Kitchen renovations: Flatpack vs custom kitchens

Information verified correct on October 24th, 2016

Which option offers the best way to create your dream kitchen?

Planning a renovationThe kitchen is the heart of the home. It’s the place where the whole family comes together and it’s one of the most-used areas of any household, so it’s important that the entire kitchen area is spacious, welcoming and completely practical.

If you’re planning on renovating to give your old and tired kitchen a much-needed makeover, there are two options to choose from: you could go the traditional route with a custom kitchen renovation, or you could choose to buy and install a flatpack kitchen.

But which of these two options is the cheapest, quickest and least stressful? Most importantly, which approach produces the best results?

Flatpack kitchens

With the spread of IKEA’s worldwide furniture empire in recent years, flatpack kitchens have enjoyed a marked increase in popularity. Offering a significant price advantage over a custom kitchen, flatpack kitchens are an affordable but high-quality solution to your renovation needs.

Flatpack kitchens are available from furniture and home improvement stores like IKEA, Bunnings and Masters. They’re also available in a vast array of unique designs and styles, from traditional or country kitchens to modern kitchens, gourmet kitchens and kitchens specifically designed for apartment spaces.

Once you’ve chosen a design, you can assemble it yourself using common household tools.

Installing a flatpack kitchen

If you struggle to put together a flatpack chair or coffee table without losing your cool, a flatpack kitchen won’t be the right approach for you. However, putting together a flatpack kitchen is a fairly easy job, so don’t be put off by any fears that it may be overly complex.

To give you a better idea of what’s involved in the installation process, let’s take a look at what you need to do to add an IKEA flatpack kitchen to your home. There are four basic steps to follow:

  1. Measure. The first step is to measure the existing space – you can do this yourself or use IKEA’s measuring service for $99.
  2. Plan. Now it’s time to choose the layout of your kitchen. You can split your kitchen into work zones – storage, washing and cooking – to provide a practical structure, and choose from a range of layouts (U-shape, L-shape, galley, straight-line or island-bench kitchen). IKEA also has an online 3D planner to help you visualise your plans, and you can choose appliances, interior fittings, kitchen lighting, taps and sinks, cabinets and handles, and benchtops.
  3. Order. Head in-store to have an IKEA kitchen expert look over your plans and product list and help you place your order.
  4. Install. It’s now time to open all the boxes, read the instructions and start putting the kitchen together. You can do it yourself or use IKEA’s kitchen installation service to be matched with reliable tradespeople in your area.

IKEA’s kitchen installation guide contains a list of the tools you may need to use to install your kitchen. They include:

Cherie Barber's Kitchen renovation tips
Cherie Barber

“Kitchens are the most important room in a buyer’s eye as they are often the most costly to renovate,” Barber says. “Without updating the kitchen, come sale time you can seriously hamper your property’s sale price. Likewise, if you spend too much on your kitchen, you may not see the return.”

However, a clever approach to how you present your kitchen can produce excellent results. “If you install a kitchen that follows the trends too much, you risk alienating buyers and reducing your potential return,” Barber explains. “You can be very clever in the way that you present the kitchen – high-gloss finishes and designer-looking items to create the illusion of a very expensive kitchen. You need to be savvy and keep your eye out for bargains to keep costs down.”

  • A fine-toothed handsaw
  • G-clamps
  • Mitre-box and saw
  • Spirit level
  • Measuring tape
  • A flathead and a Phillips head screwdriver
  • Awl
  • Pencil
  • Rubber hammer
  • Hammer
  • Try square
  • Hole cutter (for drilling the hole for the mixer tap in the sink)
  • Circular saw
  • Electric screwdriver/drill
  • Jigsaw

It’s also worth pointing out that no fixing hardware is supplied with your cabinets, simply because there are so many different types of wall. You’ll need to purchase fixing hardware yourself from your local hardware or home improvement store.

To install an IKEA kitchen:

  1. Set your suspension rail. IKEA kitchen cabinets can be hung directly onto a suspension rail so that they are easier to install and adjust.
  2. Install your cabinets. The wall cabinets usually go in first, followed by the base cabinets.
  3. Install your worktop, sink, lighting, and appliances. Once the worktop is in place you can get water, gas, lighting and appliances hooked up. This must be done by qualified and properly licensed professionals.
  4. Install shelves, drawers, doors, knobs, and handles. You can also add any internal storage hardware at this stage.

Man building

How much does a flatpack kitchen cost?

The overall cost of a flatpack kitchen varies depending on the design, features and accessories you choose, as well as any professional help you get along the way. It’s also worth remembering that plumbing, electrical work and gas fitting can only be done by licensed tradies, so you’ll need to factor the cost of hiring experts into your calculations.

To give you a better idea of the costs involved, let’s take a look at some of the options available from Bunnings and IKEA.

Bunnings flatpack kitchens

Bunnings Studio Style Kitchen: From $2,767.42. Includes a Bellini freestanding dishwasher, Clark overmount stainless-steel sink, Bellini retractable rangehood and Kaboodle mocha latte cabinet doors.

Bunnings The Classic Kitchen: From $8,512.65. Includes Kaboodle Cremasala Heritage cabinet doors, Clark overmount stainless-steel sink, Caroma Cirrus swivel sink mixer and Bellini canopy rangehood.

Bunnings Luxury Kitchen: $11,522.87. Includes Bellessi splashback, Caroma Titan stainless-steel sink mixer and Bellini rangehood.

IKEA flatpack kitchens

A standard L-shaped kitchen from IKEA costs around $2,000-$3,000, including cabinets, drawers, shelves, hinges, cover panels, benchtop, sink, tap and handles. Your choice of appliances, lighting and splashback are sold separately.

A standard L-shaped kitchen from IKEA costs around $2,000-$3,000, including cabinets, drawers, shelves, hinges, cover panels, benchtop, sink, tap and handles. Your choice of appliances, lighting and splashback are sold separately.

Including an oven, cooktop and rangehood will add at least $1,000 to the price, but if you choose higher-level appliances and add in a microwave and integrated dishwasher, appliances alone could total an extra $4,000.

Stone splashbacks start from $450 per square metre, while glass splashbacks are $350 per square metre. Lighting costs vary depending on your needs and the products you choose.

Flatpack kitchens: The end result

“Flatpack kitchens are perfect for homeowners, DIYers and investment property owners,” says Cherie Barber, renovation expert and founder of Renovating For Profit. “They are less expensive and easy to put together yourself. They come in a huge variety of configurations and finishes, with a great mix of quality, style and value for money. And they look just as good as a custom kitchen if installed correctly – this is why I suggest always having a carpenter hired to install them.”

“Flatpack kitchens are perfect for homeowners, DIYers and investment property owners,” says Cherie Barber, renovation expert and founder of Renovating For Profit. “They are less expensive and easy to put together yourself. They come in a huge variety of configurations and finishes, with a great mix of quality, style and value for money. And they look just as good as a custom kitchen if installed correctly – this is why I suggest always having a carpenter hired to install them.”

“You can definitely get a showroom look on a budget if you go with a flatpack kitchen and have a professional carpenter install it for you. To save money, I suggest assembling the cabinet carcasses yourself,” Barber says.

Marco Prati IKEA kitchen

Pros and cons of flatpack kitchens

  • Cheaper. Costs vary depending on the size and type of your project, but flatpack kitchens are generally significantly cheaper than custom kitchens.
  • Huge choice. There’s an impressive range of designs, styles and colours to choose from to create the space you want.
  • You take control. Instead of waiting around for tradies who fail to keep their appointments, flatpack kitchens allow you to take charge of the project yourself.
  • You need to be handy. Before tackling a DIY kitchen installation, you’ll need to be sure that you have the building skills to complete the job. You’ll also need a long list of tools.
  • Can be stressful. Anyone who has ever assembled a piece of flatpack furniture knows that things often don’t go to plan, so taking the job on yourself can be a stressful and time-consuming process.

Advice from an experienced renovator

woman renoChloe Constantinides is an experienced renovator and has renovated seven properties in the last two years, including eight kitchens (one in a granny flat), for profit. One of the kitchens was an upmarket, custom kitchen, two featured flatpack cupboards with custom benchtops, and the rest were just straight-up from a flatpack.

Cost and time were definitely the biggest factors in Constantinides’ renovation approach, as she needed to generate the biggest margin/value increase in a short space of time. “Being flat packs, they are readily available and I am able to design the kitchens myself. With the investment properties, I start designing/planning before settlement, so as soon as I get the keys I can get in, rip out the old one and install straight away,” she says.

“Custom kitchens are definitely more difficult to work with and the difference in quality is getting less and less noticeable in my opinion. Unless you have an obscure-shaped kitchen, for example, awkward corners or unusual lengths, I think most properties can get away with a flatpack.

“Time-wise, custom kitchens will of course take a lot longer. You generally have to wait until you can get access to the property, wait for a designer, order the cabinetry and so on.

“People say you should spend X% on your kitchen… I think you should spend as little as possible to get the finish you want. In my own home, I used high-quality flatpack cupboards and then ordered a top-end Caesarstone benchtop. The benchtop really is overkill, but I got a great price on it and couldn’t be happier with it,” Constantinides says.

The experienced renovator is quick to admit that she’s a big fan of flatpacks and the benefits they offer to investors. “There are generally ‘grades’ of flatpacks, so I’d steer away from the really low-quality stuff. However, there are countless options, flexible layouts, they have easy-to-install cabinetry, most are good quality and you can usually design them yourself or through a professional for a small fee. They look amazing at the end of the day,” she says.

“The last carpenter I used to install them loved them so much that he went home and bought flatpack cupboards for his own kitchen.”

If you’re planning a kitchen reno but you’re unsure of which approach to take, Constantinides offers some simple advice: shop around. “I get my cabinetry from one supplier, benchtops from another and splashback from another. If you want to make a flatpack look custom, get a nice benchtop, find different door handles (ensuring your cabinets aren’t pre-drilled) and choose a stunning splashback (tiles are much cheaper than glass) that suits the home.”

“If you have a multi-million dollar property and have the time to wait, go for a custom kitchen and get something really special. If you’re an investor, go flatpack. If you’ve got an average home, I would suggest using high-quality flatpack cabinetry (most people won’t know the difference). However, if you want to make it look really polished, I would recommend investing in a good-quality benchtop.”

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Custom kitchen renovations

If an off-the-shelf flatpack kitchen isn’t right for you, you can instead go to a kitchen showroom and have your kitchen designed for you from top to bottom. The main advantage of this approach is the customisation options it presents – you can ensure that you end up with the kitchen you want, from the overall design right down to the smallest little detail.

A custom kitchen can be made to suit your requirements to a tee, and provides access to a wide range of materials, finishes and fittings to help you personalise your space.

You do have the option of going the DIY route with a custom kitchen reno. You can choose the design, fixtures and fittings yourself, buy all the products and materials from specialised stores, and then hire all the necessary tradies to install everything.

Alternatively, you can approach a kitchen specialist to manage the project from start to finish. They can help with the design, source the necessary materials and products, and then co-ordinate all the tradies needed to install the kitchen.

“Remember that even showroom kitchens use flatpack-style base and upper cabinets in most instances, so one way to save on a showroom kitchen is to stick to standard-size cabinets,” Barber says.

“A fully custom-designed showroom kitchen, on the other hand, will have many of the component parts manufactured to your designer’s exact specifications. But this will cost you a premium and isn’t something I’d recommend if keeping your budget in check is high on your priority list.”

Doing a kitchen renovation

How much does a custom kitchen renovation cost?

The cost of a custom kitchen renovation varies depending on a huge range of factors, including the size of your space, the complexity of the design, whether any plumbing or electrical connections need to be moved, and the materials and appliances you select. Whether you handle each stage of the process yourself or get a kitchen specialist to project-manage for you will also affect the cost.

With this in mind, it’s impossible to provide an accurate one-size-fits-all figure for the cost of a custom renovation. As a general guide, budget prices start at around $10,000 and can head up towards the $50,000 mark. Get quotes from a number of kitchen installers in your area to get a better idea of how much your project will cost.

Custom kitchen renovations: The end result

With a custom kitchen you get a kitchen specifically designed to suit your tastes and requirements. “If you have a very tricky space, a custom kitchen can help overcome tricky layout issues,” Barber says. “If you don’t like renovating and want someone to take it all on for you, then a showroom kitchen is the way to go. But beware as the price can be as much as double.”

Pros and cons of custom kitchens

  • Customisation. A custom renovation allows you to create a space that suits all your needs.
  • Choice of fixtures, fittings and finishes. If you want a unique look or a special inclusion in your kitchen, a custom renovation provides endless choices.
  • No hassle. Getting a kitchen specialist to organise the renovation can take all the stress out of the process for you.
  • Expensive. Hiring a specialist kitchen company to create a custom kitchen is much more expensive than a flatpack kitchen. You can usually save money by project-managing the renovation yourself, but this can be time-consuming and also quite stressful.
  • No noticeable difference. Even with all the extra money spent, a custom kitchen may not have a noticeable difference in quality when compared to a flatpack renovation.

Do you really need a full kitchen renovation?

Cherie Barber Kitchen renovationBefore you spend thousands of dollars on a full kitchen renovation, it’s worth asking yourself whether you may be able to achieve a similar end result by spending a whole lot less money.

“Every successful renovator understands the allure of a good kitchen and the repelling power of a grotty, old one,” says Cherie Barber, renovation expert and founder of Renovating for Profit.

“Yet kitchens can be notoriously expensive to renovate, labour-intensive and the reno can drag on for weeks if not properly planned and executed. And that’s not great news for an investor who has their property sitting empty while the delays rob them of potentially thousands of dollars in lost rent.”

That’s why a kitchen makeover instead of a full reno can be a smart strategy for investors. If the kitchen is well laid out and structurally in good shape, then a few modernising tricks may be all that’s needed to give it a completely fresh look.

“Leaving everything in situ and working with what’s there, rather than demolishing the kitchen and starting from scratch, eliminates all the risky delays and costs associated with an entirely new kitchen,” Barber says.

“Here’s my top tips for a budget cosmetic kitchen renovation where you utilise as much of what is there already and update a few key areas:

  1. New benchtops. This can also provide the opportunity to tweak the layout if you want to, for example, create a breakfast bar or add an extra base cabinet or two.
  2. Funky tiles. Tiles are cheap to buy and can really leave their stamp on an otherwise bland kitchen, even if it’s just a ‘wow factor’ splashback.
  3. Updated appliances. There’s nothing worse than a cooktop with only two functioning burners or an oven that barely works. New appliances can be purchased very cheaply these days and always win brownie points.
  4. New cupboard fronts. If all the carcasses are solid but the cupboard and door fronts are chipped and worn, one option is just to have new fronts made up in a modern finish. Way cheaper than an entire new kitchen, but you’ll achieve a similar impact!
  5. New fittings. Daggy lights and tapware really date a kitchen; modern ones can lift it to a whole new level. Consider getting cabinet lighting to illuminate the benchtop, a fancy feature light and contemporary taps. Places like Bunnings and IKEA offer loads of great options.”
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The verdict

If you decide that you’d rather go with a custom kitchen reno, remember that you can get the experts to take care of the job for you. There are hundreds of specialist kitchen renovation companies across Australia that specialise in project managing kitchen renovations from start to finish. They can take care of everything from design and layout to choosing fixtures and sourcing tradies, ensuring that the entire renovation project runs as smoothly as possible.

However, there are also several advantages to installing a flatpack kitchen. Value for money headlines this list of advantages, but Barber also points out that when flatpack kitchens are installed correctly, there’s no discernible difference in quality when compared to a custom kitchen reno.

“Flatpacks have greatly improved over a short time,” she says. “These days they are very high quality and come in a huge range of colours, materials, and finishes. You can always up-spec your flatpack kitchen using a designer-looking tiled splashback, great handles or a composite stone benchtop. Take your design inspiration from the showroom and then apply that to your flatpack project.”

Whichever approach you choose, make sure to research and compare your options before starting work. This will help you find the right renovation solution to create your perfect kitchen.

Back to top Images: Marco Prati /, Shutterstock and images of Cherie Barber courtesy of her website.

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