RTA Kitchen Cabinets: Basics To Get You Started

Thermofoil Kitchen Cabinets
Thermofoil Kitchen Cabinets. Getty / Per Magnus Persson

If you were not already aware, kitchen cabinets are exceedingly expensive, comprising between 25% and 50% of your entire kitchen remodeling budget.

By lowering cabinet costs, you will have money left over for the rest of the kitchen.  Or you simply have more money left in your pocket.

A class of kitchen cabinets called Ready To Assemble (RTA) kitchen are one way to control these spiraling costs.

What Are RTA Kitchen Cabinets?

RTA kitchen cabinets are "real" cabinets, just the same as you buy at a kitchen/bath store. The only difference is that you need to assemble and install them yourself.

In years past, RTA cabinets were a pretty grim offering of mundane, unstylish MDF and melamine or thermofoil cabinets. If the cabinets were real wood, invariably they came in limited wood species, door styles, and finishes.

RTA cabinets have come into their own. You can order anything from plain white thermofoil to sleek contemporary veneers, and everything in-between.

How Much Do RTA Kitchen Cabinets Cost?

Expect to pay $1,800 to $4,500 for unassembled cabinets, shipping included.

This figure is based on the standard 10'x10' full kitchen benchmark and includes boxes, door and drawer fronts, side pieces, shelves, pull-out trays, and molding.

It does not include extras like lazy-susans, roll-out spice racks, wine racks, etc.

What Type of Assembly Do You Want?

You don't need to be a woodworker to assemble RTA cabinets. RTAs are specially designed for easy assembly. But with RTA, "simple" can have either of two meanings:

  1. Some RTA cabinets assemble like IKEA products--barely three or four tools are required (screwdriver, drill, mallet). They have a cam-lock and bracket system of assembly requiring no hammering, stapling, gluing, or cutting.
  2. Other RTAs are almost like building the cabinet yourself from scratch. Here you'll need the tools mentioned before, plus wood glue, staple gun, spring and bar clamps, cordless drill/driver, hammer, and even a saw.

Verify assembly instructions before you make the purchase.

Remember that you are assembling a lot of these cabinets. A 10'x10' kitchen might have 6-10 cabinets. Don't expect to be able to knock them together in a morning. Think of cabinet assembly as a project unto itself, though a project that should save you money in the end.

RTA vs. Factory-Assembled Cabinets

Not all do-it-yourself kitchen cabinets are RTA; you can also buy factory-assembled kitchen cabinets and install them yourself. Factory-assembled cabinets are delivered ready to install. All you need to do is unbox them. Expect to pay about 25% more for these pre-assembled cabinets and another 25% more in shipping costs.

Does the RTA Company Charge Sales Taxes?

One sneaky benefit of buying online is that you can often avoid being charged sales taxes at the time of purchase. Because sales costs are so high with RTA, you can save hundreds or even thousands by going with an RTA company that does not withhold sales taxes. It's important to note that you are still required to pay sales taxes on Internet purchases even if the retailer does not withhold them.

RTA Shipping Costs: The Monster Lurking in the Corner

If you're buying a kitchen faucet, you really don't think to think about shipping costs: it's so lightweight, shipping is only a few bucks. But kitchen cabinets are enormously heavy. With all that plywood, particleboard, doors, and accessories, you're looking at several hundred pounds of cabinet materials. That's why you need to pay attention to RTA cabinet shipping costs; they are a very real part of the price.

On the face of it, the best RTA cabinet company for shipping costs is IKEA. They claim that they have a flat $99 delivery charge, regardless of the number of items ordered. Is this true? I loaded up an online IKEA shopping cart with $4,449 of base and wall cabinets, a refrigerator, range, doors, and high cabinets. Result: $99 shipping cost for the entire order.

But as RTA Cabinet Store rightfully points out, free shipping does not exist. Rest assured that somewhere, in some hidden crack or crevasse of your cabinet cost, shipping costs will be included.

Restocking Fees

By now, most consumers should be familiar with the term "restocking fee," a catch-all term that basically serves as a safety net to cover a business' cost (and sometimes more) when an item is returned.

With RTA cabinets, restocking fees can be a killer. One company, Cabinets Direct RTA, charges a 35% restocking fee for returns. For a $4,500 order, this fee would run you $1,575. And that doesn't include your own shipping costs. I don't mean to single out this company, since sky-high restocking fees are found elsewhere.