High-Volume Cabinet Install Jobs — Is It Worth It?

Cabinet installers discuss the potential pitfalls of a 50-kitchen installation contract, and share tips for making a success of it. March 20, 2007

I have an opportunity to install 50 or more kitchens in several medium-high end developments. Till now we have done strictly kitchen remodeling, about 1 per month. On the larger project we would need to install 1 kitchen per day. The money for the big project seems good, but I would have to hire and manage a couple extra guys to do the work. I'm wondering - would it make sense to try and add installation to my business?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor H:
You will not do a kitchen a day if it is in fact a real kitchen, especially with new help. The money might look good but ask why are you being offered the job? The money might not be so good if you look close.

From contributor J:
Is it what you want to do? Kitchen remodeling will become a distant memory. The potential for problems seems enormous. I see you falling behind quickly, not being able to catch up, losing money (or just breaking even) and regretting ever taking the work.

On the other hand, if I were to consider it, I'd be totally committed. I'd buy extra tools, pay top dollar for labor, work overtime and be willing to break even on this one to prove that I'm the best game in town. Reputation is everything, you'll never get rich on the first job, but the good will you generate may help you down the road.

From the original questioner:
I really like kitchen remodeling and stay away from new construction, but this other opportunity could represent a chance to double current income, continue the remodel market, and that's what caught my attention.

I think doing a simple kitchen in a day should be possible with me and two guys, as long as we are not including the trim work. All the pieces are there, the base is integral to the cabinets, the floors are relatively level, and the kitchen is 10' x 10'. Add another day if we have to run the crown. I understand in the brutally efficient world of track homes, a crew does the kitchen as well as 2 baths and laundry in a day. I have heard of crews that do two homes in a day.

From contributor N:
A 10 x 10 kitchen and a set of vanities could easily be done in one day with one helper, as long as the helper can set vanities and sub tops and has a strong back to help with the pack in. The first few may run a little slower, but you'll quickly learn where you can save time. Watch for missing parts/boxes and call in shortages as soon as possible. You can easily get behind if you need to take a day to go in lot #3 to finish the uppers because the hood was backordered, or in to lot #17 because there was no island cabs sent, or into lot #20 because the salesman went to Jamaica and the trainee did the takeoff and it’s all screwed up, etc. Soon enough you'll need to take a day to go around and do pick-up and get a house behind. It’s all part of the deal and the project manager should understand.

From contributor K:
Do you know the developer? As a remodeler you are dealing with the homeowner, with you setting a payout schedule, correct?

Can you talk to any of the other subs that have worked for this guy? How's the money? You may be out 30-45 days on payment, can you float your help for weeks to a month? I would try to find out if the guy has any other work (a 1-2 kitchen job) that you can install to get a feel what it is like to work for him.

The devil is in the details, so make sure you know exactly what you are bidding on, and spell out what is extra. (Even drilling and installing knobs and pulls times 50 kitchens can add an easy 50+ hours that you did not account for).

Are you going to be stocked in the unit or garage? Face frame or Euro boxes with levelers and hanging rails? What if you get a corner box that got crunched in shipping and it holds up your install for the day? Will you be moving under-cabinet lighting whips or plumbing stub outs if in the wrong place?

I don't need to spell out all the potential problems in an install, but if you don't know them you wouldn't be bidding on 50. Get everything detailed out in your bid proposal/contract as best you can. In Chicago, I consider the job site and security - will you be packing up tools into the van every day, or are they providing security that you will not get cleaned out overnight?

Also, you will not be able to service your remodeling core customer base for 2-3 months. Will you lose a part of your "bread and butter" on a chance to change business direction?

I'm not saying yes or no, just a few things to think about. It's your business - do you like the variety of each project being different? 50 will get ho-hum boring, but if the money is there, then you deal with the monotony.

It might be a chance to buy a few toys to get you real efficient - Gil-Lift, Paslode, some nice additional cordless impacts or right angle drills, a laser level you've been eyeing.

From the original questioner:
Contributor K - you are right about the details. One detail is that my liability insurance doesn't cover commercial work or installing cabinets not made by me or doing work in new construction. The insurance company figures your at much higher risk in large scale construction project, and the quote for this coverage is about triple the quote for the same type of work done one at a time in people's old homes.

From contributor D:
I agree with everything mentioned so far, and if you have a shop and are used to dealing strictly with homeowners you might not like the gig very much. The problem with big jobsites is that you are generally dealing with a superintendent that has a brain that doesn't deal with common reasoning. They like to scream and yell and threaten to throw everybody off of the job if you don't make their schedule, and it doesn't matter if the reason you can't meet the schedule is because his cleanup laborers threw all of you skins away in the dumpster.

And I agree with what was mentioned above that the sales guy was on vacation and the fill ins jacked up the design. Matter of fact you get to be the guy that takes the hit for the first 6 units being all wrong or missing parts because nobody walked the units before production. You don't get to collect because of a damaged cabinet, or the super demands you put in the damaged base cabinet and then down the road after tile is in he wants to know why in the world you installed a damaged cabinet and wants to back-charge you because he has to have a new tile top installed after you replace the damaged cabinet. Yep I have seen it all, and have heard it all. It is not all bad though sometimes (in the twilight zone) the kitchens just fall into place and you go home with a well earned check.

In all seriousness as a cabinet maker you'll understand what I am about to say. There are quality shops that deliver complete well built cabinets. There are also well built and delivered modular cabinets. If you happen to get lucky and are able to get an install contract with one of these companies you have a potential to earn a lot of money. But 50 kitchens is also a potential for mistakes and if you bid tight one mistake can almost have you working for free. Assuming that you are already knowledgeable about everything everyone has said here are a few things that make you reconsider your bid.

Do the cabinets come wrapped in cardboard and plastic and if they do who and how far do you have to carry the trash to clean up? Are the cabinets dropped off in the garage or do you have to pull them from storage bins? Do they pay you a go back charge when there is a cabinet missing or damaged? How many units will they allow you to install at once or how many will be ready at once? Those things alone can get to your wallet.

Suggestion: buy a cabinet jack and then hire a labor company to come in with you and spread the cabs (as many units as you can at once there is usually a 4 hour minimum for labor companies). You could eliminate having to have any help to slow you down. Buy a paslode cordless pin nailer and a Bosch cordless chop saw eliminate cords and hoses. Complete a unit before you go to the next, eliminating having to go back at all costs.

With the jack and the laborers you will eliminate a hurt back and you go a lot faster. You should easily be able to do two or more kitchens a day especially if they are repetitive designs.

From the original questioner:
Contributor D -excellent advice! Thanks to you and to everyone for their perspectives. What you said about the quality of cabinets and integrity of the design raises two rather strong red-flag warnings. First: the cabinets are to be boxed Chinese-made cabinets. They must be assembled. I've installed a couple of similar cabinets the last year as a favor for a friend. The quality I would rate as about the same or better than home-depot (HD).

Second, at this moment, I have no assurances on the design; which is to say will all the pieces be there when you need them, and will they fit? My one experience installing HD cabinets is that the design was terrible, there was a lot of damage in transit, paneling did not match in color, or was missing. Replacement pieces came in 3 to 6 weeks. So I can imagine the difficulties of doing the same with the Chinese stuff; unless you are careful you are buying (or selling) your way into a lot of trouble.