12 May 2010

Brava! A reader shares her successful renovation story

A reader sent me her final after photos from her kitchen renovation yesterday and in her note she paid me the ultimate compliment. She's been reading K&RD for the last year and she used this site as a resource for ideas and advice. I am a flattered and grateful somebody today, that's for sure.

Here's where she started and here are some of her own words to describe her project.

We’ve owned our house for 11 years and lived in it for all but two when we rented it out while my husband went to graduate school. This is not our forever home and our goal is to move sometime in the next 2-3 years to a larger house. We renovated the kitchen mostly because the old one was literally crumbling in our hands.

I am a stay at home mom of 2 preschoolers.  The major advantage was that I was available for a good part of most days to keep an eye on things and answer questions.  My schedule was flexible enough to be able to get estimates and talk with tradespeople during the day. However, I don’t have many hours free during the day without one or both kids, so it was difficult to make many appointments during normal business hours.  I used the internet to do a lot of research; I bought things online or through Craigslist (dryer, faucet, stove hood, sink) and I bought the cabinets from Thomasville via Home Depot- largely because they let me walk out the door with their catalog and I could just run in at any random time and place my order.

Our house was built sometime in the late 1800s.  It’s a row house and is on a 14’ wide lot.  The kitchen is 12’5” x 7’10” and includes a 3’x 6’ space for the boiler and hot water heater. It’s a modified galley with a small “L” at one end which contains the kitchen sink. There are no square corners, or level surfaces.  The floor slopes in different directions and the walls are all crooked. I had a white kitchen before and I kept it white. We really wanted something in keeping with the wide moldings and baseboards in the rest of the house, but did want some sense of contemporary style as well.

We retained the basic configuration of the kitchen but changed all of the appliance locations. We moved the stove to an exterior wall so that it could be directly vented to the outside --no more smelling a meal the day after we cook it!  This configuration meant that we didn’t have to buy as powerful a hood and it allowed us to retain cupboard space above the stove. It also puts all the meal prep on one side of the kitchen.  We moved the refrigerator to the side of the kitchen where the stove had been. On one side of the refrigerator we installed a 6” utility closet. On the other side is a pantry which consists of a base cabinet, a narrow counter, and wall cabinets resting directly on the base. We had found a very reasonably priced counter depth side-by-side, however, the day we went to buy appliances, I measured across the back of the space --which had not been accessible when I made the original plan --and found that it was an inch smaller than the front. So we have a narrower, deeper refrigerator with a bottom freezer. Finally we moved the dishwasher which had been in the corner by the sink. There had been about six inches to stand sideways to the sink to rinse dishes and load the dishwasher. We put in a blind corner cabinet and moved the dishwasher out 21”.

In addition to the blind corner cabinet, we now have a pullout trash/recycling bin and to the right of the stove we have drawers for pots and pans and cooking utensils.  Above that we have a microwave shelf and upper cabinets above that.  This area has a toaster and electric tea kettle.  Our major run of counter is 7’ or so.

We also redid the laundry area which consists of a double closet. The closet was made deeper, given doors and we put the washer and dryer side-by-side. We replaced our dryer with a ventless Bosch (awesome Craigslist find) and added a counter and wire shelving above. We added a small electronics station in one corner of the foyer which is a charging station and has drawers and shelves. It also gives us a little space for things like vases and candles.


The lighting is can lighting placed straight down the middle of the room.  We didn’t put any pendants in because the ceiling is lower than the main living area and the window is off center.  The under cabinet lighting are Xenon fixtures by Kichler.  All are on dimmers.

Cabinets are Eden by Thomasville painted white. I honestly did look at Ikea cabinets, but I hate their white cabinets and think that the wood cabinets are too modern looking for our space.  The other even more vital issue was the lack of choices in size.  The Thomasville cabinets had a much larger range- allowing me to get a 6 inch utility cabinet, as well as 33 inch and 27 inch cabinets.  This made a huge difference in how I was able to utilize our space. Hardware is brushed nickel with round pulls on doors and handles on drawers.  Nothing special- will wait for that long term house.

The counter is bianco romano granite with a very minimal amount of red and a decent amount of movement.  The counter choice was tough.  I wanted a light color, but didn’t want anything from India.  Try googling things like “labor standards” “India” “quarries”.  It makes China look like a nice place to get a job.

The backsplash is white subway tile- of the Home Depot special variety.

We left a bookshelf and a small alcove to the left of the sink intact.

We retained the original moldings, but replaced baseboards due to lead concerns and damage.

The sink is an apron front sink by Elkay.  I started out with a Kohler faucet (Finial Traditional) that I got on Craig’s List still attached to its kitchen sink.  It was really beautiful except that it was brushed chrome instead of brushed nickel.  I didn’t figure that out until the plumber installed it.  This isn’t a kitchen that needs 3 different kinds of metal. So- I now have the quick-run-to-the-big-box Moen faucet.

The floor is wood.  We wanted to unify the floor with the rest of the house, so we installed unfinished red oak.  It’s finished in Minwax “Special Walnut” which is about as close a match as you could hope for.  Unfortunately, the floors in each of the 3 parts of the house aren’t even, so we had to install thresholds between each space.

The appliances are stainless steel and a mix of brands.  I have an older GE spacesaver microwave, a Kenmore Elite range with a warming drawer and a couple of other nice features. I have to say it’s glorious not to be cooking on a white range that got completely scratched up by our renters. The refrigerator is from Kitchen Aid and the dishwasher is Bosch. The dishwasher is actually white --I wanted it to be a little more unobtrusive.  The appliances are not fabulous, but I really wasn’t excited about putting a bunch of money into appliances that I’m leaving in a couple of years.  They are a sight better than what I had.

Finally the walls are Benjamin Moore Potpourri Green and ceiling is white.

Things I would do differently:

Consider using a kitchen designer especially on a shorter time frame.  For various reasons, I had months and months to work on the planning.

Put in additional lighting in front of the bookshelf/pantry area.

I loved working with the contractor but he doesn’t have years of established relationships with subs.  The subs were the cause of most of the problems we had.  The granite people were especially problematic.

I would pay for more babysitting for the kids.  We probably would have ended up with different appliances had we not had kids in tow.

I should not have let the granite people do business the way they did.  It’s a long story, but the snowstorms and scheduling snafus made me feel pressured.  The person measuring was late and I needed to leave to pick my daughter up, so he was rushed.  The installers came late in the day when the kids were in need of too much attention, so I couldn’t pay as much attention to the granite installation as I should have.  The granite didn’t fit as well as it should have, so the contractor ended up with a bit of work to compensate.

I would pay more attention to the faucet set-up then I did.

Best Problem solved:

The tile across the bottom of the window looked crooked because it was level to the counter but not to the window which is leveled to the crooked ceiling.  It really wrecked the look of the kitchen.  On the last day, I looked at it and asked the contractor to install a deeper window sill- fortunately there was enough room to install a sill over the top of the old sill.  He was kind enough to agree at the last minute and that camouflaged the problem sufficiently.

Biggest Gut Check

Ordering the cabinets based on my own design and measurements.

The One Thing that Makes Me Grind My Teeth:

The contractor’s assistant used a roller on one coat on my woodwork.  Newsflash: the roller marks are hard to cover.

Things I love:

Not having a trash bin in the middle of the kitchen.

Having a new stovetop

Having room for food storage

Having a broom closet

Having a counter to fold clothes on

Room to stand between the sink and dishwasher

Awesome lighting
And now here are her after shots. Again, brava!

As my reader shows here, it's possible to do a terrific job without breaking the bank. What a thrill and thanks so much for showing me these photos and allowing me to let you tell your story.


  1. She did a lovely job with such a tiny space!

  2. She did, her place looks terrific and just as importantly, she made it hers.

  3. Very nice remodel!

  4. Well, I must say, and I do say, that she did a terrific job. It is absolute night and day over what she had in that kitchen before.

  5. gorgeous, but holy cow that kitchen makes me feel claustrophobic just looking at it. Still, very jealous of it!

  6. One very important addition to my above comments (ably edited by Paul!) is that the contractor was amazingly great to work with. Technically, I think any of the people I received estimates from would have been OK. I was confidant in the referral sources and recommendations for each of them. I chose the contractor because his estimate was timely and complete, and because I liked the interaction I had with him. He was very willing to listen to me and to work with my ideas. He worked patiently in a very challenging space and gave time and effort beyond what was required. Finally, he was just pleasant to spend time with and my kids adore him, which you can't discount in a project like this where you spend plenty of time together.

  7. You done good anonymous, you done good.

  8. Well, Ta Da! Anonymous is one sharp cookie. Maybe she'll be a kitchen designer when the kids grow up!

  9. It is very refreshing to see how you can improve both the look and functionality of an everyday room with a "basic remodel" that doesn't break the bank or use over-the-top designs.

    I love what was accomplished and the new look! Kudos to you Paul and to your faithful reader.

    I admire that goals were established at the beginning of the project. Thanks for sharing what went well and what could be improved upon.

    I really enjoyed this valuable and insightful post!

  10. Great story! She made smart choices, and I'm impressed with her bravery.

    If it's not too rude, may I ask what "not breaking the bank" is--at least a ballpark figure? (You know everyone is wondering.)

  11. Bill, Nancie and Kim: Thanks for the comments. I'm wildly impressed with her whole undertaking frankly. And Kim, I have no idea what her total budget was but she's been looking back over the comments all day and maybe she'll grace us with some specifics.

  12. There was some additional work mixed in but I think we came in for about $25,000 for the kitchen and laundry area. It would take me a little time to get much more specific than that. About 1/3 went to the contractor for labor and unseen materials and 2/3 went to subcontractors, finishes and everything else. I realize that this doesn't come close to "breaking the bank" in design land, but its a lot of money for most people and but a distant dream for people who have watched their home value plummet. I feel very fortunate.

  13. @Anon, thanks for the additional info! It's amazing how quickly it all adds up, isn't it?

  14. Thanks for being so forthcoming Anon and Kim, I'm glad you came back for that. Are you getting ready for a change too?

  15. Beautiful. She gives me hope for my small, old kitchen.

  16. Thanks to this reader for sharing her remodel. I really enjoyed reading this. I have often shared in her dilemma of when to shop with the kid(s) or get a sitter. I often feel like hiring a sitter just so I can do some shopping is an extravagance so I don't do it then I'm in the middle of shopping and wish I had hired a sitter. On the other hand, my 4 year old knows a lot about remodeling. That is sure to help her in kindergarten. Ha!

  17. Kids need to have an area where they excel. You've unwittingly given your daughter the gift of being an authority figure. The kids in her pre-school will fear her and cower in her wake. Now that's good parenting!

  18. I love the colours and the design, and the writer has given us a great example of good planning.

  19. I think that's what I like best about her whole project, it was all done so systematically.

  20. A brief update after using the kitchen for 18 months: We still love it- its easy to maintain and great to work in. One good thing about a kitchen like ours is that the only thing that happens there is cooking. It doesn't get cluttered with things that don't belong.

    There are 3 things that I can think of that bear consideration: 1) the stainless steel refrigerator is indeed a pain. I'm glad I can't see it from other parts of the house, because it isn't always a pretty sight. 2) The apron front sink drips down the front and onto the cupboard doors below, which has not done much at all for the painted finish. Some people around here are less conscientious than others about drying up after themselves. and 3) It has been said many times that light colored granite is not impervious to stains. We have proven this to be true at our house. Ahem. But I still like it.


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