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view-from-dining-room-dsc01241A year ago, the idea of updating my original 1970s kitchen was all but dead. At that point, I’d been pricing cabinets and studying our options for almost two years. Every time I did the math, I felt discouraged. The cabinets I wanted were $15,000. Considering the total cost of remodeling, the value of our home and the modest neighborhood where we live, I thought spending that much on cabinets alone was a bad idea.

We searched for affordable alternatives, but I saw nothing with the character of our cabinets. The options were newer, not better. I scoured the web with searches such as “how to update a kitchen without changing cabinets.” Most of the results suggested painting them or replacing the doors. For reasons too complicated to explain here, we didn’t.

I resigned myself to replacing our worn counters and dishwasher and calling it good. I didn’t expect to do a full-scale update, much less become my own general contractor. For better or worse, that’s exactly what happened. Today, our kitchen project is 99 percent done.

I love my new/old kitchen, and I have a few ideas about what I’d do differently if I could rewrite history. And since web searches were useless when I was shopping for ideas, I’ve aptly named this post to help others find inspiration for an unconventional kitchen remodel.

Friends who’ve been encouraging me through this project: please don’t worry about reading this one. It’s MUCH too long. If you scroll through, I’ll give you a virtual tour until you can come visit and see it for yourself. Most of what’s here is for people who are searching for kitchen ideas on a limited budget. By that, I mean they aren’t planning to take out a mortgage to improve their kitchen.

Here are a few kitchen remodeling tips based on the good, bad and the ugly of being your own general contractor.

Find a source of inspiration that suits your home.

The idea of a sparkly new kitchen was intoxicating to me, but it would have been out of sync with the rest of our home. Our antiques and Early American hand-me-downs keep company with contemporary leather chairs and traditional furniture in rooms with rough-hewn beams and a stone fireplace. I’ve always considered it a comfortable home, but there’s nothing cohesive or intentional about it. A too-new kitchen would only make the rest of the house look shabby and disjointed.

img_1604I had given up on the idea of remodeling our kitchen when I tripped across a practical source of inspiration. On Valentine’s Day, we traveled to Paducah, Kentucky and stayed in an 1857 guesthouse converted into three beautiful apartments. Exposed brick walls and rustic wood floors contradicted modern art, high-end contemporary lighting and plumbing fixtures.

img_1599Everywhere you looked, new stuff mingled with really old stuff—and the old stuff was far from perfect. Chips and dents were left intentionally. Inconsistency and distress were elevated to the height of sophistication.

That was my ah-hah moment. I would KEEP my worn out cabinets and capitalize on their distressed condition. With that as my anchor, all other decisions were easier. Everything would be about making old things look great by putting them next to new things that either a) were inspired by the past or b) looked old and distressed.

In some circumstances, you can (and should) forget about how a remodel affects resale.

My realtor friends said we’d be leaving money on the table if we spent too much on this project. We were advised to use stock cabinets and laminate counters. I trusted this advice completely, but you know what? I ignored it.

Here’s why. I’m 56 years old. My husband is 64. When we’re not traveling for work, we eat at home most every night. As two self-employed people, we have done without a lot of extras so we could buy health insurance, fund retirement accounts and keep a savings for emergencies or slumps in our businesses. I knew we would both enjoy a well-appointed kitchen. What’s more, we plan to be here at least another seven to 10 years. If not now, when?

The project cost more than I thought it would—around $28,000. Even when you’re being conservative, kitchens can be expensive. In 10 years, the people who buy our home may think our kitchen is horrid. Today’s update adds very little, if anything, to the value of our home. Meanwhile, it’s a dream come true for me and it makes preparing meals a delight. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with the money we spent. Our house. Our money. Our rules. That’s the way we choose to look at this.

Budget for things you can’t see.

I switched to a gas range and oven. We spent $1,300 bringing the gas line into our kitchen. Our electricians were here several times bringing things up to code, which is really, really important in home with a gas range. That added another $4,000 to $5,000 to the tab. I haven’t calculated all costs for the carpenters, plumbers, painters, installers for floors and counters, but I expect at least half of the cost has come from labor.

Do your homework (and check it twice) when you replace your appliances.

farmhouse-sinkdsc01283I picked GE slate appliances. I love the color. It compliments my cottagey old cabinets. Yes, GE’s slate finish is more forgiving than stainless steel. Yes, it hides fingerprints on the body of the appliances. Here’s the thing: the handles and knobs are trimmed in stainless steel—the very thing I wanted to avoid. And what shows more fingerprints and dirt on any appliance—the body or the handles and knobs? We spend TONS of time polishing the handles on our refrigerator door.

All appliances look fantastic sitting in a show room. Truth is, mine look fantastic in my kitchen when the stainless steel handles are shined to perfection. Look, stainless steel appliances are a bad idea. I guarantee you, today’s stainless steel is yesterday’s avocado green or harvest gold. Trust me: they are on their way out. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose plain white. Bonus: white is always cheaper than stainless.

I thought swapping appliances would be a no-brainer. Wrong. Houses settle. Sometimes they aren’t square to begin with. That ended up being a HUGE deal in our update. I was very concerned about getting appliances to fit in their spaces, especially after our sales rep said it would all be on us if they didn’t. We compared notes and measurements. She assured me that all was right with the world because everything was, in her words, “standard.” Wrong again.

When the appliances arrived for installation, the counter-depth fridge fit, but it lacked sufficient space for ventilation. I wasn’t willing to void the warranty on a $2,500 fridge by failing to give it proper ventilation. Our carpenter removed all the cabinets around the refrigerator, gave them a trim and then reinstalled everything.

Worse yet, the new over-the-range microwave was five inches taller than the one it replaced. With a gas stove, the cast-iron grates added another 1.5 inches in height to the cooking surface. That left a mere 12 inches between the top of the range and the bottom of the microwave, which was both impractical and unsafe.

Before we purchased the appliances, our sales rep said the appliances weren’t returnable, so I went straight to her boss with our problem. He accepted the microwave without question.

In its place, we installed a Zephyr stainless over-the-range hood, which turned out to be a really good thing. With up to 60,000 BTUs of heat on top of the stove, a good exhaust system was essential. It’s the kind of thing I should have uncovered in research. But then again, a really great sales rep (or the general contractor I didn’t hire) might have walked me through that before the purchase.

Analyze your needs and your wants carefully.buffet-dsc01247

I needed new counters, flooring and appliances. I desperately needed more storage and workspace. Quartz counters, a gas stove, a brick backsplash, a Kohler faucet and farmhouse sink—those were wants, not needs. Since I wasn’t replacing cabinets, I reasoned that I could spend more on items that get heavy use every day, and oh, how I spent.

Here’s how we added storage and workspace.

In our built-in, counter depth, floor-to-ceiling pantry, things got buried and lost. We retrofitted the pantry with pull-out shelves to make things more accessible.

My original kitchen had two zones: 1) a place to stack dirty things while I cooked and 2) a place to stack clean things when I started cleaning up during the cooking process. What I lacked was a place to prep and serve food. We solved that problem by removing makeshift cabinets on the shortest wall of the kitchen. That gave us access to a wall that measured a little over six feet in length.

New cabinetry would have been out of place with my existing cabinets, so I embellished on the ideas borrowed from our 1857 guesthouse experience by adding a six-foot long antique buffet, discovered at Five Thirty Home in Zionsville for around $650. It was distressed and milk-painted black using Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint. The distressed black paint allowed warm wood tones to show. The buffet accentuated our cabinetry’s dark grooves and wood.

walnut-butcher-block-dsc01256We removed the buffet’s original top and installed a walnut butcher-block top purchased at Lumber Liquidators for around $400. (I reclaimed the top for work surface in my office.) Rather than finishing it with polyurethane, we maintain it with food-grade mineral oil. I still can’t bring myself to chop on it, but the idea is to let it develop character. What I like best: the buffet is a little taller than counter height, which is great for the back when chopping and preparing food.

The silver tray inside the buffet made a perfect place to store spices!

The silver tray inside the buffet made a perfect place to store spices!

shelves-dsc01259Above the buffet, we gained more storage with open shelves. I stained chunky pieces of poplar and had our carpenter install them over industrial pipefittings. I still don’t have a pleasing arrangement for what goes there, but I love the way the shelves tie things together.

When the microwave didn’t fit over the range, we had another dilemma: where to go with a microwave in a tiny kitchen. Unfortunately, our only logical option was to mount it from an open space on the shortest wall of the kitchen, just above the buffet. I chose a white microwave, hoping it would be less obvious against the white wall behind it.

I don’t love it, but it was necessary because my husband uses a microwave a lot. He also uses a toaster oven. Together, the two appliances clutter up that wall. Again, I don’t love it, but he lives here, too. I’ve made peace with the fact that the Hammon Homestead will never be House Beautiful. I still have five to six extra feet of workspace, and I’m happy with that.

What you should know about apron-front farmhouse sinks.

The white apron-front sink is a focal point. Knowing our sink would get heavy use, I purchased the highest quality I could afford: Kohler’s Hawthorne double-basin enamel over cast iron sink

My mother-in-law’s overly-scrubbed cast iron sink was proof that I was in for more maintenance than stainless steel. I’m good with that; my husband isn’t. If you buy a cast-iron porcelain sink, shop for sink protectors at Bed, Bath and Beyond. The minute we start working in the kitchen, I slide them in place to preserve the surface.

Other things you need to know if you choose a farmhouse sink on a remodel:
1) An undermounted sink may sit a little lower than the one you’re accustomed to using. If you have a bad back, you may not like that.

2) If the sink is undermounted, your cabinet base must be cut down to accommodate the sink. After the rebuild, your existing cabinet doors will be too big for the opening.

I briefly considered covering the opening with curtains. When it’s done right, it can be a charming look. It may have paired nicely with the rustic, cottagey feel I wanted, but I rejected that idea after considering how impractical it might be to access that space.

Instead, I incorporated another rustic element—1.25” x .25-inch mini-corrugated steel. Standard galvanized steel was too bright and shiny, so I searched online for other alternatives and found a specially-coated product made by Bridger Steel in Black Hawk, South Dakota. They make it in lots of finishes, including one that matches our slate appliances. The color was called “Vintage.” (Go figure!)

mini-corrugated-steel-wainscot-dsc01254Bridger Steel sent samples to help me choose the size and weight. They have an awesome website that lets you see what people are doing (inside and out) with corrugated products. We used this material as wainscoting around the corner and had our carpenter repeat it with custom doors trimmed in wood stained to match the cabinets.  A knowledgeable, accommodating sales team welcomed my small order. The corrugated material cost $496, including shipping all the way from South Dakota.

Consider hiring a decorator.

Somewhere in the middle of the project, I got terribly worried that my Kitchen With Character might be a terrible fiasco. What do I know about decorating? Through a recommendation from a friend, I hired Julie Snider, an interior designer and owner of Redefining Spaces

For a modest fee, Julie studied my choices and made sure I wasn’t making galactic errors in judgment. It was just the right step. I found an affordable solution for the floor, CoreTec Plus luxury vinyl plank flooring, but I couldn’t decide on the color. Julie helped me hone in on River Slate. I liked Julie so much that I intend to have her help with next year’s project, our living and dining area. 

backsplash-dsc01270Joanne Holman at Architectural Brick and Tile listened carefully and studied photographs to help me choose backsplash. Without Joanne, I would have stumbled around for hours, mesmerized by this and that. She led me straight to my best choice. Julie and I took Joanne’s tile sample, Emil Kotto Jesso 2 x 8 bricks, to Cathedral Marble and Stone and put it next to granite. (I could hardly believe I was looking at granite! Remember the advice my realtors gave?)

quartz-dsc01263And Then. Our Sales Rep Brought Us a Sample of Wilsonart Osteria Quartz. It had every color in our mix—the gray in the appliances, the black in the buffet and the warm gold in our cabinets. It brought things together like nothing else had. I took samples home and showed them to Jim. He made the mistake of telling me to get what I wanted. When will he learn? I sprung for the quartz and told my practical side to sit down and shut up.

ceiling-lights-dsc01316Julie coaxed me into distressing the trim around the window and recessed ceiling lights. Coached by the skilled people at Five Thirty Home in Zionsville, I used Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint, the same paint that’s on the buffet. I sanded and distressed both trims, using Curio as a base coat and Ironstone as a top coat. The window still needs curtains, but it will be a while before I get to that. Our tacky 1970s lighting, recessed in a seven-foot ceiling, looks so much better. To brighten our tiny space, we added LED bulbs and under-the-cabinet lighting.

About general contractors.

I don’t know what to say about general contractors. I’m sure it’s like any other industry; there are good companies and bad ones, and everything between. I started interviewing contractors in May. By July, I was fed up with their foot-dragging, their smug attitudes and their bizarre, opaque processes.

Why didn’t I use a contractor? I got impatient. I think I’d still be entertaining quotes if we had gone the contractor route. None of them seemed to understand that we didn’t want a cookie-cutter kitchen. When I said I was thinking about keeping my cabinets, they shrugged or proposed ridiculous things such as adding brand new cabinetry next to our existing cabinets.

Through research, I found Ted Morrett, a talented carpenter who could do pretty much everything. A general contractor might have done CAD drawings to help us anticipate and solve problems—but I’m not 100 percent convinced of that. Ted and I communicated well, and he was enthusiastic about the ideas we had for modifying the kitchen. We started working together around the first of September and finished last week—a four-month process.

This darling duck protects our refrigerator from getting banged up by the garage door.

This darling duck protects our refrigerator from getting banged up by the garage door.

Is it possible that someone will walk into our house and think, “Gee, they sure went to a lot of trouble. Why didn’t they just replace their cabinets while they were at it?” I suppose so, but does it really matter? I love it! And I’m super glad that this project is done because, Lord willing, I plan to boogie for Florida with my parents on December 30.

Let me leave you with one last thought: if you’re considering a kitchen remodel, be prepared for extra stress. My heart was in my throat more than once during this project when I thought I might have fowled something up irreparably.

What’s next for us? Probably the living/dining area. Or perhaps a tiny house. Time’s a wastin’. I crave time with my parents. We’ve talked about building this tiny house in their back yard, a part-time place for me to live, work and care for them without encroaching on each other’s privacy. When we can’t go to Florida together anymore, it can be a winter place for Jim and I in a tiny house or RV community. 

What’s your home improvement dream? If you do a kitchen, promise me something: don’t forget to leave space for your trash can. I forgot that, so we’re currently improvising around my amateur mistake! 

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.