Home Cents

My $25,000 kitchen reno

Special to The Globe and Mail

When my husband and I started talking to friends and family about our plans to renovate our kitchen, what we mostly heard were warnings: "It will take months longer than you think it will," "It will cost thousands more than you think it will," "There's no such thing as a contractor who comes in at the price of the estimate," and so on.

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You've probably heard the same admonitions - renovation horror stories are so plentiful, it's a wonder anyone even embarks on home improvement plans unless they've got unlimited time and money to burn.

Regardless, after 10 years of putting it off, I was determined to create a modernized, beautiful kitchen. (The existing kitchen was a 70s-era, musty, pressed wood monstrosity I'd painted royal blue in a bid to camouflage it.) My husband was extremely anxious about the cost, and feared it would get out of hand once the reno was in motion.

But I gave my husband an assurance: I could renovate our kitchen for $25,000. Not the $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 our friends had spent on comparable jobs - $25,000, all told.

In case you're starting to think this is going to turn into a "design disaster" story, guess again. I did it. I managed to create a gorgeous 10 x 15 kitchen for $25,290 that is practical and livable, and garners plenty of oohs and aahs from visitors. And it only took eight weeks from start to finish.

For those of you who are interested in the numbers, my cabinets cost about $6,000, my quartz countertop was $3,500, hardwood flooring was $1,100, labour was $9,800 and everything else (like backsplash tile, mouldings, a new dishwasher, paint, a range hood, breakfast bar stools, etc.) was about $2,690. I also included the $2,200 we spent on six weeks in a rented condo during the renovation (we did an extra couple weeks with family members).

We didn't purchase a new fridge and stove, as ours were in perfect working condition, but we also repainted the living room and ripped out a crummy second kitchen from the basement to create a new playroom down there, an added bonus I included in the total cost.

Now, enough with the back-patting. Here are my do's and don'ts for getting the kitchen you want without spending a fortune:

Do your research It might seem like a waste of time to spend a morning touring a bunch of flooring stores to suss out the price of hardwood, but it will save you time and money. Shop around, take notes and don't let a designer, contractor or friend tell you what you have to spend on your backsplash. And yes, it pays to buy a whack of kitchen design mags. Most of the designs will be unattainable and ridiculously overdesigned (in my humble opinion) but you will find ideas for colour combinations, configurations and see what's new with kitchen faucets these days.

Do DIY it You may not have the time or inclination to do it yourself, but the fact is that it pays to project manage your own reno. I was the chief designer on my project and also purchased the majority of the materials myself (excluding raw materials like drywall). It sometimes sucked to head to Home Depot at 8 PM to get some mouldings cut, but hiring a "full-service" contractor or an interior designer to do the work can cost you tens of thousands more. If you have no aptitude in the area, enlist someone to help, but make it a family member or friend. It's unlikely your costs will veer wildly off course when you're the one making all the purchases.

Don't fear the big-box store Doubtless, there will be some of you who feel that mass-produced cabinets from a big-box store cannot in a million years compete with custom cabinetry. I assure you that I would have loved to give the job to a local craftsman who would lovingly coax a masterpiece out of aged barn wood, but we just couldn't afford it. So, we went to IKEA. I went classic white (STAT, if you really want to know) and most people who step into our kitchen assume it's custom. Plus, and this is an important point - you can customize IKEA cabinets quite easily, as long as you get someone who knows how to do it. Ask your local big-box to recommend installers - that's how we got our awesome contractor.

Don't be afraid to go small Though one-stop shopping can be seductive, when it comes to kitchens it's often a better idea to diversify. While we got our cabinets from a big-box store, we went with independent retailers for several other big-tickets items, like our countertops, and scored some great deals. And a note about countertops - go quartz. It's just as beautiful as granite but requires no sealing or special maintenance and the prices have come down dramatically in the last five years or so. We got around 12 linear feet of grey speckled quartz for $3500 (including the tap and sink), which would have been about $5000 a few years ago.

Do be flexible I had originally planned to take out a full wall and create an eating island dividing our kitchen and living/dining area. On day one of tear-down, our contractor discovered that there was essential duct-work in the wall we'd planned on taking down. We could have moved the duct work to the outside wall to maintain the original design, but it would have meant more time and money. So, I did a 180 and rejigged the plan so that the wall could stay. It took a bit of fancy footwork, but we still got an eating island and now no one sees our dirty dishes from the dining room table. Don't fall in love with a design, especially if you're in an old home, and make the thriftier option work.

Do skimp when you can Right above my expensive-looking quartz countertop are glossy white subway tiles that cost about $150, mud and grout included. They look great, but they were just plain cheap. Think a Coach bag with an H&M blouse - it's all about the mix of low- and high-end.