When you buy an older home, you learn to accept that you will have to pick and choose the projects that get done versus the projects that will need to wait. Money and time and skill level inevitably dictate how much remodeling you can actually accomplish.
So when Alec and I bought our first home, I accepted that we might never change anything in the kitchen. The white oak cabinets, stylish green and brown mosaic backsplash, and black track light weren’t exactly our taste, but they were classy enough updates that it felt like a waste to spend money on them rather than the linoleum-floor bathroom.
Everything we had ever heard about kitchen remodels told us that the cost could soar into tens of thousands of dollars.
That was money we just didn’t have.
But Alec has been on a major renovation kick. Over the past two months he’s installed French doors, added new counters in two rooms, replaced our baseboards, put in a whitewashed plank wall…and on and on. He finally got to a point where he was itching for new projects, yet we had run out of things for him to do.
Meanwhile my sister, Kate, painted her kitchen cabinets a couple years ago, and every time we visited her house we noticed how fabulous they look. You really can’t even tell they’ve been painted. So that got Alec thinking about painting our cabinets, and from there he thought, Might as well replace the backsplash too!
Choose your inspiration
At first we thought we’d just paint the cabinets white. But if we were going to the trouble of renovating our kitchen, I wanted something distinctive.
For the past year or so I’ve been seeing a trend in kitchen remodels: white cabinets on top, blue on bottom. It sounds crazy if you’ve never seen it, but I swear it looks amazing! I went to Pinterest and scoured the boards there to get a better idea of what I liked.
Having a clearly defined goal can help prevent disappointment, miscommunication, and other pitfalls.
I almost never agree to renovations or DIY projects unless I have some related pin to reference. Maybe that’s playing it safe, or maybe I don’t have enough imagination to visualize the end result. But I think it’s more about knowing exactly what we’re aiming for.
Paint your kitchen cabinets instead of buying new ones
If we had thousands of dollars to spend (instead of just 800 bucks), Alec and I would have ripped out the old cabinets and installed brand new Shaker-style cabinets.
There’s really nothing wrong with these cabinets, though. They function normally and fulfill all our storage needs. The boxes were in pretty decent shape, so why replace?
After a lot of research, Alec felt comfortable enough to paint the existing kitchen cabinets. He spent a grand total of $50 on the paint, plus another $150 to replace the hardware with a sleeker and more contemporary set.
Prep, prep, prep.
Preparation is key for the best finish! Your cabinets have a lot of grime and dirt on them (especially those over the stove). Invest in an orbital sander. You can pick those up pretty cheap at your local big box home renovation store; I went for the Black & Decker 2.3-Amp Orbital Sander from Lowes. It’s under $40, and your back and arms will thank you. Using 80-grit discs, sand off all the grime, paint, or previous stain from your cabinets. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but get them roughed up so the primer has something to stick to.
Don’t skimp on the primer.
Use an oil-based, high-stick primer. Alec used Zinsser B-I-N Interior Oil Primer and had great results. It’s a little pricey running about $45-50 per gallon, but it’s totally worth it.
Sand between coats.
This is important for the smoothest finish possible. Alec recommends using a 220-grit sanding sponge like this one. You don’t have to sand hard, just run it across the surface. Feel the difference with your palm by running your hand over the cabinet before and after.
Use a high-quality latex paint to get your color.
You’ll probably need 3 coats, 2 at a very minimum. Don’t forget to sand between coats. We used Sherwin Williams’ Showcase. Alec brushed all the edges, then went over everything softly with a foam roller—those things are killer good if you want to avoid brush strokes the easy way.
Let your coats dry at least a couple of hours before re-coating.
Once you’re done, let the cabinet doors dry for at least 24 hours, then seal. We used Minwax Satin Water-Based Polycrylic, and 2 coats later we had beautifully smooth new cabinets! We added the hardware, and reattached the doors to the boxes.
Replace the tile backsplash yourself instead of hiring a contractor
Like I said before, the original plan was simply to paint the cabinets. But we realized pretty quickly that the original backsplash just clashed too much with our new colors.
But after doing the math we decided that if Alec could manage to tile the kitchen backsplash on his own, it would turn out to be a pretty cheap solution. In the end we only spent $90 on the tile itself. We’re not counting some other materials because we had leftover grout from previous projects and will use the tools we bought for future renovations—but still, the tiling materials only cost another $60.
Plan out your pattern in advance.
We had to pull some tiles off and re-organize them. It worked out fine, but we definitely could have saved ourselves some time.
Kitchen countertops aren’t always level.
You have to decide whether to keep your first row of tiles level with your countertop—or actually level. We went with the latter, and then sealed the gap with some white caulking—I think that was the best decision for awesomely straight, clean lines.
Grouting is hard.
Just get that stuff in there on the first pass, don’t worry about how it looks, just get it in those gaps as hard as you can. Let your first pass with the sponge make it look pretty.
Replace your outdated kitchen appliances
We were happy with most of our appliances, so no need to buy an all-new set. Instead, we prioritized: we could not stand the rickety old oven, and we hated looking at the faucet in the sink. So those were the ones to go.
Identify which appliances, if any, absolutely need to be replaced.
Don’t order a brand new oven, refrigerator, microwave, etc., all at once unless you really need to.
We bought a new stove ($400) a few weeks before starting on the kitchen renovation, and Alec installed a new faucet ($80) after all the other work was done.
Pay attention to the small details
The little things in a kitchen make a huge difference. In addition to painting the cabinets and replacing the backsplash, as well as investing in a couple new appliances, we updated the cabinet hardware, replaced the old yellowing toggle light switches with brand new white paddle switches, and covered them with stainless steel faceplates. We also tore out the track light, installed a new three-bulb light fixture for $69 and added some Philips Hue White Ambiance smart bulbs that give off a perfectly white light.
Now we essentially have a brand new kitchen for $800, rather than $10,000 or more.
You can save thousands of dollars by doing projects like this on your own and being smart about which details you choose to focus on.
Of course, we’re far from finished. Someday we’d like to replace the white laminate countertops. When that time comes, we’ll have already chosen the new counters—Ikea’s beech KARLBY countertops, for a butcher-block look that comes at a tiny fraction of the price of granite, though admittedly more upkeep.