An Inexpensive Small Kitchen Renovation

The Challenge?

These clients inherited a small apartment condo unit in the Shoal Creek neighborhood of Austin, TX. It hadn’t been kept up well, and the last resident had been a bit of a hoarder. Their goal was to rehab the 700-ft2, single bath apartment condo with updated materials that would make it practical, stylish, and easy to maintain. But they didn’t want to spend a fortune to renovate such a small space. Here is how we managed to get great results of an inexpensive small kitchen renovation.

The lucky point with this project? Even just cosmetic improvements would go a long way. Cracked tile countertops and flooring from 1979 is not difficult to top. This post describes how we managed to replace the entire kitchen on a reasonable budget.

The Plan

One advantage of small kitchens? Gutting and starting over can actually be less expensive than trying to repurpose existing cabinets and other elements. Going to the studs on such a small galley kitchen was not much added expense, and gave the flexibility to quickly and easily install any cabinetry.

The clients chose neutral white Ikea cabinets with lots of maximized storage and nifty configurations. That combined with a neutral white subway backsplash tile, neutral grey plank floor tile, and modest stainless appliances would be perfect for not (re)dating the kitchen or arguing with the rest of the vintage apartment decor.

So, the order of operations:

  1. Demo the existing flooring and countertops and cabinets and backsplash and drywall
  2. Re-frame the cabinet walls and breakfast bar for Ikea install hardware and stone counter surfaces
  3. Clean up some previously kludged-together plumbing and electrical “fixes”
  4. Replace and refinish the drywall
  5. Install new 6×20-in ceramic tile plank flooring
  6. Install new Ikea cabinetry
  7. Supervise counter setting, then install sink and dishwasher and other appliances
  8. Install new tile backsplash
  9. Finish with final carpentry trim and touch paint

A lot of steps, but small kitchens make for quick stepping.

The Process

Happily, all went to plan. It’s always nice when a plan comes together.

The only minor (but not unforeseen) hitches were a lack of framing in the walls and a noticeably pitched floor. It’s pretty common for non-load wall studs in econo 1970s -era construction to be spaced oddly at 20-22″ or even 24″ intervals, and for walls to be pretty wildly not flush as a result. The subfloor was also clearly sloped almost ~1/4″ per foot out of plumb from the kitchen entrance to the far wall. All these issues are common for second floor small apartments built in the 1960s and 70s.

The lack of wall studs was not a problem for hanging Ikea cabinets. Unlike traditional cabinet construction, Ikea cabinet boxes are designed to hang on a continuous metal rail. This gives a lot more flexibility for stud placement. This hanging rail system, however, does require that the cabinet walls be flush to within 1/8″ for a secure installation with all the cabinets square to each other. Hence the complete to-the-studs demo for shimming the new drywall to flat.

The floor slope also wasn’t a problem. Since Ikea base cabinets hang on the wall, compensating for an out-of-plumb floor isn’t a problem at all so long as it’s at least a consistent slope. This floor did have some waviness in addition to the put-of-plumb slope, but a careful install of the new tile flooring would fix that. So, a slight but even pitch wouldn’t be noticeable after base cabinet install.

The pics show the procedure — first demo, then structural work, then flooring install, then cabinet install. Easy peasy.

The Result?

A stylishly neutral, quietly classy, and nicely functional condo kitchen. The keys to this inexpensive small kitchen renovation were:

  • Going to the studs and subfloor. It’s usually cheapest to simply start over from scratch when renovating a small (50-ft2)kitchen space.
  • Not moving any plumbing! Keeping the water lines, gas line, and drain lines in place will save thousands in potential re-plumbing costs.
  • Using Ikea cabinets. Seriously, it’s impossible to beat Ikea kitchen cabinet value and flexibility if you live in easy driving distance to one of their stores and can put together flat pack RTA cabinets.
  • Using stone contertop remnants. There are a bunch of stone countertop companies in Austin, TX, that have a rotating stock of remnant pieces left over from big mcmansion kitchen jobs. This project needed just four relatively small stone pieces (one 7ft slab, two short pieces, and one skinny 18-in wide piece) that the clients sourced from Toluca Granite for a great remnant deal. Stone countertop shops will sell remnant peices at a big discount (even including custom cutting and install) just to avoid landfill costs.
  • Using inexpensive ceramic tile. All the tile for this project came from Lowes at less than $1-ft2. You can really dress up even cheap tile with expert installation.
  • Replacing light fixtures. You can really class up a small kitchen by simply replacing two overhead light fixtures for $100 or so. A simple dimmable and point-able multipoint halogen light fixture can make a small kitchen both brighter and provide task lighting for happier cooking and entertaining.

These are just a couple tricks for getting the most out of an inexpensive small kitchen renovation project.