I spent $35,000 remodeling my kitchen, and here are 10 big lessons I learned

Gutting our 35-year old kitchen wasn't easy or cheap, but it improved our daily lives. Here's what we learned after the construction dust had cleared:
The tiny kitchen in our 1980s northeast Phoenix home came complete with a dropped ceiling, fluorescent box lights, tile countertops and original major appliances, including a groovy trash compactor. When we bought the house in 2009, we knew we'd eventually have to renovate. For years the task - and pricetag - seemed overwhelming.
When the main electric cooktop burner went out and the odd-sized oven was scorching everything, it was time. If we needed to sell the house, we knew we'd take a hit; kitchens and baths still sell homes. The last thing I wanted was to make incremental upgrades or renovate at the finish line for someone else.
If done right, I knew this space could improve not just the look of our whole house, but the way we live. I envisioned making cupcakes (and healthier meals) with our 3-year-old at a new peninsula, and supervising her craft projects while I cooked. Until now, we'd done all we could to keep her out of the cramped space, where danger seemed to lurk at every inefficient turn.
Here are 10 lessons learned from our kitchen remodel, which took months to plan and five solid weeks of construction dust to complete.
Plan ahead to save money
My husband and I had hoped to save money by assembling our cabinets and having a local non-profit demo and haul away the old cabinets and appliances. Stardust Building Supplies offers a free demo service when you donate your used cabinets and appliances. Unfortunately, they were booked weeks in advance and couldn't schedule the demo in time for our contractor, who was ready to get started. Nor did we end up having the many days it would have taken to assemble 20 flat-pack Ikea cabinets. We easily could have saved more than $1,000 by doing both. We also learned financing can take longer than a remodel. We were told it takes an average of 45 days after pre-approval to get a home equity line of credit. Ours took longer, so apply at least three months before you'll need it.
Set a realistic budget
Out of necessity and frugal DNA, I was sure I could do an affordable remodel. Iwanted to do an affordable remodel. But affordable is a relative term. When we started daydreaming about this project, I thought I could do it for around $15,000 - perfectly plausible if you watch certain home-improvement shows. Unfortunately, that's less than half what it ended up costing.
The national average for a mid-range major kitchen remodel was $56,768, according to the Remodeling 2015 Cost vs. Value report. That's for semi-custom cabinets, mid-range appliances and laminate countertops in a 200-square-foot kitchen. Their national average for an "upscale" major kitchen remodel (with custom cabinets, high-end appliances and stone countertops) in 2015 was $113,097. A mid-range minor kitchen remodel (without new cabinets) in 2015 was $19,226. Those numbers broken down for the Phoenix market were slightly lower: $55,269 for a mid-range major kitchen remodel; $110,646 for an upscale major kitchen remodel and $18,839 for a mid-range minor kitchen remodel.
Electrical work alone to update the 35-year-old wiring in our kitchen was $4,175. Quartz countertops and installation cost $4,265. Raising the ceiling meant re-routing a main air duct, which got complicated, as did removing a structural half wall. Overall, the total Ikea bill for all appliances (dishwasher, cooktop, double oven and installed microwave) was $3,500; the cabinets cost just shy of $8,000. But construction costs meant the whole project came in just under $35,000. When all was said and done, it really did feel like a new house, not just a new kitchen.
Hire a kitchen designer
Some of the best money I spent was $395 to Modern Family Kitchens (modernfamilykitchens.com), a California firm that specializes in designing Ikea layouts. Yes, you can do this yourself with the Swedish homegoods company's software (Lowe's and Home Depot also offer online design tools), but a designer who knows the product extremely well can save you a lot of time and frustration and help you maximize storage in a tight space. It helped that I was specific about the layout and amenities I wanted (thank you, Pinterest). Modern Family Kitchens offers two design revisions (included in the price), emails you beautiful 3-D renderings and uploads your entire order list to Ikea's Kitchen Planner. Their documents showing where each numbered cabinet and Ikea panel goes were invaluable, as was their customer service. They added touches like an installed wine rack and open bookshelf at the end of the peninsula that made this feel like a custom kitchen. If you go with more expensive or contractor-supplied cabinets, or hire a design/built firm, the design should be included. There are also many free and affordable online design tools you can use. You'll probably only remodel a kitchen once, so it really is worth it to consult an expert on the best and most efficient layout.
Choose the right cabinets
Affordable design is my mantra. I've known many architects and builders who like the modern look, quality hardware, soft-close doors and drawers and the many organizing options that make Ikea cabinets highly functional. I liked the price, although the extras added up fast and cost way more than the approximately $2,000 advertised for a 100-square-foot model kitchen. What I didn't know: these cabinets have a fiberboard (basically cardboard) back panel, and contractors who aren't familiar with them are going to have a learning curve. Note: We should have signed our construction contract at Ikea to explain the whole system of laminate (technically particleboard and melamine foil) inner cabinets covered with wood panels; it could have saved some of my more than half-dozen trips there and a few mistakes.
I had also planned on Ikea's 15-20 percent off kitchen sale, which happened several times a year like clockwork on an entire kitchen order (including appliances) until the one year I needed it. I'm told they stopped the sales when they couldn't keep up with demand. Overall, I love the dual rotating carousels in my corner base cabinets, the full-extension drawers and affordable organizers that fit perfectly. I like the modern wood-grain. But I don't like the fact that the doors feel less than luxe to the touch and the rough grooves are tough to dust. My contractor insists when all the individually priced flat-pack parts, panels, shelves and man hours are added up, stock real-wood cabinets from his supplier would have been in my budget. I'm satisfied, but it's good to research all your options.
Pick a good contractor
Make sure your contractor is licensed, understands what you want, is someone you can work with (for weeks on end) and is a bit of a perfectionist. Rick Mitch with Repic Builders in Glendale will admit we don't have the same taste (I like clean, modern-classic design; he's more traditional), but he got our vision and figured out the cabinet system that was more complex (his word would be 'frustrating,' or something stronger) than any he had installed. He disliked the cheap fiberboard back panels and the fact that trim and filler pieces weren't solid wood, and he did a lot of carpentry to make things look custom. Ultimately, I picked a hands-on contractor whose attention to detail made my budget-conscious choices look higher-end. Make sure to get a detailed construction contract that outlines all costs upfront; unforeseen costs should be handled with a change order. It's also important to check references and make sure your contractor is in good standing (and definitely not on the most-wanted list) at the Arizona Registrar of Contractors: azroc.gov.
Don't skimp on key pieces; sprinkle in bells and whistles
I opted for an under-cabinet LED lighting system, and lights in three glass-front cabinets with a total pricetag of about $500. The electrician installed outlet strips under the upper cabinets (rather than wall outlets) for a sleeker look, and our contractor installed an on-counter air switch for the garbage disposal, which is handy. For $11 on Amazon, I got an in-counter soap dispenser that gives the countertop a clean look. These little touches feel more custom than budget and didn't break the bank. I also chose an electric induction cooktop ($999) that's much faster and more efficient that regular electric cooktops, and a double oven ($1,400), both by Whirlpool for Ikea. Both were in the affordable range, but feel like a splurge, as long as they keep performing well. One thing I regret ordering online to save money: a stainless kitchen sink. An undermount sink is not easily replaced, and ours is already scratched and looking worn. For things like a sink that will get hard, daily use, don't skimp.
Pick quality countertops
In general, I'm not a fan of generic slab granite, which is starting to look dated. Quartz countertops - made from ground natural stone bound with resin - are a growing trend. They fit a modern aesthetic, come in tons of colors and are more durable and maintenance-free than other surfaces. Our ColorQuartz countertops (in pearl) are the showstopper of this kitchen. The peninsula feels larger than I imagined and links the kitchen to the family room in way I'd always hoped would happen. No question, quartz was a splurge, but worth it.
Add shine with a backsplash
A backsplash is the jewelry of a kitchen. What you choose can define your style and either add to or detract from a cohesive look. For a couple of years, I've noticed a trend toward seamless slab-glass backsplashes. The look is clean, modern and durable, and seamless sounded great. Who wants to clean splattered spaghetti sauce out of grout? I also tend to think the look will stay current longer than a specific tile, and heard it was more affordable than individual glass tiles. Because it's not yet common, getting this installed was a headache. I'd seen this done by painting the back of clear glass before adhering it to the wall. Two different glass subcontractors insisted on an expensive custom paint or special coating that took this idea off the table. I finally trekked to Floor & Decor and picked out 6-inch by 12-inch glass tiles ($3.75 each) in pure ivory. Installed, the large, glass subway tile looks more green-gray, but it adds significant shine and polish to a very minimal kitchen design.
Prepare for a mess - and lots of take-out
Our contractor estimated the kitchen would take 3-5 weeks. I was prepared for 5-6. We had a functioning kitchen at the end of week five, although the backsplash went in much later. But before it was over, we wanted our house back. One day, when I had a sick toddler and too much construction noise in our 1,800 square-foot house, I checked into a hotel (using my Hotel Tonight app for a better price) so she could nap and I could work. The dust and general mess took a toll. We were literally sick of take-out and fast food. Looking back, it was all worth it. I have vowed to be a better cook; it hasn't happened instantly, but I'm committed and working at it. For the first time, I enjoy spending time in my kitchen.
Choose efficiency over size

Our entire kitchen is only 120 square feet. For years, we daydreamed about extending it onto a small unused patio, but finally conceded that was a budget buster. By maximizing the space we had (plus the extra cabinet space from raising the ceiling, etc.) this remodel made our small kitchen feel surprisingly roomy, and the efficient layout has made cooking much less stressful. I made brunch for my visiting parents without breaking a sweat and had friends over for coffee before the construction dust had cleared. Our daughter loves the space; she calls it "her" kitchen. And those cupcakes? Terrific.