Where to Find Free Kitchen Design Advice

Worker demolishing a kitchen sink

CC-Licensed; Flickr; Mary Clark

When you're looking to renovate your kitchen, the first order of business is to come up with a good design. This is both more difficult and more important for a kitchen than for other rooms, because the issues involved are quite complex and are more or less permanent. While it's fairly easy for a living room or bedroom to be redesigned periodically, a kitchen involves major appliances, electrical and plumbing service, and permanent (and expensive) cabinetry. A major kitchen remodel generally happens only once or twice during the time you own a home, so getting the design right is crucial.

If you have the budget for hiring a general contractor to perform this kind of remodeling job, professional design assistance may come along with the package. But what about if you plan to do the work yourself, or want to design the kitchen yourself and hire subcontractors for individual tasks? Finding design help can be difficult if you aren't going the big-buck route of working with a general contractor. Kitchen design can be purchased as a stand-alone service, but it is quite expensive.

Fortunately, there is a good option for getting free kitchen design help.

Design Help from Home Improvement Centers

Big-box home improvement stores such as Lowe's and The Home Depot offer free kitchen design advice as a marketing tool for pushing their cabinet and appliance product lines, and also as a general benefit simply to bring customers into the stores. The savvy homeowner interested in a full-scale kitchen renovation can use these free kitchen design services to their advantage, even if they don't plan to buy products from the stores.

Specialized kitchen materials stores may also offer similar services, for similar reasons: They hope to sell products to customers they assist with design. With specialty kitchen stores, you can also take the design assistance without any intention of buying their products—which are often high-end cabinetry and appliances with healthy markups—but these retailers will be more cautious about handing out free advice without any commitment to buy. For big box home improvement centers, they usually aren't at all unhappy about giving away free advice—possibly because their low prices make it quite likely that remodelers will buy at least some of their materials right in the store.

Specialized kitchen remodeling retailers sometimes readily offer general design assistance, but withhold more detailed planning until a customer signs a contract to actually use their services and products.

Is it Ethical?

Professional kitchen designers openly hate this advice, especially if they work for specialty kitchen design and remodeling firms. The main complaint is that it's not considered ethical to take free advice when there is no intention of buying through the company. However, these stores know quite well that some prospective customers will not follow through with full-scale kitchen remodeling, and that some people will not be buying their goods and services. This is simply the cost of doing business. And they also know that some customers who "take the advice and run" will eventually buy their goods and services, once they realize the scope of a major kitchen remodeling project.

All businesses have incentives to lure customers, and just as grocery stores offer free food samples hoping to sell products, kitchen product retailers offer design assistance as an incentive to lure paying customers.

If this idea makes you uneasy, you might want to focus on the big box home improvement centers for your free design help. These retailers are so confident in the advantage of their low product prices that they are really not very concerned about customers who are openly seeking free information. However, be aware that the advice you get at large home improvement centers will be fairly basic information, and it may lack the depth and nuance that professional designers at specialty firms can offer. Specialty kitchen firms are where you find true kitchen design professionals.

Tips for Obtaining Free Information

Using these design services is a bit like playing with fire, so keep the following tips in mind:

  • Be careful about contracts. The design service offered by any retailer or kitchen remodeling firm is free unless you sign some form or contract or agreement. Be very careful about signing any contract.
  • Solicit the information you need.  Being specific right from the start is the best way to get the information you need without further commitment. If you ask the kitchen designer for specific answers, other ideas will likely be offered. Questions such as "What is a kitchen triangle?" or "How much space do I need for a kitchen island?" may elicit a host of helpful information on proper layout of a kitchen.
  • Understand the limitations of free information. The free information offered is usually provided by salespeople, not trained design professionals. Salespeople may be quite knowledgeable about many subjects, and they may have computer software to help them, but they do not have the specialized skills of true kitchen designers. To get to the next level of design help, you may need to actually hire a designer or make a firm commitment to buy services and products. For example, general computer sketches of a planned kitchen may be offered for free, but detailed blueprints won't be available unless you contract and pay for actual services. However, many DIYers find it entirely possible to complete a kitchen remodel using only the free information offered at the design desk at a home improvement center.
  • Ask for electronic copies of drawings and specifications. Where the design desk at a home improvement centers offers printouts and paperwork, ask them to email these documents to you. This will make it easier for you to forward your ideas to another design or remodeling firm. They will not be at all bothered if the drawings happen to have "Home Depot" printed across them. Home Depot probably doesn't care, either, because that remodeling firm may well buy many construction materials right back at Home Depot.