Instead of replacing cabinets that are plumb, square, and sturdy, update them for a fraction of the price. You have two options: refacing, which offers more choices for more money, and refinishing, which is more work but costs less. Refacing involves adding new “skins” to cabinets and costs $150 to $300 per door opening, including materials and installation. Or, refresh cabinets with a new coat of paint. Clean them with a degreasing agent, rinse, sand, and prime them, and then give them a top coat or two. If your house was built before 1978 and you think the cabinets are original, the finish may contain lead—in which case, you should leave the paint job to a pro.
Add a bright spot
Use color to energize your kitchen. A few well-placed accessories such as boldly hued mixing bowls, flowers, or even fruit can instantly create an eye-catching focal point. The island offers another opportunity to introduce color. Just paint this gathering spot in an attention-grabbing shade, first taking care to choose the right type of paint. You’ll want a semi- or high-gloss formula for easier cleanup on this high-use area. Check our paint Ratings for some smart choices. And don’t forget that light fixtures can add accents of color. Look online at sites such as lightinguniverse.com or progresslighting.com for reasonably priced options or troll flea markets and thrift stores. Even if you need an electrician to rewire your find, the price may be right. And when you’re ready, see the results of our lightbulb tests.
Add an island
A custom-built island combines convenience with an often-hefty price. Save by opting for an unfinished or ready-to-assemble prep table and doing part of the work yourself. You’ll find a wide variety of doors, drawers, and countertops in different configurations. A 36x24-inch unfinished island topped with a wooden counter starts at around $300 (unfinishedfurnitureexpo.com). For a high-end look, consider an island topped with stainless. Or choose one with a granite top. As you shop, look for convenient options such as rolling casters and storage shelves. When staining or painting an unfinished piece or choosing a finished model, go for a wood tone or color to complement (or provide dramatic contrast to) your kitchen cabinets. Before you buy, be sure you have enough room to fit the island comfortably; you want a 36- to 48-inch clearance on each side.
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Add splash to the backsplash
A relatively easy and inexpensive update is to install or replace a tile backsplash. According to George W. Edwards, certified kitchen and bath remodeler, of A&C Kitchens and Baths in Chester, Pa., the average cost is about $3 to $5 per square foot, though decorative inlays and trims can cost more. Whether you do the job yourself or hire an installer depends on the state of your existing backsplash and how much time you can commit to the job. The key, Edwards says, comes at the start of the project, during demolition of the existing backsplash and preparation for the new one. If the existing tile was installed over drywall, he says, removal is relatively easy. The existing tile and drywall can be pulled off with common household tools, including a utility knife, pry bar, or hammer and screwdriver, and new drywall can be patched in. It’s much trickier to cut out a tile backsplash laid over plaster without damaging the wall surface above. Plus the plaster may be a different thickness from the drywall, so shimming and/or an extra layer of drywall may be necessary to bring the new surface flush to the wall above.
Mix up materials
For decades kitchen design favored uniformity—one cabinet type, one countertop material. But nowadays designers are creating excitement by combining a wide range of materials and finishes in a single space. That is good news for your own budget makeover, because it means that you don’t have to worry about everything matching perfectly. Choose pricey glass-doored cabinets above but bargain wood or laminate-front units below. Stick your expensive slab of granite or marble on the island—where everyone will see it—but go with basic laminate around the perimeter. Instead of a built-in island or built-in storage, use freestanding furniture pieces to add prep space and storage. And don’t buy appliances as a suite: Choose the models with the best performance and best prices, regardless of brand (odds are against anyone noticing the slight style differences).
—Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide