20 March 2012

Food for Thought #6 - Why shopping for kitchen cabinets is like shopping for a new car (and why it isn’t)

I started my kitchen and bath design career at The Home Depot, as thousands of other designers have before and since. Most of my suburban clients were successful – or successfully-retired –professionals and business owners. They were all extremely intelligent and knowledgeable in their own fields, but would get a deer in the headlights look the first time they walked into my department.

An intimidating process

They had no idea how to start, and no frame of reference for many of the components that go into creating a kitchen. They knew there were a lot of dollars – including their home value – at risk in the process and as many bad remodeler stories as bad car salesman stories.

They came to us because they trusted the Home Depot brand and were used to shopping there for the rest of their house. It was comfortable, convenient and reliable, if not luxurious.

My job description called for selling them cabinets, fixtures, appliances, countertops and installations, but a whole lot of education and decision-making had to happen before that stack of papers would eventually get signed. (Another similarity to car buying, I might add, is the absurd amount of paperwork involved.) The cabinet displays were where I always started – and where the car analogy was born.

We didn’t sell Ferraris or Porsches at the Big Orange Box. (They still don’t.) We had five cabinet lines – from serviceable to relatively superior, which made it pretty easy to communicate. These are our “Yugos,” I’d share, pointing to the bare bones cabinet line. They’ll get you from Point A to Point B, but you’re only going to get the basics, no upgrades.

This is our Mercedes line, I’d share, pointing to a cabinet brand with more luxurious styles and finishes, plywood construction and some customization. Pointing to another, I’d say, here are our Toyotas: good quality construction, reliable quality and more affordable. If you can’t afford the C Class – or it doesn’t make sense for your home value – we can get you something nice and well-made in a Camry. It won’t have all the bells and whistles of the Mercedes but it will stand you in good stead. (My builder put the Toyotas into my home and I’ve been very happy with them, I’d share.) This approach made cabinet shopping as familiar as car shopping and far less stressful. It also let me know where my new client wanted to be.

Home Depot's "Toyota" brand -- American Woodmark

I would then go over the different options that were available, making standard overlay vs. full overlay door styles as understandable as coupe vs. sedan and engineered vs. plywood construction as easy to follow as cloth vs. leather. No, the comparisons are not apples to apples, but they are simple. And the simplicity put people at ease.

You get what you pay for

I explained why someone would want full-extension soft-close drawers by demonstrating those then Mercedes-only features on the display, much as a car salesman would demonstrate a self-closing minivan door. The convenience and comfort are pretty comparable, actually.

Just as with cars, there is a strong relationship between what you pay for cabinets and what you get. This has less to do with basic durability – I lived for close to a year in a sublet with 13-year-old IKEA cabinets that were in very good shape after who knows how many tenants – than it does with finishes, features and customization.

If you’re looking for a 14-step, hand-distressed paint and glaze, you’re going to pay top dollar for that workmanship. You’re also going to pay top dollar for a custom color, custom door design, custom width, shape or height. The Yugos (or Kias now) and Toyotas won’t offer you that.

Top of the line classic Dutch Made Custom Cabinetry

I’m happy to see that features like soft-close cabinet drawers and doors -- once exclusive to upper-echelon custom cabinets -- are becoming more widely available today at the Toyota level than when I started out, but you still have to go to an independent designer or showroom to get the Ferraris, Porsches, Maybachs and Jaguars.

Sticker shock

Another car comparison point is financing. Our clients really liked the deals designed to put them into a new kitchen they could easily “drive off” the showroom floor. Credit isn’t as easy today, certainly, and homes are no longer the ATMs they were before the housing market crashed, but cars and cabinets are still big ticket items that are often financed in some form or other.

One of the major ways in which car and cabinet shopping differs is depreciation. Your car loses value as soon as it’s driven off the lot, whereas your home tends to appreciate in value over time, and improving its kitchen smartly adds even more value.

Have I got a deal for you

Another big difference is sourcing. New cars are typically purchased at new car dealers or through a buying service that negotiates with dealers on your behalf. New kitchen cabinets may be purchased through a home center, cabinet showroom, local custom cabinet shop, architect, designer, builder or contractor. The variety of sources adds a level of complexity and confusion – especially since most cabinets don’t come with sticker prices, require knowledge to combine into a sound, safe kitchen and someone with additional skill to install in your home.

Window pricing -- but no custom features -- at IKEA

Bottom line, new cars and kitchen cabinets are major purchases you’ll be living with for a long time. Be sure that what you’re buying in both instances fits your needs – like the mini van, rather than a Maserati, for the suburban soccer mom – and your budget. Be confident that the person guiding you through your purchase cares about your concerns, respects your investment and is knowledgeable in their specialty.

PS: Please feel free to add your own similarities and differences in the comment section!


  1. Hi Jamie,
    I liked this! Great analogies to familiarize the newbie about cabinets.

    When ever anyone asked me how much does a kitchen remodel cost, I would say: "How much is a bag of groceries?" It's all about how you fill that bag.

  2. That's a great one, too, Laurie. And just like with groceries, you should personalize it to your nutritional needs, buy what you need and like, not what magazines say is trendy, and appropriately scaled to your budget and diet.

  3. 'your home tends to appreciate in value over time, and improving its kitchen smartly adds even more value."

    Excellent point! A great kitchen helps potential buyers forgive other small flaws your home may have. It's really the heart of your house and makes a lasting impact during showings.

  4. I agree... But the operative word is "great," JoAnne. It has to be great for its users, for their home and right for the neighborhood if resale is a consideration. In my opinion, btw, resale should be a consideration as none of us has a crystal ball!

  5. Jamie, excellent post AND excellent comments! I would never have thought of the whole cabinets-and-cars thing! And I like Laurie's response to "How much does a kitchen remodel cost?" I designed my remodeled kitchen myself and acted as general contractor. Loved the experience so much, I thought about getting into it professionally. But no ... I'll leave that to those of you already trained and professional. Like anything else, doing it for others for pay is a whole different ballgame than doing your own.

  6. My last 2 places I paid way to much for kitchen cabinets, but did I regret it? Well ultimately no, as although I overcapitalised on the cabinets, they did ultimately lead to a better resale for the home. Did I get a return on my investment directly from the cabinets? No, but I got to live with a beautiful kitchen for the duration of my stay!

  7. Jean, thanks for your feedback. I'm quite confident that you'd succeed at whatever you committed to achieving.

    I'm glad you got a better resale for your home as a result of your remodels, but best to Sensibly Style future projects and Not Overpay!

  8. You explained the topic very well. The contents have provided meaningful information thanks for sharing info.

  9. Thanks very much! I hope you'll come back for future posts.


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