How to Save on a Kitchen Reno

Six Tips and One Bottom Line: DON’T SKIMP ON EASY UPGRADES!

A kitchen is the most expensive room in a house to renovate. In addition to all the trades (carpentry, electrical, plumbing, tile, paint, etc), large appliances (fridge, stove, dishwasher, etc), and costly fixtures (sinks, faucets, lighting, etc), you’ll also need to deal with cabinets and countertops (which can cost $10k alone for a 10’x10′ space). Doing more than simply replacing a backsplash or refinishing some cabinets can get extremely expensive very quickly.

Here are six basic tips and some additional ideas for keeping costs down and getting the most payback for your renovation investment.

TIP #1: Do Some (or all) Demo Yourself!

If your kitchen reno plan involves demolishing the existing cabinets, countertops, and walls to the studs then this will be a lot of work. A full kitchen demo will create literally several tons of debris. But, if you’re okay with coordinating a compact dumpster delivery to your driveway and have a couple fit friends who don’t mind swinging hammers, then taking a kitchen apart yourself can save a grand or so compared to having a contractor do this first step.

Seriously, demo work is a hard workout but isn’t complicated. Just get a good pair of work gloves (DO NOT skimp on the gloves!), a full-size crowbar and a medium-size hand sledge (slinging around a full-size 12-lb sledgehammer is often a recipe for unwanted accidental destruction), and some safety glasses (or just a cheap pair of reading glasses if you’re nearsighted like me — they work fine and conveniently are also sold at Home Depot).

Bottom line: if your budget is tight, then doing the demo yourself (at least the major bulk of it) can save enough money to cover the cost of your new kitchen sink, dishwasher, and maybe even a new gourmet-quality stove.

TIP #2: DON’T Move the Plumbing

Dreaming of a Martha Stewart -worthy new kitchen island complete with auxiliary under-mount sink? Is your house built on a concrete slab foundation? Is there already a floor drain and hot/cold water supply lines sticking up from the slab in the middle of your kitchen?

If the answers to those questions are “yes, yes, and yes”, then you’ve got the start for a low-cost fully-plumbed kitchen island. BUT, if the answers are “yes, yes, but no”, then you’ve just added several thousand dollars (minimum) and a few days of jackhammering a trench through concrete to your kitchen reno project.

Moving plumbing is expensive. Kitchen drain and water supply lines are almost always located in exterior walls. Moving them therefore requires cutting through stud bays in load-bearing walls. Since a standard single-sink 1-1/2in PVC drain line has a nearly 2-in outside diameter, moving a drain run even a few feet can require some quite creative framing carpentry before you even get to the actual re-plumbing work.

And sometimes it’s even more complicated than that. For example, moving the plumbing just a little bit and adding just two additional electrical circuits to this kitchen required building a whole 10-ft wide interior floating wall, since the exterior wall was 10-in thick solid brick:

And even if the wall framing isn’t an issue, moving drain and supply lines more than a foot or so almost always requires ripping a wall to the studs. Which means ripping out and replacing the drywall, cabinets, etc. Which is, in turn, relatively trivial compared to laying new drain and supply lines underneath an existing foundation or subfloor.

The bottom line? Changing out sinks and fixtures is generally pretty easy. Moving sink and fixture locations is often not easy at all.

TIP #3: Rehab the Existing Cabinets

Cabinetry is usually the single most expensive thing to completely replace in a kitchen renovation. Even a relatively small 10-ft deep galley-style kitchen can easily pack in $8,000 or more of new custom finished cabinetry. There are, however, alternatives to nuking everything and starting over.

First, think about simply refinishing the existing cabinets. Even 80s -style pressboard veneer seemingly junk cabinets can be transformed into brand new-looking fantastic cabinetry with skilled repainting and new cabinet doors and hardware.

Here is an example of a low-cost cabinet rehab transformation:

Even paying a pro painter and carpenter several grand to rehab old cabinets can be a real savings compared to paying $8k or more for all new cabinets with added labor cost for install.

If you’ve already got cabinets that are structurally sound, then rehabbing them with a new hard-oil paint finish and new hardware/doors will be far less expensive than landfilling and starting with all new.

TIP #4: Buy Ikea Cabinets

If you live in or near to Austin then good luck finding better kitchen cabinets for the money than Ikea in Round Rock. Back when teaching at Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX, in the ‘aughts I was acquaintances with a very cool architecture academic who decided to make his own custom house build into a professional exercise — would it be possible to build an energy efficient and stylish modern home in an established neighborhood for only $50/ft2?

The answer was … yes!

And what cabinets did he choose? Yep, Ikea from Round Rock. Even with the added 370mi of shipping all the way to the Texas panhandle, no other cabinet option was more cost effective for keeping costs low on a modernist home build.

And here’s the kicker — Upe wasn’t even able to take advantage of Ikea kitchen sale price hacks. If you have even just a couple months of flexibility for your flatpack Ikea cabinet delivery (and you should really take advantage of local delivery), then read this easy guide to save 15-20% on everything:

TIP #5: Do You Really Need Overhead Cabinets?

Again, cabinets are expensive. So, if your existing overhead cabinets are not worth refinishing, then replacing then with open shelving can be a real cost savings.

Ripping out overhead cabinetry will almost always leave some wall damage. If you’re replacing the cabinets, then this usually isn’t a problem since the new cabinetry will simply cover up any unfinished drywall repairs. But, if you opt instead for an open shelving kitchen, then the first step will be to decide what to do for wall finish.

One option for overhead open shelving is to simply cut out, patch, re-plaster and -re-finish the wall drywall finish. Although this requires a lot of discrete steps, it’s usually the least expensive option if you’re already paying a pro painter to refinish the base cabinets or do other painting in your kitchen reno. Most pro painters are also pro (or at least semi-pro) drywall finish experts.

Another option is to integrate open shelving with a few cabinets. This can result in a really unified-looking design that also saves you some cash:

In general, at least some open overhead shelving in a kitchen can both really brighten up the space and make a nice design impression.

TIP #6: Get Creative with Countertops

Granite, quartz, or engineered concrete — all these are super-kool kitchen countertop options worthy of a midcentury-modern supervillain kitchen lair.

But, so are Corian engineered plastic or Formica. Or, a Lloyd Wright -approved butcher block option:


Point is, natural or engineered stone custom countertops are usually expensive, both for the material and for the install. Unless you’re content with the most mass-market Home Depot options, expect to pay at least $50/ft2 for custom stone countertops.

This is where getting creative can save literally thousands of dollars on your full-kitchen reno.

First, there’s the option of DIY install for these materials. Corian or Formica or wood countertop slabs are still pretty cumbersome, but at least lighter and easier to handle than stone slabs. For example, even a 150lb skinny guy like myself can still heft an 8-ft solid butcher block countertop up a flight of stairs solo. And, even Corian slabs can be installed with everyday woodworking tools (circular saw, wood drill bits, orbital sander, etc) and can therefore be DIY installed.

Second, there’s lots of potential discount opportunities. For example, Floor&Decor sells 8-ft solid oak butcher block slabs for $170 apiece. That’s an insanely cheap $12-ft2 price point for a countertop material that only requires finish sanding and a coat of mineral oil for a lifetime of cooking durability.

For Formica countertops, Ikea is also a very inexpensive go-to option if you’re fine with relatively neutral color and design options. And although Corian can be almost as expensive as natural or engineered stone for custom finishes, you can score great deals on closeouts and remnant slabs if you’re flexible on finish styles and colors.

Point is, all new countertops are usually the second-most expensive single item for a full kitchen renovation. Wood or Formica or Corian countertops are generally less expensive to manufacture, transport, and install than stone slabs. So, opting for those materials can save big money on your reno budget.

TIP #7: Don’t Skimp on the Easy Electrical Add-Ons!

If you’ve already got walls stripped to the studs and bare exposed circuit wiring staring you in the face, why not upgrade it? The by-far major cost of adding new outlets or lighting or even whole new circuit runs is the cost of ether fishing wire through walls blind or ripping walls out to expose the wire.

So, if you’re already ripping walls out for new cabinets and a backsplash, add new electrical features for just a few dollars more!

Counter outlets are the easiest and least costly things to add, and they add an enormous payoff for convenience and versatility.

Technically, the national US electrical code only requires one outlet per every 48-in of countertop. But think about it. Do you really want to be constrained by having only two outlets for every eight feet of countertop space? Do future generations a favor — provide at least a single outlet for every two feet of countertop.

Also, if you want your new kitchen to be code compliant, then a full kitchen reno is your best and least costly opportunity to make sure the kitchen outlets are serviced by TWO separate 20-amp circuits. One way to technically satisfy this requirement is to put the refrigerator power outlet on one circuit and all the counter outlets on another. But, the really proper way is to make two separate wire runs through every kitchen outlet (the first run supplies power to the top plug-in for each outlet, and the second run supplies power to the bottom plug of each outlet).

That way, if a microwave and toaster oven are plugged into the same outlet, they’ll still draw power from two different circuits.

Additional (or just better) lighting is also pretty easy to add when your kitchen is all torn up anyway. New oversink pendant lighting, or hardwired undercabinet lighting, or even new ceiling can lighting — it’ll never easier to run wires and install wall switches for all these things.

Miscellaneous local electrical code items are also easiest to address during a reno. For example, the local electrical code addendums in Austin, TX, requires that dishwashers be plugged into an outlet controlled by a countertop switch. This is (in lots of people’s opinions) a really nit-picky requirement. But, if your kitchen walls are open anyway, then why not take the opportunity to not be dinged on a home inspection later.

TIP #8: Why NOT New Flooring?

If you’re opting for all-new base cabinets for your kitchen remodel, then the answer to this question is pretty simple — only keep your existing kitchen flooring if it’s in great shape and matches your design and other needs. Otherwise, install new flooring!

Whether vinyl plank or tile, one of the major labor expenses for flooring installs is the need to cut around existing baseboards and kitchen base cabinets. If the walls (or at least all the baseboards) and the cabinets are already ripped out, then the labor cost for a new flooring install will be ~30% less right off the top. Installers won’t have to waste time making finicky cuts around cabinets or removing and replacing baseboard trim.

Gutted kitchens are the most straightforward (and therefore labor cheapest) tabula rasa for new flooring installs:

Even if you’re keeping the existing kitchen cabinets, you can often score a cheaper overall labor install rate by having the tile backsplash installer also install new flooring. Since they’ll already be at your house working on one job, adding a second will get you a lower overall cost.

The Bottom Line

A full or even partial kitchen renovation project will be a messy, dusty, annoying headache. So, look at the situation as a benefit. Do every upgrade you possibly can all at once. You’ll never have a lower cost or more convenient opportunity to add your wish list item than when everything else in the kitchen is ripped back to the studs anyway!