Sunday, December 17, 2023

The hidden costs of redoing a kitchen.

I should be regaling y'all with a holiday ficlet today, seeing as how Yule and Christmas are both next weekend and Hanukkah just ended. It'll post one next week, I promise. 

In the meantime, let's talk about the things they don't tell you about when they're encouraging you to redo your kitchen.

Feverpitch | Deposit Photos
This is coming up, of course, because I'm kinda sorta redoing mine. That is not my kitchen in the photo, to be clear; mine is a smallish galley kitchen with zero room for an island. (Although it's about three times the size of the postage-stamp-sized kitchen I had in the apartment I rented when I first moved to Santa Fe. There, the oven was so tiny that my big cookie sheets wouldn't fit. And when you opened the fridge, you couldn't get to the sink.) Mine still has some the original '80s features: golden oak cabinets and ceramic tile countertops. It did still have the original '80s dishwasher, but I replaced that this fall. I also replaced the microwave with a microwave/convection oven this year. Somebody at some point redid the floors -- they're now Saltillo tile -- and the stove and fridge are about ten years old.

If you cruise the internet and talk to any kitchen consultants, they will give you all sorts of advice. I'm supposed to hate those cabinets; the only fixes worth talking about are replacing them, or putting new doors on them, or else sanding them down and painting them, preferably white. And any appliances over ten years old have to go. And you're going to need new countertops! And of course you want to tile your backsplash all the way to the ceiling...

It adds up in a hurry. The average cost of a kitchen remodel is about $26,000. But it could be a lot more -- maybe $41,000 or $50,000, or even more, if you're going to go really crazy. 

I am not going to go really crazy. I am not even going to spend the average, if I can help it. You see, after I thought about it, I realized I really like my oak cabinets. And it turns out that you can actually sand down the worn spots on solid wood cabinets, shove a little wood filler in any big cracks, and give the repairs a couple of coats of polyurethane, and they look great.

Why would the internet keep that info away from me? Well, just like everything else in our late-stage capitalist dystopia, you have to follow the money. Contractors and kitchen designers aren't going to be able to make a living if everybody knows they could rejuvenate their cabinets for a day's time and less than 50 bucks. (I also added fun pulls, which cost another $100 or so.)

I honestly think the whole new-appliances-every-ten-years advice is coming from the same place. See, back when I took macroeconomics in college, big home appliances were considered durable goods -- things that would last at least 20 years.  The ENERGY STAR program was expanded to include major home appliances in 1996; of course a newer model may be more energy efficient than an older one, but there's also an environmental cost to sending a working fridge to a landfill to rot, particularly if your fridge was manufactured before 1995. Back then, fridges used a chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, which is a greenhouse gas. But the appliance sales folks don't want you to think about that. They want you to Buy Now, so you're not buying in a hurry when your elderly appliance breaks down and you miss out on features you'll later wish you had. Okay, sure. I think I'll live dangerously with my current stove and fridge for a while longer. 

The countertops, though -- those bug me. The ceramic tile is in good shape, but a tiled surface is naturally uneven. It makes it hard to roll out things like cookie dough. And items with narrow bottoms -- like spice jars and some coffee mugs -- sometimes kinda tilt when you set them down. It's unsettling. I'd like a flat surface, please.

So here we go, on another whirlwind trip full of expensive advice: The only countertop materials worth talking about, according to the "experts", are granite, marble, or quartz. Oh, there are other natural stones to consider if you're made of money: quartzite (which is not the same as quartz), soapstone, bluestone, limestone, slate, and so on. And there are, y'know, less desirable options if you have to cheap out: butcher block, laminate, tile, and solid surface (Corian is a brand name). But really, the choices that will get you the biggest bang for your buck at resale time are granite, marble, and quartz. And let's be realistic: granite and marble require upkeep. So obviously, your only choice is quartz. Everybody wants quartz, so you should, too!

Quartz countertop material is an engineered stone -- which is to say it's manmade. It consists of about 90 percent ground quartz (the other ten percent consists of resin to keep the ground stone together, plus some pigments). And quartz -- the mineral, not the manufactured countertop -- is made of silica and oxygen. 

Here is the thing that nobody selling kitchen renovations in the US is talking about yet: Workers who cut or grind quartz countertops are likely breathing in silica dust. And they may be getting sick. Silicosis is a serious disease. A lot of the people who work with engineered stone in the US are young Latinos. Some of them have died from silicosis. Others who have contracted the disease are disabled for life. 

The danger has been known for years, apparently, but it's only recently that officials are beginning to think about how to mitigate it. Australia is way ahead of us -- the government there banned quartz countertops last week

To be clear, consumers aren't in danger from having quartz countertops in their homes (unless the material needs to be cut or ground on site). But if it concerns you to have something in your house that may have made someone deathly ill, you have alternatives. Granite has about 45 percent silica content; marble, less than five percent. This site has a list that includes lots of other alternatives.

Conspicuous by their absence from that list are many of the less expensive options: butcher block, laminate, and solid surface. Solid surface material contains a chemical called aluminum trihydrate that can also cause health problems in people who manufacture it, but it appears to be a lot less dangerous than quartz. I had decided to go with solid surface even before learning about the dangers of quartz to workers, and now I'm glad. I'm hoping to have the counters done in the spring. I'll keep y'all posted.


These moments of bloggy home improvement talk have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe! And happy Yule!


Anonymous said...


Meredith said...

Thanks for that info! Years ago we had a mahogany countertop, actually upcycled from a bar. Loved it. Don't overlook wood as an alternative.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I bet it was beautiful!

I've actually been thinking about a live-edge wood countertop for the bathroom, whenever I get around to redoing that. I think it would look really cool in there.