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#Fine living: Pros and cons of custom vs. prefab cabinets

Posted: 11/08/08, 12:01 AM PST | Updated: on 03/19/2015

Custom or prefabricated kitchen cabinets? That's the question that's stumping a Mill Valley home-owner who's planning and budgeting for an upcoming kitchen remodel. His architect is steering him toward custom cabinets on the premise that prefab cabinets compromise the quality and craftsmanship and, possibly, the overall value of the house itself.

The kitchen in his turn-of-the-century Mill Valley home has a fairly standard configuration for the cabinets, and the bid for the cabinets, with glass doors on the upper cabinets, comes in at about $32,000 including the finishing.

In a recent Fine Living column, he read about Robert Nebolon, the San Rafael architect who customized IKEA cabinets in the remodel of his Eichler home. Although the Mill Valley homeowner wasn't interested in IKEA cabinets, he would consider some from Home Depot or Expo Design, but would they be viable alternatives?

Licensed contractor Mike Sterling of San Anselmo is owner of Sterling and Co. a remodeling specialty company, and Sterling Inspection Services, a construction consulting firm. He's also an experienced construction cost estimator, a certified home inspector and qualified expert witness in construction defects.

Here are his considered opinions on the questions posed by the Mill Valley homeowner:

Q: Is there some rule of thumb or what prefabricated cabinets cost relative to custom made? The IKEA example in your article was $5,000 versus $25,000 for custom.

A: The world of manufactured cabinetry is nearly as wide as that of custom cabinets. The extreme upper end is occupied by custom cabinetry and the lower end by modular, manufactured cabinetry. Quality, likewise, can be comparable in the high-middle to upper end of the price range.

For a standard configuration in which medium- to high-quality cabinetry is specified, manufactured cabinetry can be a cost-effective option. In all but economy, or lower-end jobs, one must accept the need to go through the cost comparison exercise. Which is the better choice? It depends.

I have encountered instances in which manufactured cabinetry costs actually exceeded those of custom cabinets of similar quality and there have been times when the quality of the delivered custom cabinets was unacceptably low. Selecting upper-end cabinetry should be done on a case-by-case basis.

No general rule of thumb exists with regard to cost comparison. Comparing costs can only reliably be done after basic design decisions are made. Otherwise, it turns out to be "apples to oranges."

Q: I have been told to expect a one- to two-month delivery period for the custom cabinets.

A: That lead time is about right for custom cabinets and, depending on supplier, may also be applicable to manufactured. Sometimes the lead time can be cut with both, depending on their respective production schedules.

Q: Are there timing or other issues that come with prefabricated?

A: The biggest issue is the greater lead time usually needed by manufactured cabinetry suppliers for correction of order errors. That may take another month or more, depending on the error. Custom cabinetmakers are usually more responsive and require a shorter correction time.

According to Sterling, these factors need to be carefully considered in either custom or manufactured cabinetry:

- Style. While the style options in manufactured is broad and varied, that of custom cabinetry is virtually unlimited. Obviously, for very special styling or sizing, custom may be the only way to go.

- Finish. Due to the environmental restrictions on certain kinds of finishes in California, out-of-state finishes can be more durable.

- Carcass construction. The thickness and type of the material used in the floor, partitions and back can vary from particle board at the low end to veneered plywood at the upper end. Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is typical and acceptable for most applications.

- Drawer construction. Here the options run from low-durability drawer components, minimally fastened together without adhesive or interlocking parts to high-quality wood and plywood employing mortised, or even dovetail, joints. Drawer hardware can range from none or flimsy stamped metal to ball-bearing models with self-closing features.

- Door construction. Again the material, joinery, hinges and pulls can vary widely in both options.

- Installation. Assuming the order is complete and correct, installation costs can be similar. In his experience problems with the order have been greater with manufactured cabinets, but are not uncommon with custom orders. Resolution of the problems tends to be quicker with custom orders, especially if the shop is local.

- Reputation of cabinetmaker. Do the research, check the references.

- Planning. With any cabinetry job, planning is critical. That is not to say, however, that there cannot be options at various levels of decision, but the options should be clearly identified. Prepare a design in both plan view and elevation. Investigate and specify material, finish, door and drawer hardware. Request proposals from a number of reputable custom cabinet makers and manufactured cabinetry suppliers. Don't forget about checking the qualifications of the installer. Review the proposals and make a decision.

Mike Sterling can be reached at 459-1511 or by e-mail at mike@sissco.com.

PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaining topics every Saturday. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield 94914 or pj@mindspring.com.

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