Ready-to-assemble (RTA) kitchen cabinets have become increasingly popular over the last decade or so. Their low cost and convenience make them an enticing option for many homeowners undertaking kitchen renovations. However, there are some significant downsides to RTA cabinets that buyers should consider before making a purchase. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain why you’re often better off avoiding RTA cabinets and instead opting for custom or semi-custom cabinetry.

What Are RTA Cabinets?

RTA cabinets, sometimes referred to as flat pack cabinets, come packed in boxes with all the pieces and hardware needed for assembly. The cabinets require screwing together and basic installation by the homeowner or a contractor. As the name implies, they are ready to assemble right out of the box.

RTA cabinets first became widely available from big box home improvement retailers in the 1990s and 2000s. Today, many online retailers also sell RTA cabinetry that can be shipped directly to your home. The convenience and low cost of shipping cabinets in a flat pack form is the main reason for the popularity of RTA cabinets.

Why Are RTA Cabinets So Cheap?

RTA cabinets are significantly less expensive than custom or semi-custom cabinetry, often costing 50% less. There are a few reasons why they come with such low price tags:

  • Mass manufacturing – RTA cabinets are mass-produced in factories overseas, usually in China. This high-volume production brings down costs through economies of scale.
  • Lower quality materials – RTA cabinets typically use lower grade materials like medium density fiberboard (MDF) instead of solid hardwoods. The finishes and hardware are also lower quality.
  • One-size-fits-all sizing – The cabinets come in a limited number of standard sizes, reducing customization costs. This often leads to poor fits and wasted space.
  • DIY installation – Homeowners or contractors assemble and install RTA cabinets rather than skilled cabinet makers and installers. This saves on labor costs.
  • No custom design – RTA cabinets only come in set styles and configurations. There are no custom design services included.

Essentially, you sacrifice quality, customization, and professional installation to save money upfront with RTA cabinetry. But those sacrifices often lead to problems down the road, as we’ll explain next.

5 Reasons Not to Buy RTA Cabinets

While the low price of RTA cabinets is alluring, there are some compelling reasons why investing in better quality cabinetry is worth it in the long run:

1. Inferior Durability and Life Span

One of the biggest issues with RTA cabinetry is the lower durability and shorter lifespan compared to custom cabinets. Here are some of the factors that negatively impact how long RTA cabinets will last:

  • Particleboard cores wrapped in veneers rather than solid wood construction
  • Thin layers of laminate or thermally fused melamine instead of real wood veneers
  • Lightweight hardware susceptible to loosening and breaking over time
  • Glues and joints less resistant to wear and tear
  • Lack of reinforcement in cabinet boxes leads to sagging over time

The saving grace of RTA cabinets is the short warranty periods offered by manufacturers. Typical warranties are 1 year on defects and 5 years on drawer glides and hinges. But with custom cabinets, you can expect a lifetime in your kitchen.

2. Poor Fit and Wasted Space

Since RTA cabinets come in standardized sizes, it’s unlikely you’ll get a precise fit for your kitchen’s unique dimensions. Having gaps between cabinets or lost space equals wasted money.

With custom cabinets, everything is built to seamlessly fit your kitchen down to 1/16 of an inch. You maximize every inch of space, while getting a flawless fitted look.

3. Limited Selection and Customization

RTA cabinets only offer a narrow range of sizes, wood species, finishes, and configurations. If you want any customization, you’re largely out of luck. With custom cabinets, you select from a wide span of options to perfectly match your kitchen’s look and layout.

For example, some customization options you miss out on with RTA cabinets include:

  • Custom sizes for odd spaces or matching existing cabinets
  • Different door styles like Shaker, traditional, or modern
  • Custom paint or stain colors
  • Specialty storage solutions like spice pull outs and appliance garages
  • Unique header treatments and accents like corbels and accent posts
  • Inserts for glass, wire mesh, metal, or other custom materials

4. Lower Quality Construction

As we touched on before, RTA cabinets cut corners with cheaper materials and manufacturing methods. Here are some of the weaknesses:

  • Flimsy materials – Particleboard, thin veneers, and melamine used instead of plywood and hardwood. More susceptible to chips, scratches, and moisture damage.
  • Cam and dowel construction – Cabinets are held together with small metal cams that snap into dowels. This allows for flat pack shipping but isn’t as strong or durable as wood joinery used in custom cabinets.
  • Thin finishes – Doors often have thin veneer overlays rather than being made from solid wood. Finishes scratch easily.
  • Lightweight hardware – Drawer glides, hinges, and pulls are lightweight and prone to breaking, sagging, or pulling out of the cabinet box.

Compare this to custom cabinets where cabinet boxes are made from 3⁄4” plywood, doors from 1⁄2” solid wood, and drawers with full extension premium glides that can handle 100+ pounds. Dovetail joinery creates extremely strong joints.

5. Challenging Installation

One of the supposed benefits of RTA cabinets is convenience. But the reality is, installation is difficult, time-consuming, and often requires making compromises:

  • Instructions are often unclear, forcing trial and error.
  • Hanging boxes level and getting doors square is tricky without a professional’s skill.
  • The installer has to deal with any flaws in manufacturing or damage in shipping.
  • Poor fits need cover panels or filler strips to hide gaps.
  • Reinforcement of flimsy material often necessary to prevent sagging.

Unless you’re an extremely skilled DIYer, it’s advisable to pay a professional to install RTA cabinets. But even then, the inferior materials make installation more challenging.

What Are the Alternatives to RTA Cabinets?

Instead of choosing RTA cabinets for your kitchen remodel purely due to budget, consider alternative options that give you better value and quality for your money:

Semi-Custom Cabinets

Semi-custom cabinets strike a balance between custom and RTA cabinets. Stock cabinets are mass-produced to lower costs, but you get to customize sizing, finishes, and layout within those limitations. This allows a closer fit to your kitchen’s dimensions and aesthetic. Expect to pay around 25% less than custom cabinets.

Custom Cabinets

Fully customized cabinets are built specifically for your kitchen’s footprint and your style preferences. With an expert kitchen designer, you choose from nearly endless options for a perfect finished product. Custom cabinets are viewed as a lifetime investment that adds resale value to your home.

Pre-Owned Cabinets

Used cabinetry is often overlooked but can provide huge savings off retail prices. Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations frequently have quality cabinet sets donated from renovations or tear downs. Online classifieds also connect local sellers of pre-owned cabinets in great condition.

Key Takeaways: Avoid the False Economy of RTA Cabinets

While RTA cabinets may seem like an easy way to save big on your kitchen remodel, the reality is you often end up with a low-quality finished product that needs replacement sooner than later. Spending more upfront for durable custom or semi-custom cabinets is a wiser investment, while pre-owned cabinets provide another budget-friendly option.

Focus your efforts instead on doing the hard work of researching different kitchen looks, layouts, and storage solutions. Then partner with a knowledgeable kitchen designer and trusted contractor or cabinet maker to bring your dream kitchen to life. Not only will you end up with a kitchen you love, but also one that withstands the test of time and retains excellent resale value.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to some common questions about foregoing RTA cabinets in favor of better cabinetry options:

Are RTA cabinets really that bad for my kitchen?

While RTA cabinets are not necessarily awful, they do come with significant downsides. Their inferior materials and construction mean they won’t last nearly as long as solid wood custom cabinets. You also sacrifice customization options and potentially end up with a poor fit.

Can RTA cabinets be installed professionally?

Yes, you can certainly pay a contractor to assemble and install RTA cabinets. However, even with professional installation, the lower quality materials lead to challenges getting units square and level. The finished product is unlikely to look and perform as well as custom cabinetry.

Is it difficult to install RTA cabinets yourself?

Assembling and installing RTA cabinets on your own is widely considered much more difficult than the manufacturers claim. Directions may be unclear, pieces can arrive damaged, hardware is unreliable, and adjustments are often needed for proper fitting. Unless you have advanced DIY skills, it’s best to get professional help.

How much money do I really save by choosing RTA cabinets?

It varies based on the size and scope of your kitchen, but you can expect to save around 50% compared to custom cabinets. However, much of this savings is diminished over time. The far shorter lifespan means you’ll likely be replacing RTA cabinets sooner, negating much of the upfront savings.

Can I make RTA cabinets look more custom?

You can make some limited improvements through adding trim pieces, end panels, crown molding, and glass cabinet fronts. Adding cabinet inserts for glass, wire mesh, or other materials also adds customization. However, you can’t fully overcome the lower quality materials and construction.


While RTA cabinets promise convenience and upfront savings, those benefits quickly fade as you contend with their inherent flaws. From shoddy construction to lack of customization to frustrating installation, RTA cabinets fail to deliver lasting value.

Investing in quality custom, semi-custom, or even used cabinetry ensures you get better returns in both aesthetics and durability. Do your homework to find budget-friendly options that don’t sacrifice on quality. With some due diligence and strategic planning, you can have the kitchen of your dreams using cabinetry built to last.