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Q: Should I Install Floor Before Cabinets or Cabinets Before Floor?

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kitchen cabinets Getty - Steve Cole
Question: Q: Should I Install Floor Before Cabinets or Cabinets Before Floor?
A reader sent us an e-mail, saying, "I am doing a full renovation for my investment property. Which should I do first? - Install new hardwood floors or put in new kitchen cabinets and appliances?"
Answer: The general Floor-Before-Or-After question is one that plagues many homeowners and the answer can be fluid when factors change.

In your particular situation, the short answer is that you will want to install the hardwood flooring before putting in the kitchen cabinets and appliances. Here are some reasons why.

If you were to first install those base cabinets and appliances straight onto the subfloor, and next the hardwood flooring around the cabinets/appliances, the height of the cabinets and appliances will be all wrong. The work surface of your countertops should eventually arrive at 36 inches high.

The only way to correct this would be to put plywood risers underneath the cabinets and appliances. But what better risers than the flooring itself?

Are there situations when you might install flooring after the cabinets and appliances? These are not recommended practices, but here are things I have seen:

1. Using Less Finish Flooring

If you're trying to pinch pennies--and you might be, since, as you say, this is an investment property--consider that all of that nicely finished hardwood flooring underneath the cabinets is pretty much wasted. Why spend $20 per square foot for Brazilian Cherry that no one will ever see? It is not common or recommended practice to install a different, cheaper type of flooring underneath cabinets/appliances, or even those plywood risers we mentioned earlier. But I have seen this.

Doing this is one way to anger subsequent owners of the property. Houses I have owned and remodeled are invariably riddled with cop-outs, quick fixes, and el cheapo renovations from previous owners. These are like ticking time bombs just waiting for the next homeowner to discover when remodeling. I would hate to be the homeowner who removes kitchen cabinets, only to discover that there is no finish flooring underneath.

Info About Flooring Layers - Underlayment, Subfloor, and Finish Floor

2. Install Cabinets First, But Minimize Height of Flooring

Sometimes it is not necessary to remove the existing cabinets/appliances because they are in acceptable condition. Yet the flooring still needs to be replaced.

If you're installing thin flooring, such as vinyl or tile, it is possible to lay the flooring right up to the cabinets. The ragged edge of the flooring is then covered over with quarter-round or base molding. Higher types of flooring such as solid hardwood present a problem because of the cabinet-height issue mentioned earlier. This can be mitigated by:

  1. Using engineered wood flooring rather than solid hardwood. Engineered wood, a "sandwich" of wood veneer on top and high-grade plywood below, is slightly thinner than solid hardwood;
  2. Laying the finish flooring straight onto the subfloor with no additional underlayment. This additional underlayment, by itself, would add another 1/4" to 1/2" to the total flooring thickness--not something you can afford in this scenario.
A Few Words About Painting Before Flooring or Flooring Before Painting

One off-shoot of the above question is whether one should paint the home interior before installing flooring or the other way around. Dripping paint on pre-finished wood flooring, while no fun, isn't such a a big deal (let it dry, then peel it off with your fingernail). Dripping paint on carpeting can be disastrous. What to do?

This answer can go either way. It is impossible to get paint on your finish flooring if it hasn't been installed yet. As a painter, you can really let loose when you don't have to worry about mess. Rather than taking the careful approach of working with a roller and brush, you can use a spray painter. Spray painters work faster but get paint on everything that isn't covered--it leaves no prisoners.

But it's not not always possible to choreograph painting and flooring in this sequence. If the finish flooring is already installed, a good supply of dropcloths and a healthy respect for gravity's effect on wet paint should ensure that your house stays clean.

A Professional Weighs In...

Because this is a flexible topic with differing opinions, it helps to get another voice. And who better than a building-industry veteran of 37 years? One such person, Alan Ryner, tells us following:

A lot of good points on cabinet, flooring painting sequence. Here in the [Pacific] Northwest we paint walls prior to cabinets or any other interior trim.

In doing this we are able to apply the PVA to all interior and exterior surfaces, the same is true of paint. Note that we do not prepaint our millwork.

Cabinets are installed prior to flooring. Our thinking on this is no possible damage to the chosen floor covering. Also think of the future floor replacement. It is no fun to replace hardwood, tile or vinyl with the cabinets over the top. So it is not a cost issue...

Mr. Ryner tells us that he began his construction career in the mid-1970s and built his first home 6 months later. He focused on entry level spec homes as well as custom construction. He began taking his son, Eric, to work at age six. Eric now runs Ryner Homes LLC, which focuses on remodeling and custom construction in the Snohomish County area as well as North King County, both Washington State.

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