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The frugal approach to kitchen remodeling

Helpful tips that produce functional, affordable and attractive results.

By Karen Datko Jan 29, 2010 6:56PM

This guest post comes from “vh” at Funny about Money.


Frugal Scholar is doing an interesting series about her experiences remodeling a kitchen on a budget. I love it! I seem to have spent my entire life remodeling houses, and so I’ve developed some strong opinions on the subject. Frugal Scholar proves how brilliant she is by happening to agree, more or less, with those ideas.


Kitchens and bathrooms are just about the most expensive remodeling jobs you can do, short of ripping off and replacing a shake roof. Much of it is stuff you can’t easily do yourself: plumbing (especially having to move plumbing), wiring, gas connections in ancient houses.

Over the course of years, I’ve learned a number of things that help a little to keep costs under control:

  • If cabinetry is functional, consider painting instead of replacing.
  • It’s a lot cheaper to have a skilled finish carpenter build a few cabinet doors with glass in them than it is to replace the cabinetry in your kitchen because you think you’d like some glazed doors.
  • Sometimes less is more. If you have storage space in the garage or another room, or if you can bring yourself to get rid of stuff you don’t use much, you can open up a kitchen by removing certain cabinets altogether.
  • Don’t run with the herd. Just because something is radically popular and every designer in sight is using it (think avocado green appliances, black granite countertops) doesn’t mean it’s especially desirable.
  • Try to build and design with materials and colors that will be timeless. Avoid products and colors that are currently “hot.” Something that’s stylish now is likely to cause future visitors to sniff, “Oh, she did that in 2010!” A dated kitchen can make it hard to sell a house, or to get the full price you think it’s worth.
  • Hire licensed and bonded contractors. Let me say that again: Hire licensed and bonded contractors! Even if Joe Handyman does a decent job, a kitchen or bathroom that is not to code may have to be rebuilt before the house can be sold.
  • That said, one surprising job can be done by a good handyman or a strong, handy homeowner: installation of ready-made or custom-sized cabinets. If you’re buying cabinets from Lowe’s or Home Depot, check around. Many handymen will under-price the big-box stores’ installation fees, and the job is not at all complicated.
  • Get bids. Get lots of bids. It never ceases to amaze me how widely fees vary for plumbers, carpenters, tile-layers, painters and electricians.
  • It may be worth paying to join Angie’s List for a year, if it’s available in your area. I found several excellent craftsmen through the site, including the Adirondack Chimney Sweep. Be aware, however, that many of the recommendations are redundant, and there’s nothing to stop a craftsman from putting all his friends and relatives up to sending in ecstatic (and phony) reports. Get real-world references, too.
  • Pay to get mid- to top-of-the-line appliances, but pay for function, not style. Prefer mechanical controls to electronic, because the latter break sooner and are more expensive to repair. A repairman told me that the cost of appliances no longer relates to their quality or longevity: He said that all kitchen and laundry appliances are now engineered to last no longer than about seven years. Thus it doesn’t make sense to pay extra for fancy gear, which likely will say goodbye long before you sell the house. This is especially annoying if you’ve bought a stove or refrigerator because it’s the height of fashion; in seven years, that style will no longer be in production and the replacement won’t go with your carefully crafted design.
  • Check Craigslist and estate sales for building materials and late-model used appliances. The washer and dryer we bought off Craigslist for M’hijito’s house are higher quality than the ones I bought for myself new, and they’re still running fine. At an estate sale, I scored more than 1,000 red bricks for about 10 cents apiece, far less than I would have paid at the brickyard or Home Depot.
  • If you actually cook (rather than microwave or reheat) and your house has gas heat but an electric stove, consider springing for the cost of having a gas line run into the kitchen. Gas is far superior to electric --especially to those obnoxious glass-topped things.
  • Once you have gas in the kitchen, there’s little reason other than ego gratification to buy an expensive eight-burner heavy-duty Viking chef’s stove. Any stove will do the job just fine. Take a look at the ordinary stoves and stovetops at Sears, Lowe's, and Home Depot. They cost enough to prove to the world that you’re not headed for the poorhouse, but they won’t take so much of your money that you’ll end up feeling foolish.
  • If the house has a built-in oven plus a stovetop, leave the electric oven and convert only the stovetop to gas. Electric ovens work as well as gas for their purpose; it’s the stovetop burners that really matter.
  • Keep every warranty that comes with every item you buy.

The last remodel job I did was at  the home I co-own with  M’hijito (my son), a 1951 brick cottage that ultimately required us to gut it out and rebuild everything. It was very expensive. Even though we cut every corner we could think of, we spent more than $35,000 all told on the interior (kitchen, two bathrooms, installation of antique doors and French doors, saltillo flooring throughout, window treatments, paint). That doesn’t count the roof or the new air conditioner. Or the landscaping.

Our biggest mistake was hiring a handyman who was not licensed and bonded. We came across him when he was working on the house next door, and the owner recommended him highly. He was doing essentially the same work we wanted done, so we imagined he could or would do the same for us.


It was a huge mistake. We were very lucky he didn’t do serious structural damage when he cut large holes in a bearing wall to install the French doors. So far, that seems to have gone all right, but other jobs he did really need to be taken out and redone. Ultimately, because he was very slow and took on other work in the middle of the job he was doing for us, leaving us high and dry for days and even weeks at a time, we had to fire him and find someone else to finish the work. That was quite the little headache.

All in all, the remodel job on the downtown house produced a very nice place to live -- pleasant enough that if M’hijito has to move while the recession is still on, I would cheerfully sell my place and move into that house. But it’s worth noting that after the remodel job I did on my last house, the reason I bought my present home is that the previous owners had already remodeled it. 


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