Top 5 lessons learned from an under $5,000 complete kitchen remodel

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Ok, I’ll admit it, we’re still finishing up the kitchen. Things take a bit longer when you’ve got a 3 and 1 year old. BUT, we’ve hit most of the major milestones, and are at least 80% done with our complete kitchen overhaul!

We’ve learned a few things along the way, including how to completely remodel your kitchen for a FRACTION of the cost that most magazines will tell you. In fact, if you look at ACTUAL KITCHEN REMODELS with cost breakdowns on Zillow you can see the incredible amounts of money people will spend on their kitchen. We were able to do most things that these kitchen remodels do but for less than $5,000.

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Top 5 lessons learned from our kitchen remodel

1. Do Not Buy New. When people start planning a kitchen remodel, they are looking at their old, ratty, the-’80s-called-and-want-their-style-back kitchen and they want to make it feel like new again. Naturally, they head on over to Pinterest and start pinning all the $100k+ kitchens from million dollar homes to their board, causing further discontent, and also creating unrealistic expectations. Those kitchens come with $5,000 ovens and $10,000 refrigerators and sparkly marble countertops – which paints a picture of perfection that only comes with NEW EVERYTHING.

But that’s just not true.

You can get almost EVERYTHING in your kitchen used online or secondhand. In fact, our entire remodel idea started with getting a free fridge on a Buy Nothing Facebook giving group that we are a part of. It was broken and I fixed it with a $14 part. We also used cabinets that were left in our garage when we moved into our house. You can find used kitchen cabinets for yourself on Freecycle, Craigslist, or even at your local hardware store. We had a friend buy the display cabinets when Lowe’s was upgrading their kitchen section recently. He saved a TON vs. buying new. Painting older cabinets is a great way to save money if you like their style. Also, installing new hardware to freshen up the look is one of the cheapest ways to make a huge difference in the feel of your kitchen.

The point is, look for ways to buy used or pickup for free and put some work in to save THOUSANDS.

2. DIY As Much As Possible. The invention of the Internet has sparked a revolution in our ability to do it yourself. YouTube videos have been created for almost every conceivable task – including ENTIRE KITCHEN REMODEL lessons. Labor costs are almost 30% of the total kitchen remodel! If you just check out a few lessons online, you’re well on your way to saving thousands in labor and doing it exactly the way you want. You may end up paying labor costs for some things (we did for granite installation), but saving on labor is like paying yourself $80-$100 per hour for the work. Time well spent.

Read more: How the Internet saved me $132 on my hot water heater

3. Borrow And Rent Your Tools. Kitchen remodels can require a lot of very specific tools to get the job done. And since you’ve decided to DIY (see lesson #2 above), you will need access to things like a table saw, power drill, miter saw, jig saw, tile saw, air compressor and maybe a few other things. If you don’t have a stock of DIY tools, first, I highly recommend adding them to your Christmas list. A good power drill or table saw will help you build wonderful things for years and years and save you thousands over buying something. But secondly, I recommend borrowing from friends and family where necessary. Many of the tools can also be rented, so if you can’t find a loaner, check out your local hardware store rental section. We rented our tile (wet) saw for $75 for 24 hours of use. We ended up using it for about 23 of those hours, but we got the job done. PHEW!


4. Budget In At Least 10% More Than You Think. I have done enough DIY projects to know that a budget on paper has nothing to do with what you actually end up purchasing in total. Every time you tear something down or build something new, you will inevitably run into a snag that will end up costing you money, so you might as well budget for it. I recommend budgeting in a good 10% more than you need so you don’t end up scrambling for cash in the middle of a project.

If things go well, you may not spend it all, but it’s always better safe than sorry. For us, we ran into some electrical work we hadn’t anticipated, picked the wrong (non-returnable) paint color, bought the wrong hinges, had some plumbing we had to re-arrange more than anticipated, and just had a bunch of little things (shims, hand tools, hardware, screws, etc) pop up that we hadn’t thought about. Budgeting in another $500 allowed us to keep things moving without running out of funds.

5. Do Your Project In Phases. As I mentioned above, we have a 3 and a 1 year old. There was NO WAY we were going to do this project in a few weeks. In fact, it’s been almost 4 months. But for those of you scared to ‘live in a construction zone,’ know that is can be done with minimal interruptions to normal life. In fact, you can remodel your kitchen and have a mostly working kitchen 90% of the time.

We planned our updates with starting and ending points that allowed us a mostly functional kitchen during and after the process. This is a sample of what our timeline looked like:

a. Remove dishes from top cabinets and remove cabinets – 1 evening of work
b. Install top cabinets – A few evenings of work
c. Move new fridge into garage and repair – 1 evening of work
d. Put food in coolers, remove old fridge, unplug and move new fridge, load with food – 1 evening of work
e. Remove items on shelves, remove shelves – 1 evening of work
f. Bring in new bottom cabinets for corner, set in place, put plywood on top as temporary countertops – 1 evening of work
g. Cut out floor, level and set new lower corner cabinets, place plywood back on – A few evenings of work (temp. countertops in place each night, though)
h. Remove all old countertops (except around sink) – 2 evenings of work
i. Remove sink and prepare for new countertop install 3 days later – 1 evening of work
j. New counters installed with new sink – 1 day of work
k. Install kitchen sink plumbing next day – 2 evenings of work

As you can see, we broke down the labor into smaller chunks, allowing us to still live in and use the kitchen on a daily basis. We were also limited to late evenings when kids were asleep for most of the work, so breaking the project into mostly small chunks allowed us to ACTUALLY MAKE PROGRESS. Otherwise, we’d never get anything done trying to do the whole thing in large, all-day sprints. This also gave us more time to address those little snags that pop up, and didn’t completely put us out of commission.

I recommend this to anyone taking on a DIY project. Small tasks = big results with minimal headache 🙂

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