Kitchen Remodeling: Where to Splurge, Where to Save

Get tips on where to spend money in your kitchen remodel and where to cut back
Custom Built Traditional Mediterranean Kitchen

Custom Built Traditional Mediterranean Kitchen

Designer, Alicia Friedmann, created a traditional Mediterranean inspired kitchen from scratch. Beautifully appointed custom cabinets are paired with professional grade appliances. A large working island provides space for prep and storage.

Photo by: Designer, Alicia Friedmann

Designer, Alicia Friedmann

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Ultimately, your kitchen will reflect how you live. Because there are no hard-fast rules on where the budget must be spent in the kitchen, how you splurge and save your money will depend on what’s most important to you.

The gourmet cook can justify an inflated budget for appliances and the splurge on a professional range. The entertainer sees a warming drawer and wine cooler as necessities. The busy family needs storage, storage ... and more storage in those cabinets. And then there’s the question of resale: How important is it for you to get a nice return-on-investment for your project? Or, are you designing a kitchen for the home you plan to live in forever?

“Think about how you use the kitchen, and put your money there,” says Ellen Rady, Ellen Rady Designs, Cleveland, Ohio.

If you’re planning a kitchen you’ll live in for the next decade and you can’t afford certain materials you want today, consider placeholders. For example, rather than installing a granite countertop today, choose a laminate look-alike for at least half the cost that can stand in as your work surface until your budget allows for the upgrade.

What do you value in the kitchen? Refer to your completed Day in the Life of Your Kitchen Questionnaire and Kitchen Goals Worksheet. Then get a sense of how expenses are distributed with the Kitchen Budget Worksheet.

Where to Save, Where to Splurge

Here is some general advice on where to save and splurge:

Appliances. Be practical and look for energy-efficient appliances with warranties—arguably, you’ll use appliances more than other features in your kitchen. But be sure to maintain a balance between what you spend on appliances and cabinets. If you choose appliances first without considering cabinets/hardware, countertops or other features, you can box yourself into a floor plan and end up without enough money to spend on other features.

But be careful which appliances you spend on. For example, a refrigerator may need replaced in 15 years or sooner, but a cooktop will last longer. Spend there. If you have children and dirty dishes are a way of life, invest in a quality dishwasher or dishwasher drawers that make your life easier.

Across the board, stainless steel is the most popular choice and what buyers look for in a home.

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Appliances

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Cheap: Basic Appliances

If you're on a tight budget, you can save money by purchasing basic black or white appliances without a lot of frills. Unless you're a serious cook, these appliances should provide all the functions you need.

Photo By: Wendell Franks

Cheap: Stainless Steel Film

If your current appliances are in good shape but could use an aesthetic update, try refacing them with peel-and-stick stainless steel film. This DIY option will give your kitchen a new look at a fraction of the cost of new appliances.

Mid-Range: Stainless Steel Appliances

Upgrading to basic stainless steel appliances will add value to your home and create a high-end look.

Mid-Range: Cooktop With Double Oven

If you cook a lot and want to go a step beyond basic stainless steel appliances, try pairing a cooktop with two ovens for extra meal preparation space.

Steep: Professional-Grade Range

For serious cooks, chef-grade ranges are worth the extra cost. Gas ranges are the most popular choice for gourmet cooks, but induction cooktops are growing in popularity. Professional ranges are sometimes equipped with extra features like griddle burners and pot fillers.

Photo By: Designer, Beth Haley Design

Steep: Integrated Appliances

Homeowners with larger budgets can opt for high-end appliances that blend seamlessly with their cabinetry. Image courtesy of Liebherr

Countertops. If the countertop will be the focal point of your kitchen, you might spend more. “A stone countertop costs many times more than a laminate one, but will add beauty and value to your renovation,” Bauer-Kravette says.

In fact, a showpiece countertop could dictate the design in a kitchen—you may base decisions about cabinetry, color scheme and furniture like stools on the surface you choose. But remember, beauty is subjective. A buyer might not be that impressed.

There are shortcuts if you want the beautiful surface on a budget. For instance, there are assorted grades of granite (rated 1-5 or on various scales depending on the manufacturer). Rather than going for a grade 5, consider a grade 2, where you’ll get a better return-on-investment.

Also, some laminate products cost half the price of granite and mimic the design. You can’t put a hot pan on that surface, but you’ll get the appeal you want. You can even install an undermount sink with laminate countertops today.

If you want to splurge a little, choose a statement surface for the island—a remnant piece of granite with a beautiful pattern, for example.

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Countertops

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Cheap: Laminate Countertops

Laminate countertops are an inexpensive, low-maintenance alternative to pricey stone and solid-surface countertops, and they are available in many styles that mimic expensive surfaces such as granite or marble. Laminate countertops are not resistant to heat and can scratch. Image courtesy of Formica Corp.

Photo By: Scott Dorrance

Cheap: Tile Countertops

Save money without sacrificing style with tile countertops. Available in many styles, patterns and colors, tile is a low-cost alternative to expensive countertop surfaces such as natural stone. Design by Greta Goss

Photo By: Designer, Greta Goss

Mid-Range: Engineered Stone Countertops

Resilient and aesthetically pleasing, quartz composite countertops offer the natural look of stone with enhanced durability. Unlike natural stone, engineered stone products often come with a warranty. Photo courtesy of Silestone by Cosentino North America

Photo By: Cosentino

Mid-Range: Solid-Surface Countertops

Solid-surface countertops are available in many styles and colors to complement any kitchen design. While solid-surface countertops are not resistant to heat and can scratch, these imperfections can be sanded out. Image courtesy of LG Hausys Co.

Photo By: LG

Steep: Granite Countertops

For homeowners willing to spend extra money, granite offers elegance and durability, and it's currently one of the most-popular options in kitchen countertops. Design by Trish Beaudet

From: Trish Beaudet

Photo By: Designer, Trish Beaudet

Steep: Marble Countertops

One of the priciest options in kitchen countertops, luxurious marble provides an elegant workspace for preparing meals. Marble countertops can stain and scratch if not sealed properly. Design by Tina Muller

Photo By: Designer, Tina Muller

Cabinetry. Some costs that can hike up cabinet prices: delivery, tax and installation. Drawers, roll-out trays, extra shelves and extending cabinets to the ceiling also add to the price tag. So will fitting out that corner cabinet. A Lazy Susan can add $1,500 to your budget.

A few musts: Definitely invest in a waste-recycling center, and be sure to choose cabinets with soft close drawers and doors, which has evolved from luxury to a “must” for convenience and resale. “The place to splurge is on functionality,” says John O’Meara of Hafele. Drawers in base cabinets are more ergonomic and provide better storage access; paying more to build wall cabinets up to the ceiling will give you much more storage.

Save on the actual cabinet material, Steinkoler suggests. “To the naked eye, you can have a veneer cabinet next to one that is solid wood and most people cannot tell the difference,” he says. Today’s finishes can offer rich looks without the big price tag.

On the other hand, Burgin says that cabinet sides and shelving should be constructed from plywood, not particle board. “Plywood is a good move for resale and keeping the cabinets strong,” he says.

Still, a quality pressed wood can last you 20 years. Just hone in on the cabinet construction, Rady advises. “Look for good, clean classic lines and full door overlay,” she says, noting that many of today’s mid-range priced cabinets offer a rich look without the custom price tag.

Don’t save on installation: let the pros take care of that. “To install a kitchen is much more than hanging boxes,” Rady says.

And don’t spend your budget on fancy drawer inserts that you can buy at a home store, Bauer-Kravette says. However, do spend on one good pantry with pull-out drawers and deep base cabinet drawers. “Extra drawers are so much better than door cabinets,” she says. “You won’t have to bend as much and they’ll be comfortable to use for years if you plan on staying in your home.”

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Cabinetry

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Cheap: Refreshed Painted Cabinetry

If your current cabinets are in good shape but could use an aesthetic update, try brushing on a coat of paint to revive your cabinetry and give it a fresh new look. Design by Judith Balis

Photo By: Designer, Judith Balis

Cheap: Simple Stained Cabinets

While cabinetry with ornate embellishments and fancy storage features can be costly, basic flat-front cabinets will give your kitchen a clean and simple look at a reasonable price. Design by Jennifer Nilsen

Mid-Range: Shaker-Style Cabinets

Upgrade from plain, flat-front cabinetry to Shaker-style cabinets, which will give your kitchen a clean, classic look without breaking the bank. According to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, Shaker is one of the most popular styles in cabinetry in 2011, second only to traditional. Image courtesy of Atlantis Kitchens

Mid-Range: Special Storage Features

While specialty storage options were once only offered by custom cabinetmakers, these features are now available in mid-priced fixtures as well. Pullout spice racks, utensil drawers and built-in cutting boards are all available at a reasonable cost. Image courtesy of Merillat

Steep: Custom Cabinetry

Homeowners willing to spend significantly more on their kitchen’s cabinetry may opt for custom cabinets, which are built to exact specifications and can come in a wide range of materials, designs, finishes and accessories. Image courtesy of Plain & Fancy

Steep: Sleek Modern Cabinets

An option for larger budgets, sleek cabinetry with a high-gloss finish provides the perfect backdrop for modern or contemporary kitchens.

Hardware. Knobs, pulls and handles can refresh the look of an entire kitchen—talk about a budget remodel. You can practically spend as much as you want on cabinet “jewelry,” from $1.25 a pull at a home store to $100 or more from a custom designer.

Overall, changing hardware provides a fast, affordable cabinet refresh. If you want to save money, choose the same type of pull you already have—switch knobs with knobs, and pulls with pulls. “Anytime you make a hole in wood, it does not grow back,” Bauer-Kravette says.

As for finish, you can update the look of your kitchen on the cheap by trading brushed stainless steel hardware for more on-trend oil-rubbed bronze, pewter and other time-worn, aged-looking metals. Don’t worry if your faucet is chrome and your drawer pulls are bronze. “You don’t have to match all of your metals,” Rady says. “Some variety makes the kitchen more interesting.”

Tile. While ceramic tile is great for backsplashes, go with porcelain on floors. Porcelain tile resists chipping and cracking, and is a favorite for budget and longevity. “It can be a terrific low-cost alternative to natural stone,” Bauer-Kravette says.

Keep in mind the size and pattern of tiles when figuring the budget. Consider large tiles for flooring, which give the kitchen an updated look and require fewer grout lines and cuts during installation.

Save money by purchasing a porcelain tile that looks like natural stone. Splurge on deco pieces such as glass-tile mosaics for a backsplash. Just space them out in the design—otherwise you’ll push up the price of installation (think of it like a puzzle ... more pieces, more work).

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Backsplashes

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Cheap: Painted Backsplash

To achieve a bold look without breaking the bank, paint your kitchen's backsplash a bright color that enhances the room's style. Design by Judith Balis

Photo By: Designer, Judith Balis

Cheap: Wallpaper Backsplash

An inexpensive alternative to tile or stone, wallpaper is an attractive kitchen backsplash option that is available in many styles and colors.

Mid-Range: Glass Tile Backsplash

If you don't have the cash to fill your entire backsplash with glass tile, try installing a simple row of tile for a touch of color at a fraction of the cost. Design by Amy Bubier

Photo By: Designer, Amy Bubier

Mid-Range: Ceramic Tile Backsplash

Ceramic tile is an inexpensive backsplash option that's low-maintenance and available in a wide range of colors and patterns. Design by Jessica Williamson

Photo By: Designer, Jessica Williamson

Steep: Glass Tile Backsplash

An option for larger budgets, glass tile backsplashes offer distinct dramatic flair and an easy-to-clean surface. Design by Dave Stimmel

Photo By: Designer, Dave Stimmel

Steep: Stone Tile Backsplash

For an upscale look, opt for a backsplash made from natural stone, such as marble, granite or travertine. Incorporating glass or metal into the design is sure to create a stunning focal point. Design by Helen Richardson

Photo By: Designer, Helen Richardson

Choose timeless styles. For instance, a sleek, white subway tile will grow old with a kitchen and never expire. Same goes for natural stones and neutral-colored tile.

Before you dig into your project, know your priorities so you can focus on spending where it’s most important. Here are some other pointers provided by the National Kitchen & Bath Association to help homeowners save on kitchen projects:

  • Avoid structural changes, such as plumbing, mechanical systems and walls.
  • Once you order products and installation begins, do not change your mind.
  • Be specific when comparison shopping and be sure to compare exact products because prices can vary depending on model and even the finish.
  • Visit showrooms in person and see the products—don’t rely only on the Internet to make purchase decisions.

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Flooring

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Cheap: Linoleum Flooring

Durable and low maintenance, linoleum is an inexpensive flooring option that is available in many styles and colors to complement any kitchen's design. Image courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Photo By: NKBA

Cheap: Laminate Floors

Laminate flooring is a low-cost option that is available in styles that mimic hardwood, stone and tile surfaces. Image courtesy of Armstrong World Industries

Photo By: Armstrong

Mid-Range: Porcelain Tile Flooring

Homeowners who are willing to spend slightly more money on their kitchen flooring may opt for porcelain tile flooring, which is a resilient, low-maintenance floor surface that offers a high-end look. Photo courtesy of Mannington Mills, Inc.

Mid-Range: Hardwood Flooring

A timeless option, hardwood floors provide a durable surface that can withstand heavy kitchen traffic. Hardwood floors are soft on the foot, making them nice for chefs who spend a lot of time on their feet. Design by Roger Zierman

Steep: Hardwood Flooring With Stone Inlay

A current trend in kitchen flooring, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, hardwood flooring with stone inlay provides the resilience of natural stone flooring with the durability and warmth of hardwood floors. Design by Suzanne Furst

Photo By: Designer, Suzanne Furst

Steep: End-Grain Wood Tile Flooring

Made up of wood blocks cut across the grain, end-grain wood floors are extremely durable and offer a warm unique look. Design by Velvet Hammerschmidt

Photo By: Designer, Velvet Hammerschmidt

Cheap Versus Steep: Kitchen Lighting

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Cheap: Pendant Fixtures

Inexpensive pendant light fixtures can enhance visibility in kitchen zones where prepping, cooking and cleanup take place. Design by Beth Haley

Photo By: Designer, Beth Haley Design

Cheap: Ceiling-Mounted Light Fixture

If your kitchen is small, a single ceiling-mounted fixture can provide sufficient light without blowing your budget. Design by Celia Berliner

Mid-Range: Under-Cabinet Lighting

Light fixtures installed underneath cabinets can accentuate beautiful countertops and provide increased visibility for prepping food. Design by Shane Inman

Photo By: Designer, Shane Inman

Mid-Range: Lighted Cabinetry

Lighted display cabinets can be used to highlight beautiful dishes and kitchen accessories. Image courtesy of Merillat

Photo By: Merillat

Steep: Multiple Features

Homeowners with larger budgets can incorporate multiple types of lighting elements. This well-lit kitchen features pendants, recessed lighting, lighted display cabinets and wall sconces. Design by Tina Muller

Photo By: Designer, Tina Muller

Steep: Layers of Light

Under-cabinet fixtures, recessed lights, lighted display cabinets and chandeliers enhance this gourmet kitchen's luxurious design. Design by Ken Kelly

Photo By: Designer, Ken Kelly

Next Up

Remodeling a Kitchen for Resale

A kitchen can make or break the sale of a house. Get six tips on turning your kitchen into buyer bait.

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