What one couple learned during their shoestring-budget kitchen remodel.
I’ll never forget the day in 2002 when I first walked into my kitchen.
My tour of near-downtown houses in the neighborhoods of Riverside and College Hill had been discouraging as I, like many young home buyers in Wichita, Kansas, had just been faced with the harsh reality that my desired neighborhoods and my budgetary realities were not matching up.
We were investigating a compromise — a big old house in Delano, a near-downtown neighborhood where houses were much less expensive — and I’d just walked into a restored 1908 American Foursquare with stunning original woodwork throughout. As I stepped into the kitchen, I was in awe.
In contrast to the rest of the house, this room was hideous. It was outfitted with sagging apartment-grade cabinets, a popcorn ceiling, offensive fluorescent light fixtures and an impossibly strange paint job.
But it was huge. Enormous. And to a cook and budding party-thrower who had spent the past five years in cramped apartment kitchens, it was a paradise. I remember putting my arms straight out and turning circles in the kitchen, noting with glee that I was not even close to touching a wall, a cabinet or anything else for that matter.
It’s now been 16 years since I moved into that big old house, and I still love it. After moving in, though, I quickly realized that my dream kitchen was anything but. I made it work, but I was constantly apologizing for its awfulness when I had people over, and I was always distressed when throwing parties to realize that, even when your kitchen is an eyesore and the rest of your house is pretty, the kitchen is still where everyone congregates.
But that was the least of my problems. The cabinets were literally starting to fall apart, and a DIY white paint job I’d performed on them years before was flawed at best. All of the drawers had broken runners so that when I opened them, they nearly fell out onto the ground. There was nowhere near enough storage for all my dishes and kitchen gadgets, so they were chaotically piled and exposed on shelving all over the place.
Forming a plan
I wanted a new kitchen so badly, but — just like with my house hunt years before — reality and my budget were not matching up. At the risk of stating the obvious, kitchen remodels are expensive. Shockingly so. Anytime I’d start researching possibilities, I’d slam the computer shut in frustration as I realized how much everything was going to cost.
My poor husband, Travis, had made the mistake of showing me a few times his do-it-yourself abilities. He has a bit of a natural talent for remodeling, and more than a few times, he’d looked up how to fix or redo something on YouTube then done it with amazing results.
Finally, after years of talking about it, we decided to go for the big kitchen remodel last summer. We got all kinds of advice from all kinds of people about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do and what we must buy and what we must avoid. We also investigated how to pay for it, ultimately deciding on a home equity line of credit through our bank.
We agreed that we would do what we could ourselves and that we would hire out what we couldn’t do. We also agreed that, although we wanted a nice kitchen, we could settle for the nicest kitchen we could get within reason. We did not require top-of-the-line finishes or appliances, and I frequently reminded Travis that anything — literally anything — we did was going to result in something much better than what I had lived with for 15 years. We set an unrealistically modest budget, and then one springy May day, we tore the thing out.
“Demo Day,” as they call it on HGTV, was as satisfying and as fun as Chip and Joanna make it look. But it was also terrifying. Once you’ve torn a room in your house down to its studs, there’s no turning back. And I was terrified of turning into one of those people who prematurely guts a room only to have it still gutted years later.
Travis did all of the demo and a lot of the construction work himself, using vacation days, nights and weekends. In the end, he managed to level our sloping, old-house floors (and the sloping, old-house ceiling). He did all of the kitchen design, framing, drywalling and painting. He also put in the tile backsplash, restored a hidden brick chimney, put in a wood panel ceiling and installed the stove hood.
He did not do the electrical work, the plumbing, the cabinet and countertop installation, or the trim work. He knows his limits, and we hired those things out. He also did not refinish the original pine floor we found underneath our ugly linoleum, but only because we found a local firm to do it for a reasonable price and because pine is a soft wood, and mere mortals don’t have access to the industrial-strength finishing coat required to protect it.
The kitchen was finally done and functional in early October of last year, though it took several more months to get all the finishing touches — like window treatments and the perfect kitchen table. There are still one or two minor things that aren’t quite done (and may never be), but my new kitchen has changed my life.
I gained so much storage with the shaker cabinets I bought from a new-in-town business called The Cabinet Find. (Oh, the stories I could tell you about cabinet shopping, by far the hardest part of this process.) And what I’ve quickly realized is that, once you have room to store everything you own, both cooking and kitchen cleanup goes twice as fast. Things aren’t stuffed in drawers or falling out of cabinets. It’s so freeing. Plus, now that I have a kitchen I can be proud of, I want to keep it clean and clutter-free.
Of course, even with all of our corner-cutting and DIY spirit, we spent about double what we were hoping to and will be paying for this kitchen for years. But I’m OK with that. It’s added that much happiness to my life — and I assume that much value to my house.
After surviving a major remodel, here are a few tips I can offer to other people thinking about updating their kitchens.
Set some ground rules with your cohabitant. If you’ve ever remodeled while in a relationship, you know what a strain it can be. Travis and I had our share of disagreements during the process, but we were lucky because we both agreed that we did not want to spend a zillion dollars, and we generally have the same taste.
Another couple who had survived remodeling shared with us a valuable tip: Each person in the couple gets absolute veto power. That means if one of you feels strongly enough, you can veto a cabinet style or faucet selection while understanding that the other person has the same prerogative on other decisions. This is why I don’t have black granite countertops with beautiful sparkly flecks in them and why Travis does not have modern silver cabinet hardware.
Set up a temporary kitchen. I realize not everyone can do this, but I truly believe that having a temporary kitchen during this process saved me. We moved our refrigerator to a back room and set up a temporary pantry and dish storage area on shelves in the same room. We had the electrician install an outlet for our old electric stove in the basement. We relied on paper plates for a few months, and we bought restaurant-style dish tubs at Sam’s to help collect dirty dishes.
The most important move we made was buying a temporary plastic laundry sink and hooking it up to the plumbing in the kitchen. I put a folding table next to the sink with a dish drain, which gave me the ability to clean dishes without having to use the bathtub, an idea that grossed me out. My stove, refrigerator and sink were all on different levels of my house, and that was a tad exhausting, but I was able to keep functioning without massive disruption, and that made me much more patient as Travis hammered and tiled away, week after week.
Manage your “dream” list. I can’t tell you how much I would have loved to have had a high-tech ice maker or a wine fridge or a big new picture window to replace the aging window over my sink. But I think it’s vital to turn off HGTV and decide what you absolutely must have. The two necessary and unplanned splurges we allowed ourselves were a pot filler over the stove (which I love and which was relatively affordable) and our gray quartz countertops, which were only about $600 more than the granite ones we only sort of liked but were choosing for budget purposes. To make up for the overage, we accepted the countertop store’s offer of a free sink with purchase. It’s not my dream sink, but it’s been just fine.
Hire the internet as your assistant. Travis insists that there’s nothing you can’t learn to do with YouTube’s help. In fact, before every big project he tackled, he would watch four or five YouTube videos and surf a few websites on the topic. That, combined with verbal help from the guys at the hardware stores, probably saved us thousands of dollars.
Crowdsource. When we were in search of items and services we couldn’t handle ourselves, I frequently turned to my Facebook friends to ask for recommendations. That’s how we settled on Superior Hardwood Floors to refinish our pine floors and how we decided to stop by Quality Granite and Marble for our countertops (and free sink!). We also crowdsourced among our vendors.
Prepare to bust your budget. When it comes to remodeling, everything costs more than you think it will. In retrospect, I realize that our initial budget was just a naive dream. We spent almost double what we planned to, and that was even with all of our corner cutting and compromising.
Leave your mark. When we tore out all the walls, a glass bottle jostled out onto the ground, and upon closer inspection, we could see that it was an early-1900s-era medicine bottle with a label you could still kind of make out: Cole & Thomas. In our past research, we’d learned our house was built by original owner John A. Thomas, owner of the Cole & Thomas Drug Store, so finding something that had belonged to him felt like we’d uncovered a special time capsule. (We mounted it in a shadow box and hung it in the kitchen.) While the studs were exposed, Travis took a sharpie and left a little information about the people who remodeled the kitchen in 2017. I like thinking about it there, all sealed up inside our non-popcorn ceiling, waiting for the next brave re-modelers to find years from now.