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The kitchen makeover Ask yourself some important questions before you start this major project

Whether it's the counter tops you have grown tired of or the lousy layout, remodeling a kitchen on any level is big. It can mean big bucks. Big mess. Big inconvenience.

It can also be wonderful, which is why many homeowners enjoy poking around kitchen showrooms; thumbing through magazines; watching TV kitchen makeovers, and touring homes.

Still, it's scary -- especially since remodeling is not always about aesthetics, trading in yesterday's avocado green for snazzy stainless steel, for instance.

Often, it's about function. The kitchen simply does not work for the people living there. As local design consultant Karen Fick points out, a kitchen redo can be triggered by a lifestyle change. Perhaps it's the needs of a newly blended family that prompt a remodel. Or those of an aging parent who has moved in but still enjoys some independence in the kitchen.

Thinking about remodeling? There are plenty of professionals -- and professional advice -- out there to help. We talked to some of them, as well as to homeowners who have tackled the project on various levels.

What, we asked, should people who are thinking about remodeling think about?

>The nuts and bolts

Fick suggests the following: How long are you planning to be in the house? How much are you willing to spend? Does the kitchen need a cosmetic lift -- new counter tops, hardware, floor, appliances -- or more?

"Based on the amount of time you spend in the kitchen and what you need in there, if function is a problem, you may be well served to redo the kitchen totally," she said.

Rita Ippolito, a former kitchen designer with a remodeled kitchen of her own in Elma, offered other tips. Among them:

*Spend time cutting out pictures you like from magazines.

*Make a list of priorities; be realistic.

*Decide what lifestyle best suits your family -- formal with separate kitchen and dining room, or maybe opening the two rooms and making a larger informal space.

*Go to area kitchen showrooms; talk to sales staff to build a rapport.

Other tips: Block out a new layout. Consider the clearance that will be required for doors, drawers and appliances. If you want an island in the kitchen, first put a big box in the middle of the floor for a few days and see how you like it.

Ippolito is also a fan of adding personal touches -- family items -- to kitchen decor.

Same with moldings and trims. "Though sometimes costly, this adds a professional look to even a small kitchen," she said.

And speaking of professionals, the creators of Home and Garden Television's kitchen remodeling Web site say one common mistake homeowners make is not working with one. (Ippolito recommends asking friends and relatives for referrals.)

"While it may be a fun challenge remodeling your kitchen all on your own, advice from an expert can make a big difference," according to

>Going for a face lift

For some homeowners, including the Birkinbines in Getzville, a kitchen face lift is the way to go. Linda Birkinbine, a professional organizer, said that she and her husband, David, decided to upgrade the kitchen for a simple reason: "We decided we were staying put; we weren't moving," said Birkinbine, who estimates they invested about $15,000 during the two-year project.

They kept the original cabinets, windows, doors and tile floor. They updated with stainless steel appliances; new counter tops (Corian and, on the island, granite); tile back splash; sink; cabinet knobs; paint, and light fixture over table. A TV and laptop also find a home here for daughters Julia, 13, and Allie, 10.

The Birkinbines accessorized around a "Paris" theme; some of the decorative items came from estate sales. The idea for the theme "came from a picture I fell in love with and purchased from the 2003 Decorators' Show House. We also thought our Papillion pups, Molly and Mia, would feel more at 'home,' " said Birkinbine, who runs Keep It Organized!

Her advice:

*Ask yourself: How will the kitchen be used? Gourmet cooking? Baking? Entertaining? Homework? Crafts? Bill-paying? Plan accordingly.

*Determine what small appliances you use daily, weekly, annually, never? Recycle/donate things you no longer use or love.

*Don't be afraid to consult a decorator for help. Sandy Nelson, of Designs of the Times, helped with color selection, etc. Michelle Peller White, of Chochkey's, sponged the walls.

*Measure, measure, measure. "Our new refrigerator was supposed to fit with room to spare until we realized upon delivery the wall on the left was not 'plumb.' The refrigerator scraped the wall at its top. The fix was adding a 2-by-6 to the other end of the wall and moving the newly installed Corian desktop down a couple of inches," Birkinbine said.

*Include plans for a desk/information area for mail, school/activity papers, ribbon board with photos, invitations, take-out menus, phone/answering machine etc. "The goal is to keep the counter tops clear for cooking and the table clear for dining," she said.

*Consider if you want to store candles, linens, etc., in the kitchen and determine where you will store them.

*You can make existing cabinets more functional with pull-out organizing/storage solutions. Don't forget the inside of closet and cupboard doors for additional storage.

*Don't skimp on electrical outlets.

>Cabinets need help

Other homeowners often discover that they no longer like the looks of their cabinets, even though the quality is there and the overall layout is good. One solution: refinish, resurface, paint. A professional can do the job, as can some do-it-yourselfers.

Reinventing is what Ben and Shirley Cutonilli of Grand Island decided to do with their 35-year-old solid wood, dark-stained cabinets "with great big awful iron knobs right in the middle of the doors," as Shirley Cutonilli put it.

Here is the idea that Ben Cutonilli, a retired engraver at the Courier Express and accomplished DIYer, came up with: After removing hardware, he applied a water-based ivory paint to cabinets and let it dry over the course of a week. Next came a pickled oak oil-based stain that produced a grain effect and, finally, a flat-finish varnish and new hardware.

Cutonilli also added molding around the bottom of the cupboards and built an island with doors and drawers. The top is a wood laminate.

"It looks just like wood, but we don't cut on it," Shirley Cutonilli explained.

The cost: About $150 for cabinet refinishing supplies; $250 for island materials -- instead of the thousands it would take to install new.

>Going for the gut

At the home of Tom and Maryanne Kowalski, however, a complete gutting was in order. After 11 years in an older house in the Village of Williamsville and the birth of three daughters -- Rachel, 4; Abbey, 8; Sarah, 10 -- it was time.

The Kowalskis decided they wanted to work with pros that would serve as general contractor, installing everything, so they would not have to find their own electrician, etc. After seeking three estimates, they settled on Kitchen & Bath Unlimited, of Cheektowaga.

The couple chose maple cabinets with a glaze finish; brushed-nickel hardware; granite counter tops; natural oak floor, and a tile back splash that extends around the room and echoes the pattern of the leaded glass windows in the front of the house.

Here is their advice for others thinking of remodeling:

*Especially with an older home, you have utilities to consider. Electrical systems may have to be updated, for example. Expect surprises (the Kowalskis discovered they had three layers of ceilings and two floors).

*"Get ready for the hiccups because they will come," said Tom Kowalski, co-owner of DIMAR Manufacturing in Clarence.

*Always plan on the project to take longer than estimated. Set a budget, but know you may exceed it; the Kowalskis estimated $25,000 but ended up spending $28,000 -- not including appliances.

*Consider where you can set up a makeshift kitchen for microwave, pots and pans, etc. By having the project done in the warm-weather months, the Kowalskis could utilize the outdoor grill.

*Stay away from hiring relatives and neighbors in case things turn sour.

And when it comes to remodeling, remember this: "The things you thought were going to be easy are hard, and the things you thought were going to be hard are easy," Tom Kowalski said.

NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part series about kitchen remodeling. NEXT FRIDAY: What are the hottest trends for your kitchen?

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