Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Low-Cost Kitchen Improvements for Any Home
Help buyers and sellers make the hub of the house function and look better without breaking the bank with these 12 simple, inexpensive tips.
May 1, 2012
Not every home owner can splurge on a total upscale kitchen redo, now pegged on average at $111,000, according to the latest Cost vs. Value Report from Remodeling magazine. Many home owners don’t even have the funds for a minor kitchen remodeling project, which is placed at around $20,000.
But a lack of funds isn’t necessarily the only issue. Even home owners with fat wallets and a love of congregating and cooking in a stylish kitchen may not want to invest so much, given the up-and-down nature of today’s housing market.
Specifically, two factors are holding back home owners from taking on kitchen redos:
▪ There’s no guarantee that prospective buyers will like, say, the sellers’ tangerine-painted walls — even if orange is oh-so-chic these days — or that a restaurant-style range will win them over, especially if they’re better at calling for reservations or take-out.
▪ The dollars invested may never be recouped, no matter how long home owners stay put. An upscale overhaul will return only about 57 percent of the money spent on the project, and a mid-range redo about 66 percent, according to the Cost vs. Value Report.
But the good news for those who still feel their current kitchen won’t do is that there’s loads of inspiration to appeal and borrow ideas from — those handsome rooms shown in the background of Food Network programs and other TV shows and movies, for example, or glossy home and design magazines.
The kitchen remains an important gathering space for many home owners — and one of the first places would-be-buyers look to decide if they’re interested in a purchase. Because of that, it should be a goal to make the kitchen as nice as possible with the funds at hand. Even if a seller or real estate agent has $20,000, $10,000, or just $5,000 to spend, those dollars can deliver a lot to make the kitchen look and function better.
Here are a dozen low-cost ideas you and your clients can use to improve this critical room:
▪ Paint remains the least expensive change agent. Home owners should take their cue from other colors in the room that are likely to stay — the “nonperishables,” says Chicago-based designer Mary Lou Kalmus. It might come from the backsplash or floor tile, or if the entire room is swathed in neutrals, it could be colors in the rest of the house, such as in an adjacent family room. Because the kitchen gets heavy use, it’s best if they use at least an eggshell rather than a flat finish.
▪ Backsplash tiles can be replaced, but Kalmus suggests home owners do so from the base of the upper cabinets down to the countertop — a full 18 inches is recommended. Top on her list of favorite choices are glass or newer-looking metallic tiles. She also suggests running them vertically rather than horizontally for a less-expected look.
▪ Replacing a countertop or two can help a room make an instant, fresh impression. And if money’s tight, home owners can go with a laminate rather than granite. To prevent laminate from scratching or showing burn marks, a textured choice is best.
▪ Tell clients to go with decor icons such as stainless steel that tend to appeal universally, says design expert and author Christopher Lowell, based in Santa Fe, N.M. They can start by replacing some dated and dysfunctional appliances with purchases at places like Sears or Costco, which offer professional-style models that bring a restaurant look at affordable prices. Once home owners introduce stainless options, they may want to run with the idea throughout — e.g., paper towel holders, trash cans, and cookware, Lowell says.
▪ If all the older appliances can’t be replaced, home owners might be wise to focus on one or two, which can still make a difference. Because the refrigerator may be the largest item in the room, Kalmus suggests changing it first if it’s old or small and considering a model with French doors, which offers the plus of storing larger items inside both the refrigerator and freezer sections and having a freezer on the bottom. For highly efficient cooking, plus the advantage of having instant on-off heat, an induction cooktop is another wise new appliance choice, though the newer technology often costs more. And even a new hood that’s more updated or visually interesting can provide a good focal point, says Los Angeles–area designer Christoper Grubb, president of Arch-Interiors Design Group.
▪ Betterlighting can make a huge difference in how much time home owners want to spend in their kitchen and how well it shows to buyers. The best spaces incorporate three essential layers: recessed lighting for an overall effect, with 4-inch rather than 6-inch cans for a less obtrusive look; undercabinet lights to perform tasks, with efficient LEDs or xenon bulbs for quality and energy efficiency; and a decorative fixture or two for mood-making such as pendants, sconces, or a chandelier. Bulbs should depend on manufacturers’ recommendations, but now often are halogens or incandescents. “The decorative choices can add a new design vocabulary to the room,” says San Francisco architect Christian Dauer.
▪ Small 8-inch floor tiles can quickly date a room, as can busy patterns. So replacing them with 16- to 22-inch porcelain floor tiles may make good economic and design sense, as well as decrease maintenance. A bigger budget may permit natural stone. Dauer is keen on wood floors since they’re easy on feet and favors bamboo and cork or a repeat of a wood used elsewhere in the home.
▪ Top on the “get-rid-of list” for many home owners are dark, dated cabinets. But since cabinetry represents 60 percent of many kitchen remodeling budgets, it’s often not possible to replace it totally. Several possibilities exist: Replace the doors or take a less expensive route and repaint them, suggests Kalmus, who also offers some caveats. Be sure the interiors still offer enough room and work well, or else the solution is just a temporary Band-Aid she says, and be sure the paint will cover well since sometimes it won’t if they’re very dark. “Full-overlay doors, for example, usually can be refaced, but the sides may first need sanding and prepping,” Dauer says. For a different punch, Lowell suggests replacing one or two doors in frosted glass within stainless steel frames, while Grubb throws out the idea of removing the fronts completely for a European look. In most cases, new spiffy knobs can make a huge improvement.
▪ For those without sufficient storage— a common complaint of older or poorly arranged kitchens — try finding a closet even if not right in the kitchen but in an adjacent space. The best pantries are equipped with shelves of different heights to arrange a variety of canned goods and with pull-out drawers to make reaching to the back easier.
▪ Because open layouts are high on many buyers’ wish lists, taking down a wall or part of one between a kitchen and adjacent space should be considered if the kitchen is small and closed in and the wall isn’t a load-bearing, supporting one. Be careful that vents aren’t running through it, or be prepared to replace them, Kalmus says. If this isn’t possible, home owners might change out windows or doors for better light, views, and insulation. A new greenhouse-style window can become a spot to grow herbs and small plants.
▪ If home owners have room for an island, but are tight on funds, they might buy a gleaming, stainless-steel, counter-height table from a local restaurant supply store with a shelf underneath, add a few chopping boards from the same supply, and create a professional-looking center they can take with them, says Lowell. This addition also helps free other countertops of clutter.
▪ If the ultimate goal still is to gain a brand new kitchen when dollars permit, a better use of limited funds may be to hire an architect or designer skilled in kitchen planning to draw up a detailed layout that can be bid out later. Many design pros charge a flat fee or hourly rate. Dauer says the price will vary depending on the part of the country, size of the room, wish list, and extent of the remodeling work — if plumbing or HVAC systems need to be changed or walls taken down. His best guess is from $135 on up per hour. Chicago architect Allan J. Grant pegs it at between $90 and $150, depending on the person’s experience, plus reimbursable expenses.