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PHOENIX — The tiny kitchen in our 1980s 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 eventually would 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.

1. Plan ahead to save money

My husband and I had hoped to save money by assembling our cabinets and having a local nonprofit demo and haul away the old cabinets and appliances.

One group, 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 needed for us to assemble 20 flat-pack Ikea cabinets. We easily could have saved more than $1,000 by doing both.

We also learned that financing can take longer than a remodel. We were told an average of 45 days is needed 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.

2. Set a realistic budget

Out of necessity and frugal DNA, I was sure I could do an affordable remodel.

I wanted 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.

The 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.

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 less than $35,000. When all was said and done, it really did feel like a new house, not just a new kitchen.

3. Hire a kitchen designer

Some of the best money I spent was $395 to Modern Family Kitchens,, 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. Its documents showing where each numbered cabinet and Ikea panel goes were invaluable, as was their customer service.

Touches like an installed wine rack and open bookshelf at the end of the peninsula made this feel like a custom kitchen.

If you go with more expensive or contractor-supplied cabinets, or hire a design-build firm, the design should be included. You also can use many free and affordable online design tools.

You'll probably remodel a kitchen only once, so it really is worth it to consult an expert on the best and most efficient layout.

4. Choose the right cabinets

Affordable design is my mantra.

I’ve known many architects and builders who like the modern look, high-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 $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.

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% to 20% off kitchen sale, which happened several times a year like clockwork, on an entire kitchen order including appliances. But the one year I needed it I was told the company stopped the sales because workers 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 that 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.

5. 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.

Our contractor admitted 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 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 with your state's registry.

6. 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 bought 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.

7. Pick high-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 always had hoped would happen.

No question, quartz was a splurge but worth it.

8. 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 had 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.

9. Prepare for a mess — and lots of take-out

Our contractor estimated the kitchen would take three to five weeks. I was prepared for five to six.

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 sick of takeout 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.

10. 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 extra cabinet space from raising the ceiling, 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.

Follow Kara G. Morrison on Twitter: @KaraGMorrison

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