5 Regrettable Custom Kitchen Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

Kitchens are the heart of the home.  Yet, so many kitchen renovations lack heart and soul and leave homeowners underwhelmed and disappointed.

Custom kitchen renovations can be scary.  It’s a big investment and something that will impact your home’s look, feel, and future resale for decades to come.  You may only be involved with a couple kitchen renovations over a lifetime, but we do this every day at my interiors firm and I have to tell you, I’ve seen the horrors when it comes to kitchen renovations.

While it was difficult to narrow the array of kitchen blunders I’ve seen throughout my design career, I think that the five I’ve outlined here are potentially the most painful financially and from an everyday functional standpoint.

So, whether you’re hiring a pro to guide you through the process, or attempting to DIY, here are the top 5 things to avoid at all costs…

Dysfunctional Layouts

Getting your kitchen layout wrong not only impacts the aesthetic and resale value of your home…  it also makes everyday activities like prepping food and putting away dishes much more stressful.

I was at a client’s the other day who went to their local cabinetry shop to plan their kitchen layout.

As of right now, their kitchen is straight out of the 1970’s with dark cabinets and door pulls in the middle of the doors.

Dishwashers weren’t prevalent back then, so when it was later installed, they plopped it on the back wall wedged between the stove and refrigerator.

An awkward peninsula cut the space in half and made it feel a lot darker than it should with the large window, passthrough and sliding glass door.

The clients called me because the layout they received by the in-house cabinetry designer repeated all of the same issues they already had.  It just moved the dysfunction to another area of the kitchen! The showroom designer had put the stove on one wall and the sink on another.  But the fridge, dishwasher and the sink were still all in a row!

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, however we receive calls like this every week.  After all, in-house designers for cabinetry vendors are there to sell cabinetry! Some in-house designers are fantastic and we would recommend them all day long (and we do), but sadly it’s the exception not the norm.

Upon inspecting this client’s layout, I saw issues right away.  The first was a lack of a working triangle. Everything was stacked on one wall with the stove being at an awkward angle from there.

If you were working in that kitchen, the person unloading dishes would be blocked by the fridge doors if someone else was in there cooking.  And the chef would be shuffling all over the place spinning like crazy!

For this client we created an efficient working triangle and managed to place a small island completely opening up the space.

Honestly, a kitchen layout concept is not something I recommend DIY’ing because it’s SO crucial (and very expensive to fix once installed).  You can get a kitchen layout done by an interior design firm for under $1,000 including selection of finishes.  That includes gathering trade quotes for the work and a plan to pull it all together!
(If this sounds interesting, learn more about our Custom Kitchen Design Service here.)

However, if you are having a go at it yourself, here are 8 tips for getting it right:


  1. Place the stove first on an outside wall.  If the stove is on an outside wall you’ll be able to vent  it more easily. We love to make the range a feature in most kitchens because it’s the prettiest of the appliances and you can really make a statement with your range hood.
  2. Next place the refrigerator and the sink in a triangle pattern within working distance of the range.  You’ll also want to think about other appliances like wall ovens at this point if you plan on adding those.  You don’t want wall ovens to be too far from a surface to put down your pans when you remove hot food!
  3. The dishwasher should be next to the sink.  Your garbage and knives should be too. And, storing your dishes within reaching distance of the dishwasher creates the strongest workflow.
  4. Go vertical with your storage placing the things you don’t use as often on higher shelves.  Buy the tallest cabinetry that you can! If you have 8’ ceilings, use 36” uppers. If you have 9’+ ceilings, opt for 42” instead.
  5. Consider a place for large appliances.  If you drink a smoothie every day, you may want an appliance center built in so that your blender can remain plugged in without cluttering up your countertops.Stand mixers are pretty enough to be out on display, however consider where it’s going to sit when planning your layout because they take up an awful lot of counter space.  I like to put them in corners where the countertops are deeper so you don’t lose any working space.
  6. Use drawers around your stove wherever possible.  Store pots and lids in the lower, bigger drawers. Store cooking utensils and spices in top drawers for an easy grab-and-go solution.
  7. Make sure all walkways are large enough.  You’ll need 36” through most walkways and 42-48” in cooking zones.  I wouldn’t go too much larger than this for efficiency and I definitely wouldn’t go any smaller either.
  8. Don’t forget about your electrical and lighting plan.  Allow for sufficient outlets around the countertop and even inside large cupboards where you might store small appliances.  Be sure to include ample layered lighting also.

Trendy kitchen done in all neutrals that now feels dated.

Trendy Neutrals

The cabinetry alone for a custom kitchen will likely run between $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of your space.  Then add in the tile, flooring, appliances, lighting, and countertops… and in the end your custom kitchen winds up costing about as much as a nice car.

That said, kitchens are a far better investment than any vehicle as they yield up to a 200% return on investment.  

When you purchase a vehicle, you take steps to maintain that investment, right?  You wash the car. Get regular oil changes. Insure it against damage.

When you design your kitchen you want to protect that investment also by ensuring that it stands the test of time.

My childhood home recently came up for sale and the listing said “brand new modern kitchen”.  Upon looking at the pictures I discovered that this “modern” kitchen was the exact one my dad put in 20 years ago!  Same cabinets. Same countertops. Same flooring even. Nothing had changed.

I don’t think the Real Estate Agent was trying to be deceiving.  It’s just that the kitchen still feels new because it was clean and built with semi-custom cabinetry and timeless finishes that were built to last.

The trendy neutral at the time my dad installed that kitchen was beige.  We saw a lot of beige tile, flooring and countertops back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Today, those same beige tiles feel tired and in desperate need of an update.

Instead, my dad had chosen blue tile to go with the white cabinetry.  And today, everyone going through the home had commented on how beautiful the brand new kitchen was (even though it’s 20 years old!)

Now, you may be thinking “But Heather, I thought neutrals were the safe choice?”
And you may also be thinking “I don’t want blue (or any other colour) in my kitchen!” 

So let me address those one at a time.

First, neutrals are NOT timeless.
Let me repeat that.  Neutrals are NOT timeless (with one exception).

Not convinced?  Let’s take a look back in history.

In the 1980’s everyone was painting their homes white with stark black accents.  Black toilets were all the rage. I remember having white walls and teal trim! (We still make fun of my mom for that)

Then in the 90’s we saw golden oak cabinetry and pinkish beige tiles and paint.  Both are neutral, however they’re not something anyone wants in their home today.

The early 00’s brought us the Tuscan Trend as we moved to orangey and yellow beiges.  I’m STILL getting calls desperately wanting the travertine and terracotta tiles ripped out of homes.  No one is installing these in the 2020’s.

Around 2008 we started calling the beiges from the early 2000’s “builder’s beige”.  Those words came out of our mouths with great distaste as we proclaimed grey to be the new “it” neutral.

And around 2015, grey felt too cold.  So greige came in to save the day as a grey-beige alternative that felt more warm and cozy.

Now in 2020, the white and black trend is going strong.  But of course, we had to switch it up from the 1980’s art deco movement to a more country and industrial mixture.  Grey is certainly “out”.  We’re no longer seeing it in design showrooms so it’s only a matter of time before we start wanting to rip all of the grey out of our homes in favour of the next neutral sensation.

You know what hasn’t gone out of style in all of these decades?

White, mid-tone wood, and classic colours.

Returning to my dad’s kitchen renovation, he paired the blue tile with white cabinetry.  It still looks fresh and would make any homeowner happy.

As a designer, I’m bored of white kitchens.  But from an investment standpoint, they don’t go out of style UNLESS you pair the white cabinetry with the latest neutral trend for your countertops, flooring and tile!

That takes me to the colour.  Listen, I get that you might be uneasy about using colour in the kitchen.  In fact, the most common phrase I hear with clients is “I’m afraid I’ll get sick of it.”

However, the second most common phrase I hear from clients is “It’s dated and needs to go”… which is ALWAYS referencing some neutral finish that was put in 5+ years prior that already dates the home.

You know what I’ve never had a design client want ripped out?  Something they did in their favourite colour. Whether it’s their cabinetry, a sofa, or even the carpet.  The colours you loved as a kid are ones you’ll enjoy for years to come.

I’m not saying that you have to add colour in order to achieve a timeless kitchen.  Like I said, mid-tone wood and white on white on white are also timeless choices. But, never be afraid of the colours you love.  I promise, you’ll get tired of that “safe” neutral long before you tire of your favourite colours.

This leads beautifully into the next mistake…

A kitchen design for a model home with classic historical colours and mid-tone woods.

Ignoring Architecture

The most beautiful custom kitchens out there contain some form of architectural feature.  It may be stunning old windows. Or a $10,000 brass and wood custom hood vent that’s a total showstopper.

When kitchens are stripped down, they’re fairly utilitarian spaces with few windows to maximize room for cabinetry.

Now, we certainly don’t want to trade function for pretty.  However we can have both, if we open our eyes to the room’s architecture.

You may be set up with gorgeous architecture already.  Perhaps your kitchen is like mine and opens to a full wall of windows overlooking the manicured garden.  Or maybe you have soaring ceilings with wood beams.

However, most kitchen designs will require the architectural interest to be added — and this is a step that is very often ignored!

Here are some ways to add architectural interest to a space without completely redoing the roof line or losing cabinetry to windows:

  • Look up.  Have you noticed that ceilings are often left white in most kitchens?  Simply adding paint, wallpaper, or a fine trim detail can really take a kitchen from ho-hum to huzzah! 
  • Look down.  Flooring is often laid in utilitarian rows in a brick pattern.  Bo-ring! How about adding a classic herringbone wood floor? Or a small inlay tile border into your square tile flooring? 
  • Add levels.  Adding layers to your cabinetry feels far more interesting and custom than straight rows.  Try breaking up long stretches of cabinets with drywall breaks and pillars. Or adding a couple of cabinets that sit directly on the countertops.

Not Personalizing To Your Needs

Because everyone uses their kitchen differently, no two kitchens should be laid out the same way.  One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make during their kitchen renovation is not considering the way that they use their space.

A chef will prep differently than a mom with four kids tugging at her pant leg while making a meal.

If you’re plant-based, you’re going to use your kitchen very differently than someone who eats keto.

Partners in the same home even use their kitchens differently from one another.

Before a single cabinet is ordered it’s important to really explore the ins and outs of what you do in the kitchen.

For example, my husband and I are vegetarian.  However, for a very long time we ate copious amounts of meat when Kyle was body building and on a strict high protein diet.

As vegetarians who love to cook, we almost never use our freezer as we cook with fresh foods.  And our pantry needs have changed drastically requiring more small appliances and room for beans, lentils, and far more spices than we’ve ever used before.

It’s not just our storage needs that have changed.  The way we use our kitchen has also. Small appliances like our blender and food processor have come into use everyday use whereas they used to sit in the pantry for weeks on end.

When I cook, I do all of my chopping and prep by the sink because I like to wash my vegetables as I chop them.

My husband does his chopping by the stove because he washes all of the vegetables at once and likes to toss them in the pan as he goes along.

This means that we need a couple feet of clear counter space in both locations in order for our kitchen to function well for the both of us.

If you have kids, you may want them to be able to access snacks in lower cupboards or pantry shelves.  Or, you may want to keep them up high so they don’t disappear right after grocery day.

If you have health requirements, such as diabetes, you may needs to keep juice or candy where the kids can grab them for you if you experience low sugar levels.

If you entertain many people at once, you may need a dishwasher in the butler’s pantry to keep dirty dishes out of sight while party guests naturally gather around the kitchen.

We tend to float around our kitchen in habit, rarely stopping to take stock of what we’re doing and the habits that we have.  Yet, when designing a kitchen it’s important to do so.

When I design a kitchen space, I like to take an inventory of everything currently in the cabinets and everything that should live in the cabinets but is currently housed elsewhere.  That way, when we plan the layout, we can label what goes where and ensure everything has a home.

I also like to observe how clients use their kitchen in their home and draw out their traffic pattern between the main appliances, taking stock of how they prep, spice, and cook their food so that the kitchen will flow well for the individuals using it.

It’s a huge mistake to focus solely on how the kitchen will look.  You have to function in this space for hours each and every day. Proper planning can take a month or more, but it’ll be well worth it in the end.


What to do next

Every beautiful, unique, and functional kitchen begins with a deep planning process.  How much you devote to the planning process will ultimately show in the final result.

If you’re a busy working couple it may be that you simply don’t have 4-6 weeks to devote to planning your kitchen.  If that’s the case, let us help you.

The first step is to book a 30-minute discovery call to make sure the project is a fit and learn more about your goals for your kitchen.

Book your free discovery call here to get started today.