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RTA Cabinets vs Assembled: Which Reigns Supreme?

If you’re just entering the world of cabinetry, things can be confusing. You definitely have a lot to learn to ensure you make the best decisions about your kitchen design. Before you get into details like material, color, or layout, you should understand one of the most foundational options available to you: pre-assembled or RTA cabinets.

Pre-assembled cabinets are already built before your purchase, meaning all you need to do is install them. RTA, in contrast, stands for Ready-to-Assemble, which means the task of assembly will fall to you. RTA cabinets are shipped as a flat pack with all the components, so you’ll only need to provide tools and labor. Both options have their pros and cons.

Since cabinetry is so important for your home, it’s crucial for you to make the right decisions throughout the process. Your storage space, layout, visual design, convenience, functionality, and many more aspects of daily life are all directly dependent on your cabinets. The value of your home can also be affected, hopefully in a good way — high-quality wooden cabinets add value which makes them of interest to anyone seeking to build equity.

This article will help you understand the differences between assembled and RTA cabinets as part of the basic knowledge you need to make informed decisions regarding your home. Assembled versus “do-it-yourself” might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not just about where the cabinets are built and by whom. It also has deeper effects that you should allow to influence your choice between them.


RTA Cabinets: Pros and Cons

Ready-to-Assemble cabinets are usually packaged in a flat pack and are frequently sold online, although you can also often buy RTA cabinets from a local showroom. They are usually pre-finished, so they won’t require assembly and painting.

RTA cabinets have several advantages, many of which are centered on price and availability. Since they aren’t pre-assembled, labor costs are not added to the price tag, and shipping is also a lot cheaper — they may be close in weight to assembled cabinets, but they’re packed in flat boxes that take up much less space. They’re also less likely to be damaged during shipment, which further reduces costs (and can save the time it would take to secure a replacement).

Since RTA cabinets occupy less space, suppliers are much more likely to have them in stock, and in a wider variety too. Some cabinets may only be available as RTA, with no pre-assembled option available at all. Finally, more customizations are available for RTA cabinets than for assembled, since it’s easier for a manufacturer to, say, modify the cabinet depth when they’re simply cutting off a few inches of wood rather than trying to alter an entire assembled cabinet (which would be impossible without taking it apart, which is why almost no one will do it). More off-the-shelf options are also often available since RTA cabinets use so much less storage space.

As for cons, the primary disadvantage of RTA cabinets is that you will need to put them together yourself. If you don’t have the experience or confidence for a project like this, it can seem daunting. Fortunately, resources are available such as our cabinet construction guide, and if you lack the proper tools you can often rent them from a hardware store rather than needing to buy them. Another option is to hire a handyman to assemble your cabinets, but no matter what you choose, you will be paying in either time or money.


Assembled Cabinets: Pros and Cons

Assembled cabinets have already had all their parts put together and only need to be installed on-location. Like RTA cabinets, they can be sold at local stores or online.

The main advantages of pre-assembled cabinets all relate to the assembly — since you don’t have to build them, you won’t have to spend time on such a project or find yourself worrying about whether or not you’re doing a good job of it. You can rest assured that your cabinets have been assembled by someone who knows what they’re doing and uses the right tools. This saves a lot of time and potential headaches, especially if you’re not confident in your DIY skills or you’re under pressure to finish your kitchen in a certain time frame.

The disadvantages of assembled cabinets are basically the opposite of the advantages RTA cabinets have — assembled cabinets are harder (and thus more expensive) to ship, more likely to get damaged in transit, and they also cost more because labor is included in the price. Customizations are harder to get, too. And while you should be able to be confident that whoever built your cabinets did it well, depending on the company you may not ever know whether they were assembled by a master carpenter or a brand-new apprentice. Regardless of who does it, assembly takes time, too, so pre-built cabinets can take a lot longer to ship out to you.

There is one big exception to the cons of assembled cabinets: if you’re lucky enough to meet a supplier who built custom cabinets for a client who failed to pay for them, you might be able to get them at a vastly reduced price. Of course, this scenario would only be perfect for you if the cabinets in question matched your needs just as much as the needs of the client who abandoned them, and the odds of this happening are low. Still, it does happen.


Cost Comparison

I’ve briefly touched on the costs of both RTA and assembled cabinets, but let’s go a little deeper and split that up for better understanding.

Mostly I’ve covered the initial purchase cost and what makes assembled cabinets pricier than RTA, which is mainly labor and shipping. But remember, if you hire someone to build RTA cabinets for you, you’ll be paying labor costs nonetheless. If you’re not careful, you could end up paying more than what you saved. If the same cabinets are available in both RTA and pre-assembled formats from the same seller, compare their prices to get an idea of how much is added in labor costs. You’ll then be able to determine how much you can pay for assembly without canceling out your initial savings. (At least savings on shipping RTA aren’t likely to be lost in a similar way.)

Regardless of whether your cabinets are RTA or assembled, they will still need to be installed, which is not likely to be a one-person job. Keep this in mind when figuring out your budget. If you can get a DIY-inclined family member to help you out, great! Just remember that installation needs to be approached methodically and carefully, especially since damaging cabinets at this late stage would mean the maximum time and money has gone into them, making replacement a worse ordeal.

You may also consider the long term and wonder whether buying assembled or RTA makes a difference for your investment down the road. In this case, the initial format of the cabinets doesn’t matter — what’s important is their material and quality of construction. If your cabinets are poorly assembled, your investment will suffer, but there is otherwise no difference in equity. High-quality wooden cabinets are equally valuable regardless of whether they started out in a flat pack.


Quality and Durability

Some of the best news about RTA cabinets is that they are made of the same materials as their pre-assembled counterparts. This means their durability and other considerations all come down to the quality of their construction. Use the right tools and techniques and there will be no difference.

Just don’t buy cheap or low-quality cabinets in the first place, because they’ll impose limits on even the most competent builder. If the wood isn’t cut straight (or isn’t real wood at all), you’re never going to get past that. If the supplied components are fragile plastic, you can replace them with better ones, but you shouldn’t have to. That is not a sign of a reputable RTA supplier.


Customization Options

Earlier, I mentioned that RTA cabinets are more customizable than pre-assembled cabinets since it’s easier to alter them, but it’s also important to consider that suppliers who offer RTA cabinets are more likely to have a wide variety of options available anyway, since they can generally fit more merchandise into the same amount of space.

However, you may still need specific customizations. If you’re trying to fit cabinets into a very oddly shaped kitchen, for example, you might not be able to use much of anything as-is. In this case, your choices will come down to whether the supplier you’re interested in can offer both customization and assembly — if they can modify cabinets for you and assemble them, you have that option, but if they only offer customizations on RTA cabinets then those are your only choice.

In either case, RTA cabinets are more likely to serve your needs well enough that you won’t have to go fully bespoke, which would be far more expensive.


Important Notes Regarding the Installation Process

One common mistake among people who are new to the topic of RTA cabinets is to misunderstand the difference between assembly and installation. Assembly simply means putting the cabinets together; they will still need to be installed, regardless of whether they are RTA or pre-assembled.

Installation is an entirely different matter mostly unaffected by the initial format of the cabinets. This is because when assembling a cabinet on-site, you’re not building it directly in the place it’s going to be — you’re assembling it on a work area and moving it to its final location later. A fully assembled RTA cabinet awaiting installation will look just like a pre-assembled cabinet in the same circumstances.

The only consideration here is if you’re intending to hire someone to build or install the cabinets for you and they offer a package deal that covers both.


So, are RTA Cabinets or Pre-Assembled Cabinets Better?

Which cabinet format is “better” is not an easy question to answer, because while I’ve explained the pros and cons of each, it’s still up to you as to which works better for your needs, skill level, and budget. However, you should now feel empowered with enough knowledge to make your decision. If you need more help, Online Cabinets Direct is always happy to answer your questions. Please feel free to contact us.

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