Saturday, July 13, 2013

New/High End doesn't necessarily mean better or prettier

Ever decided to redo your kitchen?  Get quotes and they are outrageous? Salesman pushes you to purchase the latest fad such as granite, wood laminate floors, sea glass tiles?

I think everyone has at some point run into the above scenarios.  Here's the thing.....pricey updates aren't necessarily the best use of your time or money.

Let's assume that you live in a 1940's bungalow.  Not a Craftsman or true Tudor style bungalow - just a plain old nondescript squared bungalow.  Room sizes are good (as is the case with most bungalows). Layout works for you.  But it's kinda plain.  No real architectural details that draw your eye to them and then make you sigh with pleasure.  Nothing that really sets your house apart from all the others on your block. What to do?

Scenario number one would have you hire a contractor to knock down walls between the living room, dining room and kitchen.  Then he puts in all new windows and doors.  Next he guts your kitchen and puts in all new cabinets, granite counter tops,  runs laminate floors throughout the entire space and finishes the project off with a nice neutral paint color that runs from living room all the way into the kitchen.  Done.

The finished product looks something like the picture below. (this is an actual picture of a renovated bungalow that is currently for sale).
Nice enough. Good selection of materials.  Lighting's good....but to me it looks like a condo or apartment.  It doesn't look like a 1940's bungalow - at all.  And I hate that.  If I wanted to live in a condo or apartment, I wouldn't have bought a bungalow, now would I?

I think people get confused when they decide to renovate their houses.  I think in their minds to renovate means to rip out anything and everything that is original to the house and fill it with brand new, latest fad products.  Then when it's all over with - they wonder why they feel as if they're living in an apartment.

Nothing annoys me more than to see the outside of an old house, love it, then walk inside to a "new" house.  It's a feeling that I would imagine I'd get from being teleported.  I was in front of an old house but once I entered the door - old house gone!  I'm not saying that if the house doesn't function for you that you can't alter it until it does.  I'm just saying that if you don't like the character of your old house then maybe you need to move rather than destroy it.

I read yesterday that the average homeowner stays in their house between 5 and 7 years.  Homeowners who stay longer than 10 years normally only remodel once during that time.  Remodeling is a big expense and is hard on the nerves.  My advise to all homeowners is take your time and make certain that the end results will accomplish the following 3 goals.  (1) it will increase the value of your property (2) it will enhance the esthetics of your property by staying as true as possible to the character of the house and (3) it is something that you will love for at least 10 years.

If you fall for the salesman's sales pitch and go with the current fads rather than staying true to the character of the house you own, you might be able to sell your house quickly if you put it on the market as soon as the remodel job is done.  However, if you wait a year or more - that fad will have been replaced with another and when folks look at your house they will immediately think it's outdated and will envision thousands of dollars coming out of their pocket for a remodel.  Also, remember that most folks who even agree to view an old house when they're looking to buy are doing so because they love the character and uniqueness of the old houses.  If they wanted a new house feel, they'd probably be looking elsewhere.

Another way that the big box stores dip into your pockets is by selling you custom cabinetry.  Custom is always good but salvaged is even better when you're dealing with an older house.  Why?  Because of the dollar difference, the quality of craftsmanship and the uniqueness of the designs.

You can literally spend tens of thousands of dollars on new custom cabinetry for your kitchen and several thousands more on the counter tops.  The end result will be beautiful no doubt.  But it will scream NEW and it will immediately date the rest of your house.  When people walk in your front door, they will see character and charm of an old house and then they will walk into your kitchen and see new and shiny.  It will be as if they have walked into a different house.  It won't have the flow and consistency that it should have.  If you use salvaged cabinets and a butcher block counter top or even a marble, concrete or Quartz counter top, it will still give the impression of vast improvement, higher functionality but at the same time it will feel as if it belongs in the house.  It won't be in your face new. More subtle and charming.

Now the downside to salvaged cabinetry is as follows.  (1) it takes time and patience to look around until you find exactly what you want - that will fit into your kitchen. It may also take some research in order to find salvage stores.  I'd recommend checking on craigslist and maybe even calling some contractors and asking them where you might find some.  The local newspaper will sometimes also have ads from folks who are remodeling their kitchen and want to sell (and sometimes give away) their old cabinets.  Remember, just because someone else is throwing their cabinets out - it doesn't mean the cabinets aren't perfect for YOUR house.  It probably means the owners got suckered into buying new because they fell for the sales pitch at the big box store. (2) it takes a little time and patience to look around until you find a contractor who is experienced in installing salvaged cabinets as there will undoubtedly be some modifications needed in order to make these cabinets fit into your kitchen.  If the contractor you find is really experienced in doing this type of install, he (or she) may actually know of a source for you to get your cabinetry. (3) You can just about bet that there will be some refinishing necessary in order to get the finished look and uniformity that you want in your kitchen.

The upside?  The price and the finished product.  Once you've finished modifying the cabinets to fit into your space, you've added extra moldings and you've refinished them, they will become truly custom.  No one in the whole world will have cabinets just like yours.  Also, you can save even more money if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and refinish the cabinets yourself.

Refinishing cabinets is not a hard job at all.  It takes some patience, elbow grease and the realization that it's not a one step process. However, there are new products on the market now that will allow you to refinish without all the sanding and stripping needed before.  There are better paint products on the market now that will self level and won't show brush strokes like in the "old days".  For a normal sized bungalow kitchen I would think 2 weekends would be all the time you'd need to completely refinish all the cabinetry needed for your space.  If you doubt the amount of money you'd save doing this, simply go to the big box store and price cabinets, then go to a salvage store and price their cabinetry.  It's usually a huge price difference.

The finished product will be something that blends into your old house yet functions in a vastly more modern way.  It will also be timeless because you didn't fall prey to the newest fads.  In 20 years, your kitchen will still be appealing and functional.

Below are a few examples of what salvaged cabinetry can become with just a bit of elbow grease.

Hutch before:

Hutch after:
Southwall view of kitchen with cabinets partially completed.  I include this picture because I want you to see how these really don't "match".  However, once they are all painted, the hardware is all the same and a little molding is added to tie them all together, you'll never know that these aren't high end custom cabinets.  You just can't get more custom than this.
So what does a well done salvaged bungalow kitchen look like?  Below are some shots of remodels that utilized salvaged cabinets.  They were all updated with a fresh finish, great hardware, molding and accent pieces (such as the chunky legs added in the cottage remodel).  The end results are very functional, stays true to the period of the bungalow and looks uniquely amazing.  There aren't two of these kitchens anywhere in the world.  If you replicate this effect, when you put your house on the market it will stand out from all the others in the similar price point and area because you can pretty safely bet that the other folks will have fallen for the big box sales pitch and their kitchens will be filled with the latest trends.

Look at this cottage remodel.  Love it!  Lots of storage, soft color palette.  While they added modern conveniences such as pot lights, stone counter tops and floors, they stayed in line with the style and age of their house by using the farm house sink, color palette and added chunky furniture legs to the cabinets effectively mimicking the look and feel of furniture.  Remember, back in the day, kitchens didn't come with tons of cabinets.  Usually they came with a shelf below the sink and maybe 2 upper cabinets.  Folks brought in actual furniture pieces to add storage and prep space to their kitchens.  What my grandma used to call "pie cabinets", "dry goods cabinets" and oftentimes even dressers served as prep space and storage for the kitchen.
I'm not big on all white rooms be it the kitchen, bath or any other room.  Too institutional for my tastes. However, this kitchen is pretty awesome.  Farmhouse sink, marble tops, glassed cabinets, subway tiles that go all the way up the wall and meet the ceiling.  The lighting choices are great too.  Not a lot to complain about with this kitchen.

Below is a Craftsman Kitchen using salvaged cabinets.  Lots of wood in this room. Personally I would have preferred that they not use wood on the floors as it really is a bit of wood overkill to me.  Had they gone with a cork or stone floor, this kitchen would be incredible.  It would have toned down the wood and made the cabinetry pop (as it should).  As it is, it's highly functional, extremely attractive and again, stays true to the house.

Like I said earlier, it's not hard to refinish cabinetry.  It doesn't take a lot of skill - just a lot of elbow grease and patience.  A few tips on this process in case you think you want to try it.

1.  Always remove the doors and drawers.  Take them outside under a carport or porch if at all possible.  The reasoning for this is too much sunlight will speed up the drying process which will make it extremely difficult to work with the paint or varnish.  By speeding up the drying process it will also prevent you from going back over your work and smoothing out any visible brush strokes.  This means you'll have to wait until the paint or varnish has completely dried.  Then  you'll have to perform the extra step of sanding the brush strokes out and redoing the piece.  Another reason for taking them outside is that there will be lots of dust.  If you sand your cabinets inside with either the heating or air system on - the dust can and will get sucked into your unit and can (I've had it happen) clog it up to the point that it will no longer work.  AC repairman bill in the making.  Sanding them inside will also make for a nightmare of a clean up because that dust will blow everywhere. The final reason for taking them down is the simple fact that it is much easier on the body and finished product if you refinish the doors/drawers when they are flat.  The paint or varnish won't drip or run and you won't have to stand on a ladder for the entire day.  Ugh.

2. LABEL THE DOORS AND DRAWERS!  If you don't, when it comes time to put them back up - good luck remembering what door/drawer goes where.  Sometimes it appears they are pretty much all the same size - but they're not.  I like to draw a diagram of my cabinetry and beginning at the left, I number each door and drawer with a pencil on the lower right hand side of the piece.  Then I replace the door or drawer before I do the inside.  Otherwise you're going to paint right over your number.

3. Always refinish the inside as well as the exterior.  Nothing spells out a DIY job like opening a beautifully refinished cabinet door or drawer to see an old and unfinished interior.  My favorite thing to do is to paint the interior an unexpected color that is different than the exterior color of the cabinetry.   Another idea is to wallpaper the interior completely.  Using a geometric pattern on the interiors of the cabinets and drawers adds a fun surprise for those who open them up.

4. Don't forget your hinges.  Too many people paint over the hinges which is another scream for DIY.  While you're removing the doors, simply remove the hinges too.  Drop them into a bucket of stripper and let them soak while you redo the doors and drawers.  Once the years of grease, grime, paint and varnish has fallen away, simply take them out (being careful to wear good quality rubber gloves), rinse them off thoroughly and then using a steel wool pad, give them a really good going over to get any remaining gunk off them.  Of course, if they aren't going to match or even blend in well with your choice for new pulls for your cabinets - just drop them into an old coffee can and put them on a shelf for the future.  Then just replace them with new ones that will match or blend in with your new pulls.

5. While you have the doors off the cabinet boxes, take your upper doors (or just a couple of them) to a glass shop and have the wood inside the frame replaced with glass for the upper cabinets.  Nothing opens up a kitchen like glass.  If you're worried about not having nice enough dishes to show off, then go with a frosted glass or buy an etching kit and stencil at your local crafts store and make your own design.  You'd be surprised how cheaply you can replace the wooden inserts with glass.  If you ask nicely and the guy at the glass shop isn't really busy, they'll even put the glass into your doors for you.

6.  Do not (I repeat) do not scrimp on your prep work.  I hate prep work as much if not more than any other human on this planet.  However, I have cut some corners and shaved off a few steps in the past and had to start all over because the finished product look like hell.  So tape off anything you don't want to get paint on.  Use a drop cloth liberally to prevent a clean up nightmare in your future.  Tape newspaper over your windows and over your backsplash and/or counter tops if they've already been installed.  It takes about 10 minutes to rip all this out and toss it in the trash but it can literally take a day or longer to clean up spills or splashes if you don't do this.  While you're covering areas you don't want painted - don't forget your floor!  I wish I had a dollar for everytime I neglected to cover the floor and then inadvertently got paint on the bottom of my shoe and then proceeded to track it all over the floor.

7. My last tip on this subject?  Don't scrimp on quality materials! As the old saying goes "you get what you pay for".  I redid a house a few years back when I was just getting started in my design business and was green behind the ears.  Also, I was still struggling in my business and had no budget to hire professional painters.  It was a rental house and the landlord (my client) had evicted the tenants.  My job was to go in there and get that house ready to rent for a premium rental price.  Other than the pure filth, the tenants had also chosen to paint the large entry room a Pepto Bismal pink and the den a deep hunter green.  So off to the big box store I go.  I opted to get the cheapest primer I could find.  It took 4 gallons of the cheap stuff just to get the entryway to the point that no pink was showing through.  Sigh.  So when I moved onto the much large hunter green den, I chose to use a more premium primer.  The den was about 10 times the size of the entryway.  It only took 3 gallons of the "good stuff" and I was ready for the actual paint.

Another reason to use the "good stuff".  When you are painting or staining one thing of great importance is the durability not only of the actual paint job but of the color or shade of varnish.  The cheap stuff will look really nice when you finish it but the color/shade fades rather quickly and when bumped or rubbed - it will come off or cause those awful black streaks.  The good stuff tends to maintain its color/shade for a long time and is far more durable and resistant to bumps, scratches, stains and cleaning.  So while you could conceivably paint an entire room with the cheap stuff for under $30, you would probably have to do it again inside of a year.  With the good stuff, you could paint an entire room for around $60 but it's going to last you 3 years or longer.

I think you can tell from this post that I am all about saving some cash while creating a unique and stylish kitchen that will still be unique and stylish for years and years to come.  I think you have also noticed from this post that I like to maintain as much of the original charm and character of old houses as humanly possible.  I hope you've been given some good points, ideas and tips so you too can create the kitchen of your dreams!!

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