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Ask the Editor: Where to Spend

A kitchen with medium brown cabinetry and dark countertops

Where Should I Spend My Remodeling Dollars?


Question: "My husband and I just bought a house — a bit of a fixer — and we are planning on redoing the kitchen. Our kitchen is very outdated, but we are planning on gutting everything except the structure of the actual walls. The only appliance that we are keeping is the refrigerator. We are on a very limited budget. I was wondering what areas are the best areas to cut corners and go cheap and what are the areas that we should spend a little bit more of the budget on in order to get good quality?"


Answer: This is a good time to invest in your flooring and cabinetry. You're not likely to be eager to tear up your kitchen again anytime soon.

Eliminating professional design and installation from the budget may seem like an easy cut, but I'd suggest you think twice. For every beautifully done do-it-yourself kitchen I've seen, there's been at least one that is ill-proportioned, sloppy and downright dysfunctional-often requiring professionals to come to the rescue for more money than it would have cost to hire them upfront.


Affordable Flooring

While it is often possible to install a new floor over the existing floor, an older home may have so many layers of flooring that doors can't close properly. Or if additional layers didn't go under cabinets and appliances, you will find significant variations in floor height that make changing the kitchen layout impossible.

I would suggest tearing out the old flooring, making sure the floor joists are structurally sound and can bear the weight of your new kitchen (stone tiles are heavier than vinyl and a bigger range will weigh more than a smaller, for example), and checking to see that the subfloor is free of rot or mold.

As a high-moisture, high-traffic area, the kitchen requires a durable floor material. Carpeting and vinyl are your most affordable choices. You'll probably want to avoid carpeting, which doesn't stand up well to cooking spills and isn't in fashion for kitchens. Today's vinyl comes in multiple patterns, colors and textures, and can look and feel remarkably like natural stone. If you like the look of wood floors, laminate is a cheaper, easier-to-maintain alternative. Both vinyl and laminate floors are relatively easy to install.


Choose the Right Cabinetry

Cabinets usually make up the biggest portion of kitchen material costs. Not only do they take up a majority of the space, they have a huge impact on overall style and aesthetics. And designed properly, they can hold a lot of goods and gadgets that might currently be residing on your counters, or even in another room.

Stock cabinets — the standard box sizes, door styles, materials and finishes that a dealer or retailer would be expected to have on hand and deliver quickly — often are the cheapest option. Just make sure you look for quality construction details such as casework and shelves at least ½-inch thick, drawers that close smoothly and even finishes.

However, stock cabinets may not make the best use of space, especially in an older home or unusually shaped kitchen. In that case, you might want to look for a local business that builds custom cabinets. While custom cabinets can be extraordinarily expensive, using a local shop will avoid costly shipping charges. A smaller business will have less overhead to pass on to customers and might also allow you to save money by doing the staining yourself.

Chosen well, your cabinets can last for decades. Spending money on quality construction-thicker, stronger backs and shelves; wood or plywood (not particleboard) boxes; dovetailed drawers-will serve you well.

Save money by avoiding pricier woods, purchasing "aftermarket" storage accessories that you can install yourself, and searching for online deals on knobs and pulls.


Easy Upgrades:

Paint your walls now to save money. You can easily repaint later or add wallpaper, beadboard, molding or even a tile backsplash without much fuss.

Sinks and faucets always can be replaced with more decorative models. The expensive part is adding plumbing-say, if you want tadd a prep sink or dishwasher to the island down the road.

Appliances come in a few standard widths. You can get a sleek white or black 30-inch freestanding gas range with all the basic functions for $350 to $400 and a comparable 30-inch top-mount refrigerator for $450 to $500. You can exchange them for models with more features or in designer colors later on if you choose.

Counters are labor-intensive to switch out, but it can be done. Laminate counters are the equivalent of vinyl floors-an affordable, durable option with many colors, textures and patterns. Laminate can mimic metal for a modern look or stone for a traditional style. Tile is another affordable choice, but the uneven surface and grout's tendency to stain turn some cooks off. Granite, quartz, solid surface, metal and wood counters all cost significantly more.


Thrifty Shopping Solutions

If you have the time and patience, try searching online materials exchanges or brick-and-mortar salvage and reuse stores. Materials exchanges allow businesses, nonprofits and individuals to trade, sell and buy surplus or used products, including a full range of building supplies. eBay is an obvious example, but many nonprofit and/or building supply specialty sites exist, too.

Reuse stores serve the same purpose as exchanges. Some only allow low-income homeowners or nonprofit agencies to shop. Others allow anyone to purchase, and donate profits to organizations that support affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity has a national network of Habitat ReStores run by its local chapters. These materials might include anything from last season's appliance models to a kitchen's worth of barely used cabinets that a homeowner replaced in a remodel.

Salvage stores tend to feature reclaimed, architecturally significant items such as wood planks from old barns or antique sinks. These items often don't fall into the "cheap" category, but they might be cheaper than buying brand new.

One challenge with any of these methods, of course, is that the available materials may not meet your needs or tastes. You may be in for a long wait and a lot of browsing.







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