A Fabulous and Frugal Kitchen Remodel

For some homeowners, a kitchen remodel can cost more than other people pay for an entire house. This rings especially true as real estate prices have gone down: For example, the first-time homebuyer who owns this kitchen paid less than $90,000 for her condo — an amount that’s easy to exceed when creating a gourmet kitchen.


According to Remodeling Magazine’s recent cost vs. value report, the 2010 national average price tag for a minor kitchen remodel was $21,695. That’s minor, mind you; the planners of moderate and major projects probably spend more for a sink than the $2,000 we budgeted for our entire kitchen update (see “Lean and Clean,” in PDF below). If you’re a DIYer on a budget, your skills are of great value: You can cook up some wonderful kitchen improvements without paying for labor. Here’s how to get started.

Priorities and Resources
Planning costs you nothing but time and imagination, and it pays big in results. First, list the features you want to change and prioritize how important they are to you. For example, the refrigerator on this project was in fine shape, but the annoying left-opening door absolutely had to be reversed. To gain the extra inch needed for flipping the door to a left-hand hinge, we simply shrunk the end reveal of the adjacent countertop — a big improvement that was free.

On your list, include a menu of items you’re craving. In our case, the purple countertop and soffit wallpaper print (“before” photo, above) created a hunger for neutral colors and fresh finishes. Although new counters can take a chunk out of the budget, they offer numerous benefits — functional as well as aesthetic (see "Advantages of a New Countertop, below"). At about $12 a square foot, our custom DIY countertop was a great savings.

We also controlled expenses by using existing materials. Because the most costly component of a typical kitchen remodel is new cabinetry, we replaced only two upper cabinets (one with a plate rack) and added one base unit. New doors and drawer fronts made of birch-veneer panels were impressive (yet inexpensive) changes. Paint was the hero of this renovation, helping to unify the old and new cabinets and to update the room’s overall appearance.

We also saved on flooring. The basic white tiles were OK, though the grout needed serious scrubbing — virtually no cost there. In any kitchen, the flooring can make or break the overall effect, so scrutinize and scrub or sand and refinish. If the floor is dated or damaged, spring for a new one if possible.

Tip: Adding a layer to the existing floor can save time and money, but be sure the extra thickness doesn’t trap the dishwasher (as a former owner did in this kitchen). To solve that problem, we raised the countertop by adding 1x3 blocking to the tops of the base cabinets and concealed the blocking with paint (see photo in, "Appliances and Lighting").

Changes to Cabinetry

New doors and drawer fronts are made of 3/4-in. medium-density fiberboard covered by birch veneer and are slightly larger than the originals to allow for Euro-style concealed hinges. The edge profiles were formed using a router and a 3/8-in. round-over bit and then sanded. Warm gray paint beautifully blends the new parts with the old. To dress up the cabinets, we chose hardware that, like jewelry, adds character and visual interest and suits the homeowner’s personality.

The custom plate rack that replaced the 18-in. cabinet above the sink is a convenient place to store dishes — and much nicer to look at while you’re standing by the kitchen sink. The design of the rack allows it to be installed on any wall or adapted to fit in any space. For a different look, you can create open shelving by simply removing the doors from an upper cabinet, filling the hardware holes and painting the interior surfaces.

We added a 15-in.-wide base cabinet next to the range to accomplish four goals: It hides the trash container (in a pullout drawer), conceals the side of the stove and provides additional countertop space. The small drawer adds convenient storage for seasonings.

Advantages of a New Countertop
By forming our own laminate countertop, we were able to create a fresh, more attractive finish without the typical 1-1/4-in.-thick x 4-in.-tall rolled backsplash, gaining 200 sq. in. of surface area and visually increasing the space between the upper and lower cabinets. We also got rid of the unsightly miter seam in the corner (a telltale sign of an “off-the-shelf” post-formed counter). Tip: We cut leftover pieces of the laminate material to cover the floor of the sink base and the bottoms of the drawers — a nice touch that cost nothing.

Changing the countertop also allowed us to shrink the sink to a single basin, which better fits the scale of the kitchen and allows for additional counter space. We chose a small (13-1/2-in.-tall) single-handle faucet (see SOURCES in PDF below) to avoid overwhelming the sink.

When it comes to backsplashes, tile is beautiful yet practical and requires a fairly small investment. It offers endless design potential and can make quite a statement; just remember that it’s not easy to change later. To make the backsplash neutral but not boring, we installed classic white subway tile in an interesting arrangement (photo, above).

Appliances and Lighting

We scrubbed our original plan to replace only the front panel of the old dishwasher when we found this affordable new model at an appliance surplus store. We also looked for a simple recirculating vent hood (typically starting at $100) and discovered that we could install a vent/microwave combination unit for about $220. Decisions about appliances should depend on your budget and the life expectancy of the ones you already have.

We raised the countertop by adding 1x3 blocking to the tops of the base cabinets and concealed the blocking with paint.

Never underestimate the power of light. Fluorescents are a good choice for an ever-lit kitchen-ceiling fixture, but the old four-tube shop-light-style model had to go. A modern track fixture offers a brilliant update with adjustable ambient light. We also installed LED strips above the sink for task lighting and under the cabinets as accent lights to complete the three types of lighting recommended by the American Lighting Association: ambient, task and accent light. Tip: Try to choose lights of similar color temperatures within any one room.

Plans and Remedies
Of course, every home (and homeowner) is an original, so not all of our ideas will apply to your kitchen. Each person has different priorities and resources. Perhaps you really want a designer sink and can save money by not replacing appliances. Or maybe you’ll fall in love with high-end hardware and could forgo new cabinet doors to balance the budget. In any case, our featured projects provide some practical yet pleasing solutions to common problems. Let the changes we’ve made inspire you to plan improvements that suit your taste, your skills, your pocketbook and your kitchen.