Making Money Stretch: The Semi-Renovation

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Last year, we bought a house for two main reasons: we were sick of moving, and I wanted a better kitchen.  We were living in a flip house that had been designed by a contractor with a rather spotty work ethic, and some very strange ideas about what makes for gracious living.  (Wine fridge in the kitchen--and less than three feet of total counter space.  Two jacuzzi tubs--and a hot water heater the size of a thimble.  Frightful things going on in the walls, which were revealed when the house flooded, and we had to move out.)

Any long time reader knows that for me, a good kitchen is important. And while we'd reached a sort of uneasy truce with the flip house, by dint of purchasing a kitchen cart and an island to supplement its storage, our wedding basically shattered that fragile peace.  Even before we'd sent out the invitations, casseroles and platters were pouring through the breach in our defensive lines and setting up forward positions on the book shelf that divided the dining area from the living room.  By the time of our wedding, the entire downstairs had been overrun, and it seemed to me that the soup bowls were eyeing the stairway with a thoughtful air.

So we started looking at row houses.  The husband wanted central air and habitability.  I wanted something as lightly renovated as possible; I had no intention of paying for some contractor's builder-grade kluges, and then ripping them out when they broke.  Three weeks after we got married, and one week before we were flooded out of the flip house, we found the house we wanted to buy.  It had central air.  It did not have four feet of ikea cabinets and cheap stainless steel fixtures.  It had gorgeous ten foot ceilings.  And . . . well, a very odd mix of other improvements.  


It transpired that the previous owners had purchased a wreck, and then begun renovating it, only to be transferred overseas in mid-renovation.  Their taste ran to very dark walls and very lazy contractors (though to be fair, they may not have been here when much of it happened).  Paint was slopped all over the trim, which was itself shoddily applied--when we finally painted the cave-like grey hallway, the painter's tape took the single layer of white paint off the doorjambs in large chunks.  

Thankfully, our inspector assured us that aside from one bright laddie who'd decided to cut a 4 inch chunk out of one of our floor joists in order to run some wires through, the basic work like plumbing and heating was in pretty good shape.  But the rest ran from "adequate" to "hot mess".

There were some semi-high end fixtures, like a higher end washer/dryer combo, a decent gas stove, and a claw-foot tub.  There was some remarkably low-quality work: the aforementioned paint; vents without covers, a toilet in the half bath that wasn't really attached to anything.  

There was the stuff that hadn't been worked on at all: a front yard with a crooked fence and about 70 pounds of lava rock; a back yard that is better not spoken of, except to say that the only thing wanting to complete the look is a rusted-out pickup truck on blocks.  

And there was the stuff that had clearly been slapped in at the last minute when they figured out that they were moving: a few scrawny kitchen cabinets, a foot or so worth of laminate countertops that were already peeling, one miserly drawer too small for a full-sized cutlery organizer, and a refrigerator just a half-step up from the ones we used to keep in dorm rooms.  It barely came up to my chest.

We--okay, well, I--longed for one of those lovely kitchens you see on television or in nicer homes--acres of cabinetry and counter, broom closets and drawers and six-burner stoves with hoods that actually vent smoke, rather than swirling it more briskly around the kitchen.  However,  being journalists and newlyweds, rather than 55-year old hedge fund managers, we were not exactly overburdened with the necessary. 

And really, it wasn't the worst kitchen in the world.  There are starving people in Africa, and for that matter, affluent people in Peoria, making do with less space and storage.

So we coped with the shortcomings.  The day we moved in, friends helped us install Ikea Grundtal shelves and rails, which double as potracks.  We also installed our assortment of extra kitchen islands.

Over the next few months, we did a few things that we (almost) had to do--the dishwasher broke the day we moved in, and since the appliance store offered us a decent discount, we replaced the too-tiny fridge as well. But mostly, we ignored the shortcomings.  The only sizeable change we made was when our contractor came to reinforce those improperly cut joists; while he was there, we had him move the laundry downstairs, and rip out the sloppily-built laundry-cave that had been installed just off the kitchen.  This didn't look very good--naturally, they'd installed the washer-dryer first, and painted only up to the edge.  But with a couple of bookshelves added, it at least gave us some extra storage.  And the change alleviated the funereal effect of a dark grey wall jutting out into our hallway, blocking off a great deal of light.  

We also had him run a water line for our fancy new fridge.  For the first time in my life, I enjoyed the convenience and ease of Door Ice.

But after that, I declared that I was done.  Unless something broke, we would put no more money into the kitchen until that distant day when we had actually saved enough money to renovate.  That's where we stood in January of this year.  Then our dishwasher tried to kill me, and I decided that maybe we should Do Something about the kitchen after all.

It was the day after New Year's, and the dishwasher was very full. Also, my arm was very sore, due to some unspecific, slow-healing rotator cuff injury that had been exacerbated in the frenzy of getting ready for the previous night's dinner party. I sleepily stumbled into the kitchen and opened the dishwasher so that I could unload it and put the rest of the dishes in. 

Unfortunately, as they'd informed us when they installed the dishwasher, our counters weren't level, which meant that one screw holding in the appliance was under more strain than the other.  Sometime in the winter of 2011, it had ripped out of the cheap laminate, at which point its colleague decided to go on strike too.  Every time we opened the dishwasher, it tilted towards you, and the racks slid forward.

Perhaps sensing my languor, on New Year's Day 2012, the racks decided that the time had come to finally make their break for freedom.  Just in time, I threw my aching left arm in front of the drawers, and stopped them from leaping across the floor with all our good china inside. 

I also nearly stopped my heart--I haven't felt such a sharp burst of pain since I ripped up a bunch of ligaments getting thrown into a fence by a horse. I must have emitted some interesting noises, since my husband, normally a late sleeper, came trotting downstairs.

"[Expletive deleted]" I said calmly. "We're replacing this [bleeping] counter or I will [censored]." 

But replacing the counter had Implications.  If we were taking it out, we might as well replace the annoying black sink that was impossible to clean, and put in a backsplash so that I didn't have to spend so many happy weekend hours furiously rubbing our walls with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.  And since we didn't want to install anything fancy in a kitchen that we eventually want to get rid of--I adhere to the principle that one should either buy expensive things that will be loved forever, or cheap things you won't feel bad about throwing away--the counters we could afford probably wouldn't match the cabinets, which meant they might have to be painted.

However, my steely resolve did not extend to tapping our emergency fund, or borrowing money.  And even if it had . . . well, the Official Blog Husband is himself a man of formidable will.  Which left us a quandary: how to do a minimalist kitchen renovation that would give us more storage, without costing more than we could cash flow?  

The answer, for those of you who are interested, is below the jump: how to do a semi-renovation for a few thousand dollars that adds space and makes the thing look sort of all right.  It wasn't exactly cheap, but it wasn't entirely out of reach of the average family, either.

I don't want to overpromise. This is not one of those $2,000 HGTV specials where, by the magic of not paying for labor, a couple gets a new-looking kitchen for practically no money.  No one is going to walk into our kitchen and ask for the name of our designer.  But it's functional enough to contain me, my mother, and my sister all cooking at the same time, without bumping into each other, or piling every flat surface high with used bowls and pans.  We have enough storage for everything.  And it looks . . . basically okay.  Intentional, even.

If you're still interested, read on . . . 
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To start with, you'll want to know what our kitchen looked like.  Unfortunately, I didn't think to write this blog post until we'd already started the renovation, and the people who sold our house quite wisely did not include photos of the kitchen in the listing.  To the right is the only photo of the area they did include, of our dark grey laundry cave.  I assure you, it was even darker looking when you were actually standing in front of it.  


Note the quality paint job ending just where the washer-dryer start.  And yes, before you ask, there's still a little paint on the washer-dryer.

However, just after they took off the cabinet doors, I got into a discussion with a commenter about renovations, and I remembered that some of my readers really like kitchen posts.  So I hastened to the kitchen and took a few pictures before they went any further.   Below, what our kitchen basically looked like, except with some of the doors removed.


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This is also essentially what the kitchen looked like when we moved in, except, as I mentioned, with doors on the cabinets.  And the dishwasher that we had to replace because it leaked all over the kitchen the first time we used it.


























This is the view from the other direction.  Unfortunately, you cannot see the edges peeling off the laminate, but you can see where the improperly attached filler panel next to the stove came off, leaving us with a darling hole:

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On the other side of the kitchen, there was nothing but the tiny refrigerator, which the husband and I referred to as the "My First Fridge".  Oh, and a garbage can.  We kept the garbage can.  The refrigerator had to go . . . although, before it went, it did give us hours of enjoyment arguing whether it was the largest dorm fridge on the market, or the absolute smallest regular model.


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By the time we decided to semi-renovate, we'd already ripped out the laundry cave and stuck some mismatched bookshelves in that area.  And on the empty side of the kitchen, we'd put in our carts: a large island from Target, an unfinished Catskill Craftsman kitchen cart, and a little unfinished cart from Ikea were all there when the above picture was taken.  It was eventually supplemented with some plastic drawers that we'd had in the old house.  The plastic drawers stuck, and looked awful.  I'm not very sorry that I don't have any pictures of them.

A few months after we moved in, the new fridge arrived.  This is how things stood until the semi-renovation.

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As with so many things in modern homemaking, our semi-renovation started with a trip to Ikea.  We investigated fixed cabinets for the laundry area, which would have been nice, but cost at least $2000, including installation.  My heart said yes, yes.   The little personal finance guru who lives in my head reluctantly vetoed the expenditure.  Husband quite sensibly sided with the personal finance guru.  

Instead, we bought paint for the hallway, a freestanding cabinet, and shelves to make a sort of butler's pantry.  We also bought yet another unfinished kitchen island/counter, and a $99 set of silver-and-plastic drawers to replace the sticky plastic set next to the refrigerator.

While we were there, we priced sinks and countertops.  We easily agreed on wood counters, both because we like them, and because our handyman could cut and install them himself.  But we didn't buy until he could come by and give us an estimate.

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Meanwhile, we painted the hallway and spent about seventy hours building our drawers, and our freestanding cabinet.  The result was not perfect--the drawers are not quite flush.  But it looks much nicer than the laundry cave.

We put all the serving dishes that we use every day out here, as well as our "set and forget" appliances.  The  prep areas are in the kitchen.

Then we got the greenlight from the handyman for the larger project.  Back to Ikea we went!

We had decided on birch counters, to match all our unfinished wood.  Bad news: lots of people are apparently attracted to the low cost and convenience of Ikea wood counters; almost everything was backordered.  They only had oak, and only in one length: enormous.  We had to purchase $350 worth of counters, instead of the $200 we'd been expecting.  Also, the oak was going to look decidedly weird with our maple cabinets, so we'd have to paint the cabinets white.  

The sink also added unexpected expense.  We decided on a nice white farmhouse model that was wide and long, but there was a little problem--it only had one hole, and you couldn't drill another.  We either needed a new faucet that combined taps and sprayer, or we had to give up the sprayer.  Luckily, the husband found a nice model on deep discount--chrome apparently having gone out of fashion, they were selling it for a fraction of the price of the same model in brushed steel.

We chose subway tile for the backsplash, not even because it's cheap, but because that's what I grew up with.  But happily, it's also quite cheap.

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When our handyman removed the counter, we got a big surprise.  Now we found out why the counters weren't level: whoever did our kitchen had used a wall cabinet on the floor.  It was substantially shorter than the sink cabinet, so the counter sloped.  It wasn't even attached to anything.

I assume they bought these surplus. I'd love to see the kitchen someone was remodeling with two corner wall cabinets, and only two floor cabinets.




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Our handyman shimmed up the cabinet to level with the others, and built a sort of bracket to attach it to the wall.  And he put in a brace for the dishwasher to attach to, pictured below.




























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After that he installed the counters, the sink, and the backsplash, and painted the cabinets.  We stained the counters ourselves, since that's about the only thing I know how to do around the house, besides assemble Ikea furniture.  We chose a darker oil-based stain that complemented the oak nicely, and finished with high gloss polyurethane--about 70 coats, if I recall correctly.  It's easy to keep clean, and I can always slap another coat on from time to time.

Here's what it looked like when we finished the last layer of poly:

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And here it is in working order.  The whole kitchen seems much brighter with white cabinets, an effect I had not anticipated.

Another effect I wasn't anticipating was how this would make the other side of the kitchen look.  We had four islands, made of different woods: the cart was birch, the two Ikea pieces were unfinished pine, and the Target island was some sort of eco-friendly tropical wood that was solidly finished.  The collection looked even more motley next to this. We tried putting a left-over length of counter atop the Target island, but it didn't help much.



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The solution was obvious: sand and stain. But sanding and staining a bunch of furniture is a very different job from doing a flat countertop; it's time-consuming, fiddly, and tedious. We dithered. I averted my eyes from the sight. Then we bit the bullet, with a small compromise: we let the finished piece alone, and just left the extra counter on top. Since we're both tall, the extra height was actually a plus.  Added bonus: the extra length covered our previously exposed garbage can.

Do you own a detail sander?  Because we own a little detail sander, and I'd never realized before this how much I love that thing.  I'm not saying I'd leave my husband for a detail sander, or anything.  I'm just saying that I'm very glad I don't have to choose.

Because the wood of the cabinets was lighter than the oak, we had to do a pre-stain with something close to the oak before we layered the color ("English Chestnut") on top.  I knew it wouldn't be perfect--and it was even more imperfect than I expected, as I discovered that the body of our kitchen cart was an undistinguished pine.  This was a fun opportunity for me to learn what happens to pine when you don't use a filler before you apply the stain.  

I'm telling people that it's a tiger stripe pattern, and implying that it was deliberate.  The whole thing has a sort of rustic air, if "rustic" is a code word for "people who aren't very good at applying stain."

Nonetheless, it does look more pulled together, even as if someone might have almost planned it that way.  Here's the final result, as best as I can photograph in a relatively constrained space:

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I spent about ten minutes the first night just opening and closing the dishwasher door, and relishing the way it did not tip forward and try to kill me. 




























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The coffee maker moved to the left of the fridge.  As you can see, our kitchen is optimized for tall people; my husband and I, both 6'2, can just reach to get stuff on and off that top shelf.  My mother has to use a step stool.

We have our glasses in the top drawer of that drawer unit.  Door ice has never been more convenient!


















The other side of the fridge.  The toaster oven has moved to replace the coffee maker  Yes, I have a lot of pans:


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It doesn't pay to look out the window. We haven't gotten around to the yard yet.  And since broken glass is still working its way out of the ground after a year and a half of conscientious removal efforts, we probably won't get around to the yard until we can get someone to bring a backhoe--or at least a bobcat--in to dig out forty years and several college students worth of neglect.

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Like I say, it will never be on HGTV. But we're very fond.

Overall, we saved hundreds of dollars by doing the work that we could ourselves.  But we saved even more by compromising, and accepting that it was not going to look like a showplace.  Open shelving instead of cabinets; a lot of stuff that doesn't quite match, and an aesthetic that leans towards functional rather than elegant.

That's not for everyone.  I like having things in the open where I can reach them, but it takes a lot of work to keep it looking neat--work which, as you can see from my jumble of pans, we have not entirely completed.    Finished wood surfaces do not stand abuse as well as  granite, or even Corian.  (Though I'll put them up against porous stone like Carrara marble any day).  And we're well aware that the paint on the cabinets will probably scratch, and need to be touched up.

But lots of people could do some variant of this: upgrading or installing a few items, rather than re-doing the whole thing.  The kind of kitchen renovation we would still frankly love to have would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars and involved moving our badly-placed and too-large half-bath.  Not including the appliances, which we would have had to replace anyway, this cost us a few thousand dollars, even with labor included, and I expect to be happy with it for years.  And if we needed to sell for any reason, I'm confident that we'll more than recover the money we spent.  (I mean, after we move out my crazy array of appliances and pots and kitchen islands.  I'm well aware that my taste in such things is somewhat, um, singular.)

Unfortunately, they never show you things like this on television.  Instead they show you what you can get with $2,000 if someone throws in tens of thousands of dollars worth of contractor labor for free.  I suppose that's fine if you're a swell all-purpose handyman, but most of us aren't.  Nor, in this fast-paced world, can we necessarily learn in time to corral our rebel appliances and save our walls.

So I thought it was worth offering this as an alternative to house-porn.  Call it house-PG-13:  something that should be accessible to most people, provided they are properly chaperoned by a good handyman.  No one is going to catch their breath in admiration when they walk into a kitchen like this.  But hopefully, that will just leave more admiration available for the food you produce in it.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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