The first sign alerting me something went wrong came from the room-temperature milk. The fridge stopped cooling. The food inside was on its way to rottensville. I called GE Appliances and booked a technician to repair it. They updated the control board software and replaced the evaporator fan for $366. Wow. Considering this fridge was less than 5 years old and I can buy a brand-new, stainless-steel fridge for less than $2,000, it shocked me.
Let’s pretend we replaced it with a higher-end stainless steel fridge with French doors and pull-out drawers, costing $2,449.99 (as of April 2023 on Costco.com). The repair price would be 14.9% of the expense of a fancy new fridge. Plus, why get it fixed when the old fridge already proved unreliable and is 4-years depreciated?
Well, idiot-me, I paid for the repair. Less than a year later, the freezer broke. Again. This time, the hardwood floor underneath the fridge became bloated, and the wood grain transformed into wiggly lines as the boards warped. The silvery beige hardwood floor developed a dark grey stain from soaking up water like a pair of baby shorts hiding a leaky diaper. 🙈
We needed to fix the floor and replace the fridge ASAP before the damage spread farther. We found ourselves in an unexpected kitchen renovation. Yay! The closer we looked, the more problems we found. The kitchen cabinets under the sink swelled like a bruised finger because particle board cabinets should never live near water, especially particle board with flimsy veneer that chips off with too much opening and closing of cabinet doors.
As long as we had to replace the refrigerator and a portion of the flooring, did it make sense to also replace the kitchen cabinets, possibly with a lighter color now that espresso-brown was no longer in fashion? Well, if we replace cabinets, we have to replace the counters because the existing countertops probably won’t fit perfectly on top of new cabinets. That led us to the burning question.
How do you decide how much to change in your kitchen renovation?
The average cost of a kitchen renovation is $26,151, and it ranges from $14,548 to $40,432, according to Angi.com. Remodeling Magazine provides 2022 estimates, saying the average midrange minor kitchen remodel costs $28,279 versus $80,809 for a midrange major kitchen remodel. These eye-popping numbers equate to many people’s annual salaries. With rising interest rates, I know more and more friends who choose to stay in their current homes and remodel instead of selling and buying a new home.
If you stare down a kitchen renovation, how do you know how much it will cost? Do you go as little as repainting the room and adding decorative dish towels and a colorful kettle? Or do you go as far as putting in a new kitchen island, upgrading your appliances, ripping out cabinets, and putting in new counters? While you’re at it, why not knock down some walls and add another sink?
When we moved into our current home and started designing our kitchen remodel, we experienced a moment of madness when my dad proposed adding a second kitchen to our 1700 square foot home. We came to our senses by developing a solid framework to decide how much to change in our kitchen. You can do the same by considering which factors matter the most to you and understanding the most expensive parts of a kitchen model.
The cheapest changes
If you’re looking to spruce up your kitchen without spending a lot, the easiest and cheapest changes are repainting, updating fixtures, and adding interior decoration.
NOTE: Fixtures include lighting, faucets/taps, cabinet handles/pulls. These are relatively inexpensive compared to other major purchases like appliances, but they can make a huge difference in your kitchen’s appearance.
Repainting the kitchen walls and kitchen cabinets (you can even repaint a fridge) will give your kitchen a new look. Adding decorative elements like wall art, open shelving to hold your favorite bowls or cookbooks, and adding under cabinet lighting helps your kitchen look fancy. Decorating with cute dish towels sporting colorful prints or a pastel color palette could make your kitchen feel very different.
Repainting isn’t easy, especially kitchen cabinets, but you could do it yourself. DIY saves a lot of money. If you’ve got young kids and don’t have time to DIY, you could hire a local handyman to make these changes. Either way, these are the cheapest changes to freshen up a kitchen and count as a light remodel.
The most expensive changes
Adding a new kitchen where there wasn’t already a kitchen will be the most expensive option. You won’t be able to easily do this yourself and likely will need a general contractor to assemble all the tradespeople to do the specialized work, including new plumbing, new electrical, and framing walls, in addition to hiring an architect or interior designer and pulling permits.
Even if you’re not considering an addition or adding a new kitchen like the obvious example above, a lot of changes surprise people with how expensive they are. For example, moving an island with a sink 90 degrees or moving a window can be very costly. In the first example, a plumber needs to install new pipes for hot water, cold water, and a sewage line. In the second example, modifying a load-bearing exterior wall requires permits and a structural engineer to sign off on your changes.
If you’re serious about expensive changes, you’re probably not reading advice on the internet about kitchen remodeling and already have a general contractor hired to tackle the project.
For the rest of us who want more changes than sprucing up but don’t want to drop six figures on a kitchen remodel, what’s the best approach?
The sweet spot
You can make your kitchen functional and beautiful without spending a humongous amount if you change out surfaces (and appliances as needed) while keeping the footprint (almost) the same.
For example, replacing the kitchen countertops, cabinets, and flooring can make your remodeled kitchen unrecognizable compared to your original kitchen while keeping your costs lower. If you are willing to shop around for contractors and use mass-manufactured products, such as IKEA kitchen cabinets, you can save even more.
We chose this approach, which still allowed us to change the layout of our kitchen. Our original cabinets closed in the opening of our kitchen, making it difficult for more than one person to use the kitchen at a time. Opening a fridge door blocked the kitchen walkway making it impossible to walk in or out.
In contrast, our new design eliminated these problems, making the kitchen more open and expanding its size by converting the dining room into more kitchen space. We made these changes by strategically shifting cabinet placement to make our kitchen more functional. You can do something similar.
Sticking to changing out surfaces and appliances allows you to choose if you want to do the work yourself (big savings but it’s a huge time investment) or if you want help and outsource some of the tasks while doing the project management (some savings compared to hiring a general contractor and lower time investment compared to DIY).
Consider resale value
In my damaged kitchen, we thought hard about the benefits of a bigger kitchen overhaul. In the end, we concluded that all the cabinets did their job even if there was wear and tear on the cabinet doors under the sink. We also concluded if we ever sold the home, nobody would want to pay more money for light-colored cabinets (I would’ve gone with white cabinets if I got to choose again). What colors look good and other aesthetic preferences are so subjective that we would be wasting money changing the cabinets assuming that the future owners would prefer our color choices.
What did I end up doing?
So, we ended up replacing the fridge with a same-sized model from Samsung. I deeply regret paying for the repair because we had to buy a brand-new fridge in the end, and now, I had the additional burden and cost of fixing the floor. We found a handyman to replace only the section of waterlogged flooring with the closest size and color to match instead of redoing the entire kitchen floor. These were the cheapest changes we could get away with, and I’m really happy we didn’t end up spending more.
When I was in my 20s, I didn’t fully understand what lives behind the walls and underneath the floors of a home. If you feel doubt about how much to change in your kitchen remodel, start by getting 2-3 quotes from remodel contractors to sober yourself up. Then you can start budgeting and deciding if you’d rather go on a beautiful vacation to Hawaii or pay for a kitchen overhaul.
Or maybe you can find something in between for both.