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A kitchen is the single-most expensive room to remodel, and even cosmetic improvements (painting the existing cabinets and walls, replacing the sink, faucet, and hardware, adding pendant lighting, and upgrading the electrical) can cost $5,000 or more. Knock down walls, rearrange the layout, buy new appliances, cabinets and countertops, and the price of your kitchen redo may skyrocket to $40,000 or $50,000 or more.
So before you hire a pro or begin to tackle the job yourself, read our spend-smart tips—from easy upgrades to a total gut renovation—and get the kitchen you covet that fits within your budget.
Spend-Smart Strategies for Your Kitchen Makeover
Paint and Save on Cabinets
New cabinetry can account for between 30% and 40% of your kitchen remodel costs. So if you’re happy with their location and functionality, but the finish is dark or dull, consider painting them instead of replacing them. It’s a fairly labor-intensive, but doable DIY project and your wallet will thank you. Even hiring a painting pro will cost you a fraction of new custom cabinets.
Style Tip: For a fresh, airy look, remove the doors of some uppers to create open shelving.
Splurge on a Quality Faucet
Photo by William Geddes
The faucet is the hardest working part of the kitchen, so go for quality and convenience—meaning a premium brand and single-handle operation. If your sink is in front of a window, make sure to check faucet and handle clearances to make sure it fits (and you won’t bash your knuckles on the sill). When choosing a sink to partner with it, simple is best: Go for a single basin, as big as you can fit, and no deeper than 10 inches so you aren’t forced to stoop to do the dishes.
Prep Before You Paint
Illustration by Carl Wiens
Whether you’re doing it yourself or want to keep an eye on your painter, these tips will help you get it done right.
- The sheen (or shininess) of the finish impacts how easy it is to clean; go for semi-gloss on all trim, satin for painted cabinets, and eggshell for walls.
- Prep before you pick up a paint brush; no amount of paint or primer will cover up cracked walls or nail holes in trim. Sand out uneven spots, fill nail holes, caulk all seams. And if you’ve hired a team, make sure your contractor clarifies who is responsible for doing that work.
- The best time to paint your kitchen comes earlier than you might think: Do it before the cabinets and backsplash go on the walls to reduce labor costs (even after an extra round of touchups later), eliminate paint drips on the cabinets and tiles, and ensure a perfect line where they meet the wall.
Keep Character and Functionality in Mind When Choosing a Backsplash
Photo by Lisa Romerein
Think of the section of wall between the countertop and the cabinets as a canvas where you can express your personality. Subway tiles offer a traditional look, unless they are oversized, you lay them vertically, or arrange them in a herringbone pattern. Tiny mosaic patterns are pretty, but the grout lines are harder to clean.
Of course, there are many other options, including glass, metal, stone, mosaic, embossed ceramic, and other tiles—and non-tile options such as beadboard paneling or metal ceiling tiles. Choose something that reflects your taste—but that’s also widely appealing and easy to maintain so it won’t turn off buyers when you put the house on the market someday.
Photo by Anthony Tieuli
Quartz—a manmade countertop material that looks like stone—has overtaken granite as the most popular countertop choice, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. And for good reason: Quartz is practically stain-proof, scratch-proof, and chip-proof; it never needs sealing.
Quartz comes in a vast assortment of looks, many of which convincingly mimic the natural variegation of marble and limestone, the real versions of which are extremely high-maintenance choices for kitchen countertops.
Don’t Scrimp on Lighting
Photo by Nat Rea
There are three different types of light fixture to choose from for your kitchen. (Hint: You want all of them.)
- Recessed Ceiling Fixtures: Install these over all open floors pace to provide ambient light where people will stand and work.
- Under-Cabinet Lighting: Use this to provide task lighting over the countertops—and to highlight the countertop, backsplash, and cabinetry when it’s the only light that’s on.
- Pendants/Ceiling Fixtures: Brighten work zones like islands, peninsulas, and sinks with decorative pendants that provide diffuse light without creating shadows.
Think About Wood-Look Flooring Alternatives
Courtesy of Armstrong Flooring
Wood offers natural, traditional beauty, but it scratches, dents, and wears under kitchen conditions.
Easy-to-clean porcelain tile comes in a wide range of designs, including convincing stone and wood looks, but most things that drop on porcelain will break.
So it’s worth considering these softer alternatives: Luxury vinyl and laminate flooring (shown here) is durable, comparatively soft and forgiving, and comes in a wide range of wood looks that most people will think is the real thing.
Budget Guidelines for a Major Kitchen Remodel
Three factors should come into play when determining how much to spend on your kitchen remodel:
Get Out Your Wallet for a Gut Job
Tearing out everything down to the framing makes it easy to change the locations and sizes of doors and windows; to add, move, or remove walls; to run new electrical, plumbing, and heating/cooling lines; to identify and repair any rot or insect damage, and to insulate.
But demolition labor, disposal of the old materials, and replacement of the wallboard and trim will add significantly to your project costs. Talk to your contractor about the pros and cons for your particular project.
Insulate Well Before Putting Up Walls
Spray foam insulation provides the best block against outside temperatures and drafts, but if you’ve gutted the kitchen, you also have the lower-cost option of using fiberglass batt insulation or stone wool—saving potentially thousands of dollars.
Another step before the drywall goes up: Make sure your contractor furs out the ceiling to make it perfectly flat (if the joists aren’t aligned) and uses only screws (no nails) to install the wallboard to reduce the risk of nail pops.
Get the Look of High-End Cabinets for Less
Photo by Anthony Tieuli
Unless you’re looking for something truly offbeat, you can find the cabinet look (door style, wood type, finish) you want without the high cost of custom cabinets (which are made to order to your exact design and size specs).
Consider two affordable alternatives: Stock cabinets are the least expensive and fastest delivered; each manufacturer offers a limited menu of styles and finishes in three-inch width increments. The Goldilocks middle-ground choice is semi-custom cabinets, which are made to order from a company’s established designs and finishes, in one-inch size increments.
Invest in New Windows
Photo by Ken Gutmaker
You don’t need to gut-renovate your kitchen to replace the windows and doors, but relocating them—or making them bigger—will require down-to-the studs demolition, at least in those areas.
New windows will improve your energy efficiency; they can tilt in for easy cleaning; and they will eliminate the unsightly storm windows common in many houses with original single-pane windows. Don’t make the mistake of swapping out high-quality wood windows for cheap vinyl replacements, however, especially in a majestic building with lots of old-house character.
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