Pandemic drives kitchen remodeling projects

COVID-19 has meant more people are staying home and cooking in their kitchens now than in the past. Not surprisingly, that has resulted in a flurry of kitchen remodeling projects.

People are “forced to be home” and are “sick of their kitchens,” said Alicia Molenaar, a designer and co-owner of Kitchen Fair in Willmar.

During the pandemic people are looking for a new look and ways to improve functionality and efficiency in their kitchens.

While updating paint or adding a colorful backsplash can be handled by a weekend do-it-yourselfer, a kitchen makeover can benefit from a professional designer.

The process begins with taking measurements of an existing kitchen space and an interview with the homeowner to find out how they use their kitchen, how many people typically cook there at one time and what they want in terms of style and functionality.

Giving a kitchen a new look can be as simple as installing new hardware – where the trend is for larger handles that can fit a man-sized hand – or as complex as totally gutting an existing kitchen and installing new cabinets, countertops, appliances, lighting and flooring.

Molenaar, who’s had 20 years experience as a designer, and fellow Kitchen Fair designer, Bruce Dexter, who has more than 40 years of experience designing kitchens, shared their observations on what’s currently trending in Midwest Minnesota kitchen designs.

Drawers vs doors:

Using deep drawers to store dishes and pots and pans are a design favorite, according to Molenaar. For people who are shorter, or those with back and shoulder problems, storing heavy plates and pots below the counter is easier than reaching up into a cupboard.

Soft-close drawers

Unlike old kitchen drawers that could be pulled out three-fourths of the way, full-extension drawers allow even the dark recesses of a drawer to be utilized. Two-tiered cutlery drawers allow silverware to be stored on the first layer and then slid back to reveal lesser-used items on the second layer. Drawers fitted with tilted shelves create easy-to-use storage for spice jars as another way to utilize space efficiently in ways that make a kitchen seem larger than it is.

With a gentle touch soft-close drawers close magically by themselves. Having a fight in a kitchen isn’t quite the same in a remodeled kitchen because drawers can’t be slammed shut, said Molenaar with a laugh.

Secret spaces

Kitchen nooks and crannies can pose design challenges but pull-out drawers can be fit into skinny spaces to store utensils like cutting boards and cookie sheets. Dead space in front of the sink can be turned into a small storage place for sponges and scrubbers.

Special cabinet designs are popular for large stand mixers that may be too big to store on the counter and too heavy to carry from a storage cabinet to the counter. A mechanical lift allows the mixer to be stored out of site in a cabinet and then brought to counter-height.


Kitchen Fair has been busy reconfiguring cabinets in kitchens to allow space for a first-time dishwasher. A new trend is for dishwasher drawers in islands that accommodate open floor plans without a lot of walls for traditional dishwashers. Raising dishwashers up to waist level is another popular design trend. Surprisingly, a fair number of people don’t want a dishwasher, said Molenaar. However, often a cabinet will be installed close to the sink that could easily be removed to install a dishwasher in the future.

Smart appliances, like touchless faucets, ovens that can be turned on and off when you’re not in your house, refrigerators that record inventory and garbage cans that let you know what you need to put on the grocery list based on the container you recycled or threw away are quickly making their way into current design plans, according to Dexter. “The smart appliances are quite appealing,” he said. “It’s here. It’s all happening.”

Islands in the stream

Most people want a kitchen island but sometimes an existing kitchen space isn’t big enough to allow adequate space and cooks are “bumping into each other,” said Molenaar. Installing a tiny island just for the sake of having an island may not be the most efficient use of space and it might have to be sacrificed or replaced with a peninsula.

Open shelves

Despite HGTV’s apparent love of open shelving for plates and other kitchen decor, most people in this region opt for cupboards. “They want to hide it all away,” said Molenaar, for a kitchen that’s “clean and clutter-free.”

Soffits, or bulkheads, are coming out and replaced with cabinets that go to the ceiling to maximize storage. Staggered cabinet levels are out and one-level cabinets with “clean lines” are in.

Cabinet styles

When Dexter started designing kitchens 40 years ago, cabinets were “oak, oak, oak and oak.”

Now the trend is for natural hickory, cherry and maple cabinets. About a quarter of the time cabinets are painted, with white the most popular color.

The most popular style of cupboard doors is a “Shaker” or Arts & Crafts” style with beveled edges for easier cleaning.

When removing the dark cabinets from the ’70s or the golden oak cupboards from the ’80s, homeowners may be tempted to just update the exterior look. Molenaar said installing new units has the advantage of the full-extension and soft-close features at about the same price as updating existing cabinets.


Shiny floors and ceramic tiles are fading from kitchens and being replaced with “luxury vinyl” floating floor products. The current trend is for weathered “distressed-looking” styles that have a lot of “movement” and doesn’t show dirt as easily as solid dark wood colors, said Molenaar. The easy-to-install plank flooring is water resistant and easy to clean.


Under-cabinet lighting to brighten up the countertop is a popular trend, along with overhead recessed lighting and a large “statement” light with one or two globes over an island.


Low interest rates on home improvement loans, which is currently around 5 percent or less, is making it more affordable to finance home improvement projects. Dexter said he remembers doing projects when interest rates were around 19 percent.


How to avoid common and costly home renovation mistakes

Many of us are spending more time at home in 2020, which could mean having more time to take on home improvement projects. But home renovations aren’t just a way to fill time; you want the results to be worth the hard work. The key to any successful project lies in careful planning — including financial strategizing — long before the power tools come out.

Roughly 3 in 5 American homeowners (61%) have taken on home improvement projects since March 1, 2020, spending $6,438, on average, according to an August 18-20 NerdWallet survey conducted online by The Harris Poll among 1,414 homeowners.

Whether you’re outfitting your home with a new office or classroom, or taking on long-intended improvements such as painting or installing new flooring, here are five tips to help you make sure you’re heading into the right project, the right way.

1. Consider return on investment

Any project may be worth your time if doing it makes you happy, but if you plan to sell your home soon, make sure you focus on projects that give a good return on your money. Many renovations cost thousands of dollars but won’t increase the value of your home by the same amount.

For example, it costs about $50,000 to add a new bathroom, but homeowners typically recoup only about 54% of the cost in increased home value, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2020 Cost vs. Value Report. A minor kitchen remodel, on the other hand, returns about 78% of its cost, so that type of project might make more sense.

Consider calling local real-estate agents to ask them about the return you might receive from a home renovation project. Some local markets or neighborhoods may reward certain upgrades more than others.

2. Create a budget

You don’t want to run out of cash in the middle of a home remodeling project. But unless you’re careful, your project may get more expensive while it’s under way. That nicer tile may add only $7 a square foot, but if your kitchen has 100 square feet of floor space, watch out! To avoid running short on cash, add up your expenses before you start the project. Then add 10% or 20% to the total to allow for cost overruns.

To get an idea of how much you’ll have to spend on a specific project, look at what others have spent on comparable projects using a project estimate calculator or perusing sites like HomeAdvisor or Remodeling Magazine.

3. Choose the right funding option

Since March 1, 34% of homeowners who undertook home improvement projects used cash on hand to fund those projects, 25% used money they had saved for those projects specifically and 14% used money from their economic stimulus check, according to the NerdWallet survey. As long as these projects aren’t being funded to the detriment of more important expenses, using available cash or savings can be a good way to keep from paying interest on your home improvement project.

If you have to finance your project, explore your funding options carefully. Among them are a home equity line of credit, a personal loan, a cash-out refinance or even credit cards. But they come at varying costs depending on the interest rate and how long it will take you to pay off the loan. A home improvement financing calculator can help you weigh these costs and make a savvy decision.

4. Research contractors

If you’ve decided to hire a professional, get written estimates from different contractors. As those estimates roll in, check their references and ask about their credentials. At a minimum, make sure each contractor is properly licensed to do the work on your home. You can also ask about their membership in trade associations. Many reputable contractors belong to professional trade groups such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry or the National Association of Home Builders.

A good contractor will guarantee the work and offer a warranty. You can check Better Business Bureau ratings to see if others have had complaints about companies you’re evaluating. If there have been complaints, check to see how they were resolved.

When you select a contractor, make sure you get your agreement in writing.

5. Secure home renovation permits

Permits help protect your home and your safety. Without the necessary approvals to perform work on your property, there’s a chance the renovation won’t meet local building codes. It could even affect your ability to sell your home in the future. Contact your municipality for details about what permits you must have for your renovation project. And follow up to make sure your contractor has permits in hand before beginning the work.

6. Understand price/quality trade-offs

You’re probably planning to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars on a remodeling project. It’s understandable to look for ways to save money, but don’t automatically cut corners by using the cheapest materials.

Talk to your contractor about the trade-offs between quality and price for your project. You’ll probably be better off selecting the best-quality products that fit your budget. Otherwise, you could be stuck with having to make costly repairs after a few months because you skimped on quality.

A home remodeling project can give a big boost to your home’s aesthetics and market value — if you avoid costly mistakes. By setting a budget, researching contractors and making sure your improvements use quality materials, you can help avoid expensive pitfalls and enjoy your home’s new design.

Home remodeling requires planning and persistence

One thing the novel coronavirus has not changed is buyers’ attraction to homes that are updated, remodeled with an open floor plan and staged. As opposed to homes that are dated, disorganized, packed full of mismatched antiques, set to a backdrop of 20-year-old wallpaper.

When you do pull the trigger on your home remodel, whether you goal is to improve your success as a home seller or to improve the quality of your stay-at-home, work-at-home, and school-at-home experience, here are some tips for getting the best possible results.

Do your homework: Make sure you know what you want to do.

Look at all the go-to sites and apps for ideas on materials, design and color pallets. Choose an anchor for your project — be it flooring, counters, cabinets, or your favorite color.

Select some base point around which you make all of your other choices. This focal point might be the color of the water in your swimming pool, the tone of your hardwood floors or the distressed bricks around your fireplace.

Ask for referrals: Ask your neighbors who just remodeled their kitchen whom they used and if they’d recommend him.

Ask your agent if she knows anyone who can tackle your project. Go on Yelp and look at reviews for contractors in your area. Then interview as many as you have time to talk to. And realize, they will all have a different set of skills and a different way of approaching your project.

It may serve you well to start a spreadsheet with all of your projects and the parts and pieces necessary to complete them, including what each service provider can do and the providers need from you.

Know who’s on first: You know that classic Abbot and Costello bit.

You have to know who’s playing which position as you proceed through the process. Be prepared on demo day for there to be 3 to 6 people in your house doing things all at the same time.

Be prepared on installation day to make decisions about where the hole in the quartz counter is cut for the sink faucet; where the support legs go for your kitchen island extension so you can comfortably sit in the bar stools you ordered for those new quartz counters; and whether the backsplash in the bathroom should be cut around the electrical outlet or not.

Details matter, and if you’re not there, you can’t weigh in on the decisions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions: Don’t be afraid to ask your crew, now that you know who does what, the questions you may have and the choices you may be able to make. If you are not taking your house down to the studs, you have to connect the old parts to the bright, shiny, new parts, and that calls for creativity and decisions.

Get in there and stay involved.

To make space for their learning pod, parents transform their basement to replicate the classroom at home

Most parents are good at managing difficult circumstances, but the in-home schooling situation brought on by the coronavirus is in a class by itself.

Mariana Parodi McCormick, of Parodi Educational Consulting in Bethesda, Md., likens parents during this pandemic to ducks in a pond: They look calm as they swim about, but under the water’s surface, “they are paddling like crazy.”

When schools and offices stopped in-person operations in the spring, parents had no time to plan. The dining table suddenly became the school desk, office work surface, toy table, eating place and catchall. The table, and the home routine, were a hot mess.

Now, parents, says Michael Sauri, co-owner of TriVista USA Design + Build in Arlington, Va., “need to stop thinking this will end next week, and get comfortable” in spaces designed purposefully to optimize in-home learning.

Becky Eisen and Adam Kutcher are doing that. Eisen says that when they realized “the pandemic is not going away” anytime soon, they began creating a basic school space in the basement of their Baltimore home, finishing it just in time for the start of this school year.

Eisen and Kutcher bought two adjacent rowhouses in 2013 through the city’s Vacants to Value Program. They acquired the vacant, severely deteriorated buildings for a low purchase price, committing to renovate them within a certain time period and to occupy them. After obtaining financing, they began renovation in 2016, combining the two properties into one home. The basement of one unit, a heated and air-conditioned, unfinished storage area, became the school space.

The couple joined with two other families, all three with children ages 3 to 5, to form a school “pod.” They hired a furloughed teacher to teach the two age groups, bought furniture at a bargain price from a nearby private school that closed, and prepared the 15- by 40-foot schoolroom on one side of the basement. The work included installing vinyl flooring (LVF) on top of the existing concrete pad, sealing cracks between the ceiling and the first-level flooring for sound control, adding framing and drywall, painting, building closets along one wall, constructing a small partition that encloses a quiet corner, and installing two full-size windows for extra sunlight.

Kutcher and Eisen may add soundproofing foam overhead, but they are leaving the ceiling open for now; that way, once they determine what overhead lighting may need to be added they will be able to make the change easily.

By connecting to the sewer line and kitchen water pipes, they were able to hook up a standard laundry sink for hand-washing and cleaning. The children will use the first-floor powder room as a bathroom.

A couple of days before school started, Eisen says the parents “did a deep clean” of the space and all the school furniture and other items, such as wood blocks, they’d purchased and transported from the school.

They arranged the schoolroom under the guidance of the teacher. The morning meeting area is against one wall, the quiet spot is tucked into a cozy corner, and tables for writing, reading and other activities sit under the big, new windows. A foldout unit with low shelves became an arts and crafts station. A small table next to the sink is a handy place for the kids’ water bottles, snacks and a drying rack for the plastic dishes.

Inviting books are displayed on bookshelves, and the closets stow supplies. Materials used daily are organized into small, inexpensive bins and in pockets hung from an existing pegboard wall. The teacher will toss dirty toys into a designated bin for cleaning.

Using old paint samples in colorful shades, the parents painted the six cubbies they’d purchased from the school and attached them to the basement wall just outside the classroom; the children will enter the exterior door to the utility room each morning, follow a path bordered by colorful curtains and put their coats and shoes in their assigned cubbies before entering the classroom.

The three families will trade off bringing snacks and doing end-of-day cleanup. One of the parents is providing after-school care.

Parents can pick up the ABCs of good home “school” spaces from teachers as well as other education specialists, remodeling contractors and designers, home-schooling websites and other parents who share lessons learned. Sauri, for one, recommends three ground rules: Every member of the family — kids and parents — has a right to appropriate space at home; the bedroom should be avoided for distance learning or work because it is the place for rest; and no other area is sacred in the house, including the rarely used living room or dining room. Consider these rooms to be found space, which could be turned into areas for work, study or recreation.

Craig Durosko, founder and chairman of Sun Design, an architectural design-build firm with offices in McLean and Burke, Va., adds that formerly single-use rooms often are organized these days into multiple zones, which can include homework or play areas.

Three Sun Design clients are modifying their homes to accommodate in-home learning and socially distanced activities. As part of a first-floor remodel, one family built two wall-facing desks flanking a fireplace, to reduce distraction but keep everyone close by in family space. (They considered putting the desks in another room, with glass-paned barn doors to lend quiet but retain a visual connection.)

Another family finished a large basement with multiple activity zones, including a homework area, built-in cupboards, and shelves and a nook; all the basement spaces are neutral in style so they can be adapted easily to different uses over time. And in a third house the kids do their schoolwork in a room off the kitchen, while basement space has been set up with an office for the parents, and a small home gym complete with rock wall for those days when the kids are … climbing the walls.

Sauri says basic components of a good home-school space are good lighting; soundproofing (or at least noise-canceling headphones); built-in storage, either new or repurposed; and an upgraded Internet system, such as a mesh WiFi network, to assure “strong, clean Internet” throughout the house.

It’s important, McCormick says, “to find one dedicated space” for doing in-home schoolwork, and to design it with the children’s ages in mind. Retired pediatric occupational therapist and teacher Cathy Deitch says that, especially for young children, the school space should use furnishings and other items to delineate spaces and traffic flow, including a place where the children can gather and sit on a flat rug; work and activity areas; open and closed storage; and a calming, softly lighted little spot away from distracting sights, sounds and activity.

Chairs must be the right height for the children, allowing their knees to be at 90 degrees and their feet to be flat on the floor. Table height should enable children to rest their elbows and entire forearms on top. Inexpensive tables with adjustable legs are available.

Mariana Vicens, young children’s community program director at Full Circle Montessori School in Arlington, Va., advises families to keep workspace and activity areas organized, simple and inviting. She recommends letting kids help to decide where to put things — from paper and pencils to art supplies to water bottles and wrapped snacks.

When they have helped plan the space the children will “feel ownership” of it and be as independent as possible in navigating from activity to activity. (Trays are better than baskets for some items, says Vicens, because they keep things neater, more visible and more likely to be used.)

“Children benefit from consistency,” says Vicens, whether it is the physical setup of the home-school space or the daily routine. Decide on a schedule, based on the children’s age and school program, and post it on the wall. For groups of young children, the school day may start with a morning meeting and move on to time periods for instruction, individual work and group activities such as listening to books read aloud or projects in which the older kids help the younger ones.

Build short breaks into the day — more frequent ones for young children — and designated times for lunch and active play. On days when going outside is not an option, devise indoor ways to let off steam, says Vicens, such as going up and down stairs, playing hopscotch, walking on a line made with painter’s tape or doing jumping jacks and other exercises. Make it fun. Teens might be content to sit with their phones or computers, but it’s good to get them up and moving, too.

McCormick says the whole family should agree on the rules and roles, ideally before the school year begins. Establish the schedule of responsibilities, including which parent will assist with what activities and at what times. That way parents can program child supervision, support and engagement into their workday, and children will know when each parent or caregiver is going to be available.

“Front-load your boundaries,” McCormick adds. Use red and green cards outside the home office, for example, to signal to children when it is or isn’t okay for them to come in.

As for the home-school space, McCormick suggests a trial run to make sure kids know where things are and have the rules — such as putting things away and cleaning up — down pat. Vicens agrees, adding that you can “assess as you go,” and make changes to fix what’s not working.

Don’t be too hard on yourselves, she says. Parents and children should just do their best. “We need to cut everybody some slack in these covid times.”

Four ways to pay for home renovations

After months of lockdown during the pandemic, many have become aware of the failings of their homes. Whether you want a cosmetic update or think your home may have a more serious problem, how to pay for a renovation may be your main concern.

We asked Todd Nelson of home improvement lender LightStream for suggestions on how to decide what projects to do and how to stretch your budget without derailing your long-term financial plans.

“Rather than procrastinate because you don’t know what to do first, it’s best to prioritize your projects,” wrote Nelson in an email. “If you’re not sure about the condition of your home, consider having your home assessed by a licensed home inspector. Tackle structural and mechanical system issues as soon as possible to ensure your home’s physical integrity and safety as well as to prevent costly repairs in the future.”

While hiring a home inspector may cost several hundred dollars, it could be a worthwhile expenditure if you purchased the house years ago and haven’t had any inspections since then.

Homeowners often delay their improvement projects because of a lack of funds, wrote Nelson, who suggests comparing and possibly combining the following payment options:

  • Savings: Tapping savings to pay for renovations is the least expensive option because you don’t need to borrow or pay carrying costs. In doing so, however, make sure to leave cash on hand to maintain an emergency fund, cover ongoing expenses, pay down existing debt and continue contributing to future goals such as retirement savings or college tuition, wrote Nelson.
  • Credit cards: Given the high interest rates often charged by credit cards, if you don’t know how or when you’ll pay off this debt, you can wind up paying significantly more for your projects, wrote Nelson.
  • Consumer loans: Online financing with a personal loan is a solution that can be used to completely pay for a home renovation or be combined with other options to make a budget go further. LightStream, for example, has an online process where you submit a brief application and, if approved, can receive funds as soon as the day you apply, at low fixed rates and with no fees, wrote Nelson.
  • Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC): If you’ve accrued at least 15 to 20 percent equity in your home, you may be able to borrow against its increased value. A HELOC is a variable rate bank loan where the amount available is determined through an appraisal that assesses the current value of the home and what is owed on the property, Nelson wrote.

Compare the payment plans, fees and interest rates on all these options to determine which one or which combination of options will fit your budget best.

“No matter what type of work you’re considering, get written estimates from multiple licensed contractors,” wrote Nelson. “Execute a written contract outlining every aspect of the project, its costs and the timeline to complete the work. Make sure to receive written proof that the people you hire carry appropriate insurance. With prioritized projects, funding and contracts in place, 2020 can be the year to create the home you’ve always envisioned.”