repairing.

Is the toilet leaking from the bottom? All that's needed is a new wax gasket that costs about $5. It's a lot of work to lift the toilet to replace the gasket and then re-set it. If you've never done it, you might want to pay for about a half hour of a plumber's time. If you haven't let the leak go on so long that the floor under the toilet is rotted from the water, this is an easy repair.

After a flush, is the toilet not filling properly or not cutting off when filled? It needs a new fill valve. The new ones work much better than the ones that originally came with the toilet (the old float ball on a rod) and cost about $10. Again, if you're not handy, expect to pay for about a half hour of the plumber's time.

After the tank fills, does it need to partially fill again every so often, the so-called "running on" problem? If so, it's probably the flapper, another $5-10 part that is simple to install. You might, however, need the entire flush valve with the refill tube. If so, think $20-30. To install it, you or your plumber will have to remove the tank from the bowl.

Does the bowl not clear as well as it once did? This can be a free repair. Under the lip of the bowl there are holes where the water flows out and creates the swirl in the bowl. These holes often become plugged, especially in areas with hard water. A coat hanger or pipe cleaner will reopen them and solve the problem. Otherwise, adjusting the chain on the flapper to allow a slightly longer flush may do the trick.

Finally, even if your bowl, tank, or tank cover is cracked or chipped, you can often find a used replacement that was removed from another house in a salvage yard. Plumbers often know where these can be obtained, or they may even have one in their shop.

One good reason for keeping your old, higher flush toilet is if the waste line has a long horizontal run that isn't "washed" by another fixture. That means that no sink or shower is upstream from the toilet, so there's no additional waste water to help clean out the line coming from the toilet. With the reduced flushes, if the slope of the horizontal waste line isn't sufficient there is a greater chance of the line backing up. Basement toilets are particularly susceptible to this problem, and it might be better to leave a higher flush toilet in the basement.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2007



Toilet Wax Ring Gaskets

(September 2003)

In the home repair forums I browse, there's always a big argument about whether to seal the base of the toilet with something like a bathtub caulk. My vote is no! Here's why.

Every toilet has an inexpensive wax ring that seals the outlet of the toilet to the flange of the floor drain. These gaskets last for years and years, often 20 or more. Once the gasket deteriorates, however, flushing the toilet results in leaks, the evidence of which is water coming out from the base of the toilet. When you see that, you'll need to call a plumber to remove the toilet and replace the wax gasket – or do it yourself if you're handy.

Don't delay! If this condition is allowed to persist, it WILL rot the wood flooring and even the floor joists. What was a $100 repair for replacement of a $3.00 gasket then becomes major construction and is much more expensive - very much more expensive if you decide that having already torn out the bathroom floor you might as well renovate the entire bathroom.

So don't seal the base of the toilet because you'll hide the symptoms of a bad gasket and may postpone its replacement until serious damage is done.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2003



Kitchen Choices

(April 2001)

Kitchen remodeling presents perhaps the most difficult choices of any remodeling project. For every change you make, you'll find there are a wide range of materials. What's worse, price is often a poor predictor of usability. Something that is very expensive may be hard to use or keep clean. In this article, I'm going to discuss some of the major choices you'll make and give you some ideas about how to get the most value for your money.

Cabinets are often the largest single expense for a kitchen. The secret about cabinets, however, is that buying them is much like buying furniture–the markup is hundreds of percent. I once priced a kitchen's worth of cabinets at a dealer and then got them to give me what I thought was a big reduction. I then priced similar cabinets at a home center and found that I would have to pay less than half the first amount. And the home center wasn't selling the cabinets at cost as a loss leader, so they weren't losing money on them. Before you commit to buying cabinets elsewhere, check out a home center's top-of-the-line cabinets. I think you'll be amazed at how much you can save. On the other hand, you may have particular needs or wants for your cabinets. In that case you'll find that you can have a cabinet shop custom build your cabinets for not a lot more than the price you'd be quoted in a kitchen showroom.

Of course, cabinets vary in terms of the materials put into them. Some of this is a matter of personal preference - do you prefer Euro-style hinges or regular hinges? Some quality is only worth it if you're willing to pay the premium. Dovetailed joints are much better for drawers than butt joints, but a drawer can be sturdy and well made with butt joints too. There is no substitute here for lots of shopping around comparing quality and price and making decisions on what compromises you are willing to make.

On the other hand, you might not need new cabinets at all. You could replace the doors on your existing cabinets. The problem with this is that the firms who do this work base their prices on the cost of new cabinets. They will save you some money, but not much. I've been dismayed to see how much they charge. If you can't negotiate the prices down, you won't get a very good deal.

Refinishing your existing cabinets yourself can be a lot of work and is only an acceptable solution if the original cabinets were fairly high quality and are in good condition. If both of these apply, however, you might be able to change the look of your existing cabinets for very little money.

Appliances are usually a major expense. You'll probably want a new stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, and range hood. The secret here is that, like with cars, the top of the line models have the largest markup. Looking at the middle of a manufacturer's product line will get you the best tradeoff in terms of features, quality, and cost. The biggest problem for Virginia Hills residents is the refrigerator. The space where most refrigerators sit will only accommodate one of the smaller refrigerators. You'll have to decide whether you want to enlarge that space or greatly restrict the choice of refrigerators that you have.

A final huge expense is countertops. While laminate (think Formica) tops are the least expensive, they also have the lowest resale value. Home buyers today are looking for something upscale such as solid surface (think Corian), granite, or tile. While prices for solid surface and granite tops have come down a bit lately, start thinking of $100 a running foot of countertop. Tile, on the other hand, requires far more effort to keep clean. There's really no right answer here unless you have an unlimited budget.

Finally, you'll have to make a choice for your floor. While vinyl was long the popular choice, upscale kitchens now have tile or some kind of wood flooring. The price difference is far less than in some of the other things we've talked about, but is still significant. While real estate agents would recommend against vinyl, it's still my choice for reasons I'll go into next time.

I saw an article recently that implied that you had to spend $50,000 to get a remodeled kitchen. While you can easily spend that, I also think you can do a lot for a whole lot less. Think $3,000 for cabinets, $2,000 for appliances, and $2,000 for solid surface countertops. Even with a high labor cost, you should be able to get a new, high quality kitchen for under $15,000 if you're not expanding the kitchen space.

Next time I'll talk about what I think needs to be done to a Virginia Hills kitchen and go into more of the choices I would make.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001



Kitchen Electrical and Lighting

(June 2001)

In this second article on kitchen renovation, we'll talk about electrical and lighting upgrades to older kitchens, range hoods, and your choice of materials for the kitchen floor.

One of the biggest problems with the original kitchens wasn't really a problem in the 1950s when they were built. One electrical circuit could serve the whole kitchen. Fifty years ago, the electrical appliances in a kitchen were pretty much a toaster, electric mixer, and the refrigerator. A dishwasher might be found in a luxury kitchen. Maybe a radio might be nearby. But by the 1960s, things had begun to change; electric knives, frying pans, blenders, and the list goes on. Today, it's a rare kitchen that doesn't have a microwave oven.

Electrical code has been upgraded to account for all the new appliances. Now, two 20 amp circuits are required for those small appliances and large appliances should be on their own circuits. These include the garbage disposal, dishwasher, and possibly the microwave. A new kitchen may therefore need six or more circuits. Moreover, those two small appliance circuits need ground fault protection provided either by special circuit breakers or by GFCI receptacles because of their proximity to the sink.

The point of this discussion is that no kitchen remodel can be properly done without some major electrical work. While you won't see the electrical improvements, they are key to the proper functioning of your kitchen. If the basement ceiling below the kitchen is open (or the attic floor if your house is built on a slab), doing the wiring for the additional circuits won't be very difficult. The real question will be how much capacity is left in your circuit breaker box and whether it must be upgraded to 200 amp service. If you still have an old fuse box, the likelihood is that you will have to upgrade. As you can guess, electrical work may be a major cost in your remodel, but it needs to be done.

As part of the electrical work, you'll certainly want to upgrade the lighting. The central ceiling fixture alone is no longer acceptable in a modern kitchen. While it does fine for general lighting, everyone wants task lighting for the sink and countertops. One way to do this is to replace the central ceiling fixture with track lighting and use four or more track fixtures to illuminate all your work areas. Most people, however, will consider installing fixtures under the cabinets. There are a wide variety of fixtures available, from normal incandescent to halogen. If you're really struggling with this, a lighting designer can be very helpful.

Another source of task lighting will be your range hood. Where the old kitchens made do with the exhaust fan in the wall, people are no longer willing to accept the cold air they let in during the winter and the inefficient nature of the venting. A range hood allows for efficient venting and light over the cooking surface.

Most range hoods will permit ducted and ductless installation. Ductless installation pulls the air off the stove, runs it through a grease filter, and vents it out the front of the hood. This is not much better than having no hood at all. What you really want is a duct system that goes through the attic and vents the cooking odors and combustion byproducts of the gas stove to the outside. The more air the hood can move (measured in cfm, cubic feet per minute), the better. Again, installing a ducted range hood is more expensive, but provides performance that is well worth it.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001



Kitchen Expansion

(September 2001)

In this final of three articles on kitchen remodeling, we'll discuss expanding the kitchen–whether you should, and how you might do it.

A big kitchen is seen by home buyers as one of the most desirable features in a house. Indeed, women often see the kitchen as a make or break room for their decision to buy. For Virginia Hills homeowners, however, the possibilities to expand the kitchen are limited and involve tradeoffs. Let's talk about some of these.

First, you'll need somewhere to eat. In the 1950s, a table in that portion of the living room next to the kitchen was considered acceptable, though few home buyers would consider it so today. For that reason, many homeowners have converted the third (small) bedroom into a dining room. That's a reasonable solution, but you won't be having many big dinner parties in there. Six people is the limit. So the first question is whether you need the third bedroom as a bedroom.

A larger home today would have an eat-in kitchen and a formal dining room that would seat six or eight. There's really only one way to do that in a Virginia Hills rambler without expanding. You make the living room a dining room, use the third bedroom as your breakfast nook, and maybe expand the kitchen by taking some of the space of your new large dining room. So where is the living room? It has to go in the basement, a compromise at best–and not possible at all if you have a slab.

This means that you'll need to expand the house to have the kitchen and eating space you really want. Some of the houses on the two home tours have shown what nice results you can get if you expand.

Still, you can get a larger kitchen, or at least more useable space in several other ways. First, consider turning the door from the kitchen to the outside into a window.This frees up the space required for the swing of the door since the door must either open against the refrigerator or the countertop opposite. The door can't be opened very wide in either case, and it takes three feet off the length of the kitchen. If you love having that door to bring groceries through, you won't like this suggestion, but, if like most homeowners, you seldom use it, getting rid of it is a good idea.

The next possibility, if you have a basement, is dealing with the stair that goes down to the basement opposite where most people have their stove. This was a terrible design, and even the builder recognized it, straightening the stair in the last houses he built so that it went down completely outside the kitchen. Converting the old stair to a straight stair isn't a do-it-yourself project that most people would want to take on, but it's not overly complex or expensive. And if you've remodeled your basement and use it a lot, you'll want that straight stair. Again, that will make the kitchen seem much larger because it eliminates that door swing.

If you want real space, the best way to get it is to take the area of the living room where the dining table was intended to be and wall it off into the kitchen. While it does make the living room smaller, the living room is still useable. What you get in exchange is an L-shaped kitchen. You can either use the extra space for more countertop (and perhaps move the stove into it) or only use a bit of it for cabinets and countertops and have a small breakfast table. Those of you on the home tour this year saw this in the Billy's house. And, you can keep the door to the outside.

For more cabinet space, consider taller wall cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling. Aesthetically, they may overwhelm a small kitchen, but they do provide more space. Use the top shelves for those items you rarely use, since you'll have to use a step stool to get to them.

Consider a pantry somewhere. In this age of recycling bins, having some place to put them indoors is convenient. If you are building an addition and can sacrifice that third bedroom, it's a good place for a very large pantry.

A remodeled kitchen is key to having a home that seems up to date (though the most trendy might want to reconstruct the 1950s kitchen as it was originally). While more space is better, a Virginia Hills kitchen can be quite functional in its original size. As we've seen in the last three articles, a kitchen remodel doesn't need to break the bank. A little sanity in the choice of cabinets and appliances leaves lots of room in the budget for all the other things you'd like to do.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2001

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