Please help us renovate our tiny kitchen
March 10, 2021 3:34 PM   Subscribe

You all have watched the design & renovation TV shows, so hopefully I won't have to... We have recently acquired a modest condo, in a large, expensive West Coast US city, with a small galley kitchen that looks mostly original from 1982. It needs a lot of help.

The dishwasher and stove/oven are fine, and the white 12" porcelain floor tiles are grubby but probably fine? Overall, it's about 12 feet long by 8 feet wide.

We need new cabinets, new sink & faucet, new lighting, and I'd love to knock down a wall to open it up to the rest of the apartment. The wall I'd like to knock down has the stove on it, so ideally that will become an island. I've gotten one quote so far, from a general contractor who would do it all for a price in the high $20k to low $30k range. Another quoted a little lower for a little less work. He seemed less confident and less knowledgeable.

I've been involved in two prior home renovations ranging from mostly DIY/paying friends to being my own GC and hiring tradespeople. I would rather not do it all myself this time, but I'm balking at the prices.

Here are my questions:

1. Should I get more GC quotes? Is there a great way to find affordable but competent GCs?

2. Would a middle option be to go through IKEA, Lowes, or Home Depot and hire their installers? Have you done this successfully? If so, can you provide any advice on making the process go smoothly? Would I need to find another contractor to do the demo work?

3. Do you have advice about negotiating with a condo HOA about renovations? We've seen pics from a bunch of other kitchens in this complex that look to have had a wall removed, but we got some initial reaction from the assistant manager of the management company that made it sound like knocking down a wall would be out of the question. The ass't manager said, "If they took down a wall, they didn't tell us about it." We'll survive if we really can't take down the wall, but it would be nice.

4. Do you have advice about color? We're thinking very modern. Gloss finish flat-panel cabinets - white on top and gray for the bottom cabinets. Would a sea-green gray be a good wall color? We plan to go with stainless fridge and sink, dark gray/charcoal quartz counters, and brushed nickel faucet and cabinet hardware. Thoughts? Which of the cabinet choices (pull-out trash? microwave shelf?) do you love most in your renovated kitchen?

5. Is under-cabinet low-voltage lighting worth the cost? What about both recessed LEDs and an LED pendant? Other lighting tips?

We have about 2 months to get the kitchen and a few other things (painting, refinishing floors) done while we are finishing out our lease. Any other advice about this renovation would be hugely appreciated!
posted by sockpuppetryarts to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Ikea is awesome. Use Ikea to get the base cabinets (you’ll have issues getting access to cabs because of COVID it will be a minor PITA but is do-able) and then get the doors from a place like semihandmade. Send me a message and I’d be happy to send you before and after from our renovation turning a tiny 1970s galley kitchen into a super modern awesome Ikea kitchen. Our remodel is 4 years old and looks fabulous.

Highly recommend having someone install your Ikea cabs for you.

If your west coast city is L.A. feel free to message me, I have recommendations on an installer who is really great.

I would get a contractor specifically to open up the wall - that’s it.

Answers to specific questions: 1. Yes, and Angie’s list.
2. Yes, you design the kitchen using the Ikea design tool and then you can have someone install it. I’d suggest a third party (see my previous recommendation). I have installed Ikea cabs myself, that is also do-able if you have a high tolerance for frustration.
3. No idea!
4. I like what you’re describing! Quartz from Ikea is beautiful and very cost effective.
5. No idea.
posted by arnicae at 3:50 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just had our kitchen redone 1.5 years ago, and have a bit of advice to share. Keep the kitchen colors pretty neutral (and this is from someone who paints walls in very dark colors) because a kitchen is a very busy place and the last thing you need is more busy-ness in the color scheme. Your tentative color choices sound good, except for the dark countertops. How ever will you find spills and crumbs on a dark gray counter?

Getting the microwave off the counter is a very good idea. They need their own cubby location and, fergawdsakes, don't mount it over your cooktop especially if you cook with gas. (Our GC tried to talk us into putting the microwave over our gas cooktop and I asked how long he thought it would be before I set my clothes on fire reaching into the microwave.)

Lighting under the wall cabinets is totally worth it: it's wonderful to be able to see what I'm doing when I'm cooking. Good lighting in the ceiling is also worth it.

Oh, and give serious thought to drawers in your base cabinets. It's so much easier to pull out a drawer to access cookware than to go rooting around in a low cabinet.

For the faucet, you'll probably want a hansgrohe. (Grohe, which is a different brand, used to be much better than it is now.) And I strongly recommend quartz for your countertops. They don't need any maintenance and are really just a joy to use.
posted by DrGail at 4:15 PM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

We love our under-cabinet lighting (on dimmer switch) and like it so much we seldom use the overhead lights. Put all lights on dimmers for when you want a softer mood. Have someone check the wall to see if it’s load-bearing as that will make a big difference in the price. Good luck!
posted by serendipityrules at 4:17 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add pull-out cabinet shelves if the price is right. No more getting on hands and knees to reach the back of lower cabinets. Seconding Dr. Gail for pot drawers.
posted by serendipityrules at 4:20 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I put quite a few drawers in my base cabinets, and I wish I'd ONLY put drawers in. They're so much handier. I think your colour scheme sounds nice, but may read a little cold. What would you think about keeping the brushed (or satin?) nickel faucet and brushed brass cabinet hardware like these or these to warm things up. Apparently, mixing metals is something all the kids are doing these days.
posted by kate4914 at 4:25 PM on March 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and YES to under-cabinet lighting. I got LED strips that were supposed to plug in, but my electrician was able to convert them to hard wired. Two levels of brightness, not dimmable, but I'll never be without under-cabinet lighting again. They weren't super expensive, but do need resticking at the moment.

I do 90% of my work at the lower-than-standard-height island which, as a vertically challenged person, I LOVE. That may not be a consideration for you, but wouldn't really work for you because of the stove, unless you go with standard height beside the stove and step down.
posted by kate4914 at 4:38 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The kitchen you have in mind sounds lovely. If you like Ikea, you could get the grey and white Ringhult doors which are in the style you like.

I have had an Ikea kitchen installed and helped someone DIY their Ikea kitchen install, if you use a good installer they are excellent. DIY is also not super difficult to do well if you are competent at flatpack and good at measuring and cutting (many excellent YouTube videos to help, I can flatpack but can't cut competently so I went with professionals). It is reputed to be good value for money, that is that other kitchens at the same price point are of slightly lesser quality. Regardless of the cabinets you choose I would suggest that researching and buying the counters, backsplash and pulls or knobs separately will get you a higher end and less generic look for your money.

Cabinet choices I loved the most were a place for the microwave that was off the counter but not too high up, and a pair of tall half-depth cupboards (one for crockery, one as a pantry). In my current kitchen (not designed by me) I love the pan drawers so much. Everyone was right about them.

The Houzz kitchen forum is a pretty good place to ask questions and get specific advice particularly on layout. Generally speaking most posters have big budget kitchens, but there are also smaller budget people. My experience from comments there suggests that your quoted prices could be reasonable - below $20k is considered a budget that requires significant DIY or other cost saving elements. It seems to vary whether you get responses from the hate Ikea crowd or the love Ikea crowd and the typical kitchen style is more transitional than modern, but the layout advice is impeccable.

General tips on kitchens. Drawers are better than pull-out shelves are better than fixed shelves, for all or almost all your bottom cupboards (you may need one regular cupboard for vertical storage of baking sheets). There are mixed views on sinks in general but kitchen aficionados seem to prefer the largest possible single sink. It is difficult (although presumably not impossible) to have too many electrical outlets. Wall cabinets that go up to the ceiling mean that the tops of the cabinets don't get greasy and dirty. Stove on an island is possible but not really recommended because it makes ventilation much more difficult and you need to have a lot of protected space around the stovetop. Time spent on planning the layout and making it as functional as possible is time well spent if you like or need to really cook.
posted by plonkee at 4:42 PM on March 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

I love my Ikea cabinets and they're holding up fine 10 years or so on. Birch, shaker style, a few glassed cupboard doors, up to the ceiling. I have lots of in-cupboard pull-outs and revolving shelves, love them. sea-green gray on the walls great alternative to the all-white trend. Under-cabinet LED lights should be easy and are really nice to have. LEDs use so little electricity and should be an easy install.
posted by theora55 at 4:47 PM on March 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have no reach-in lower cabinets and I love it. Instead I have drawers; one pull-out shelf where the instant pot lives; and a corner carousel for light appliances (slow cookers, toaster, waffle iron type stuff.)

Think through your use cases... how you do your morning coffee/get ready routine; what it looks like when you're cooking dinner; where you "land" when you enter the room; how you put away groceries... and think about how you really live. I'd ask someone who's lived with those below-counter microwaves before you get one: I haven't heard good things. Also, I'm short, and that below-counter cabinet space is precious real estate.

Oh, here's a very simple and cheap thing that has worked out great: standard upper cabinets are three shelves. I had mine made with four. That gives me three I can actually reach, and one extra for stuff I don't often need.

I don't have an Ikea kitchen but my friend that do, love theirs.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:54 PM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have multiple investment properties and my house that I've remodeled over the past several years. Seattle Metro area here.

1. You should have 3 quotes, and honestly finding a reliable GC is the hardest part of all this. I've used things like Angie's List, but the best GC's and tradespeople have all been references. Once you find a GC you can work with, I would use that GC over and over. If you're knocking down a wall, you need to be able to handle the wall being load bearing or electric, HVAC or plumbing in the wall. Also demo, you can do yourself, but pros can do it better and in an expensive metro area, dump fees are the biggest % of demo costs. I typically add 10% to cost if I use a GC. GCs are super handy if you're moving plumbing or electrical - that work might require permits, good GCs should be able to handle permitting.

2. Instead of IKEA, I would use a local kitchen cabinet company. They'll come out and take measurements, and then can work with you to design your cabinet layout. Yes, you will need to hire someone else to demo and dispose the existing kitchen and prepare the site, but there are kitchen cabinet companies that are geared towards contractors, they'll provide the cabinets and countertops and install, but nothing else. You need to be on the ball to use this option, but they're only a little bit more expensive than IKEA, and the cabinets are much higher quality. Remember to think about what you're doing for a backsplash, most countertop providers can install a 4-6" backsplash at a reasonably cheap price.

3. Read read read, your HOA docs - convenants and restrictions. They'll often spell out what steps you need to follow to do construction. The HOA has to follow those rules.

4. Kitchen sounds good - brushed nickel is kind of out right now, but to each their own. I love modern. You'll never regret getting pull out trash cans. You should also consider built ins as much as possible (i.e. microwave) , that jacks up the $ slightly, but makes the kitchen more cohesive. Really think about where you want drawers, cabinets, lazy susans. Know if you want cabinets to connect to ceiling via molding, it's a much higher end look, but typically done by a carpenter post cabinet installation.

5. For kitchens, I like to have 3 kinds of light
->Can lights, these are the bread and butter, lighting all task & walkway areas
->Cool fixtures over islands, sinks -This is where it pays to spend some $ for fixtures, be aware that the light provided is often not adequate for task work.
->Under cabinet lighting, now's the time to do it, and it makes your kitchen look so much better

For fixtures (lights, sinks, faucets, etc), is your friend, in fact many kitchen/bath stores will just direct you there when you're ready to order. Order all fixtures yourself, there's no need to pay a GC to order for you. Be aware of lead times.

Looking at what you want done, I would budget 20-30K, project would have a lead time of 2-3 months, and construction time of 2-3 weeks. Best of luck!
posted by patrickje at 4:58 PM on March 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

How are you going to exhaust the stove? Fans high above the stovetop have to be really powerful to keep the rest of the space ungreasy. That’s either noisy or really expensive or both.
posted by clew at 5:00 PM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We *finally* re-did our kitchen year before last - think long and hard about how you’ll design it. We also have a galley kitchen, and like many folks above, went with more lower drawers than shelves - I *love* them so much! We also used a two-tone look, with gray lowers and creamy white uppers. Make sure the finish is scrubbable.
Regarding your countertop - in a small, galley kitchen I think a dark countertop would read very dark for the whole room. Consider something lighter - even in the gray tones.
Yes to cabinets to the ceiling, or at least with crown molding to take them to the ceiling. I think it looks cheap (‘builder grade’) to have them stop short of the ceiling, and as others have pointed out, it’s just a place for greasy dust to gather.
Under-cabinet lighting changed how we do things also - it eliminates any shadows you get from overhead lighting. So, yes to that - we have lighting that doesn’t dim, but has two strengths - bright, and lower.
We got a composite granite sink from the same folks that did our countertops and it’s huge and fantastic - get the biggest sink you’re willing to get - you won’t regret it. Just make sure it’s deep enough as well.
The only thing I’ll say about IKEA cabinets is that they use a lot of MDF and other ‘manufactured wood’ products - which are great, until they aren’t. As in, when there’s a leak in the sink plumbing or dishwasher and they dissolve. We used Costco (I think their ‘Tuscan’ product) and are extremely happy with the design and cost. It was delivered in large boxes, some flat-pack, and our installer put it all together and installed it. He even remarked on the quality (all drawers are real wood, dove-tailed joints, for example).
As a short person, I would caution against a microwave above the counter - those things terrify me. I’m very intrigued by the microwave drawers I’ve seen - that seems like a worthwhile thing to look into.
tl,dr: take your time to get the design right, and have fun with it!
posted by dbmcd at 7:22 PM on March 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: FWIW, there's a free room planner called "RoomSketcher". It is free because you can't really do any REAL planning with it... It's input only. You can't get anything OUT of it without paying other than the most BASIC diagram. But as a PLANNING tool, it's actually not bad, as it does have a lot of props with dimensions that you can plop into the room for rough measurements. There's a nag on almost every menu item, but it does have some 3D rendering capabilities. So if you can put up with it, it really is free.
posted by kschang at 7:58 PM on March 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Your tentative color choices sound good, except for the dark countertops.

It's amazing how much light is absorbed by dark countertops. I always advocate against them, especially in small kitchens. Also be conscious of the fact that anything glossy shows fingerprints instantly, so kitchen hardware placement for cabinets and drawers becomes extra important.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:28 PM on March 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You are all so awesome. Thank you for answers so far. Follow-up: can you point me to the best possible way to design storage in a kitchen? Especially for food storage stuff (mostly glass Corning ware with plastic lids), home brewing and baking, and all the machines (stand mixer💛, instant pot, rice cooker, food processor, coffee and espresso makers..... 😭)
posted by sockpuppetryarts at 12:00 AM on March 11, 2021

Be sure you have a light over the sink, not behind you. Working in your own shadow is only provided by designers who have not thought things through. For all your "not every day" appliances you need shelving in a pantry.
posted by Cranberry at 12:14 AM on March 11, 2021

Since you asked about storage -
- Nthing deep pull out drawers for the lower cabinets. I love mine beyond all reason. They hold: plates and bowls, Tupperware, pans (this is actually my least favourite as I need to put a tea towel in between each so they don’t scratch), instant pot (makes it SO easy to get out to use), random kitchen tools like chopper and mortar and pestle.
- we also have a tall pantry cabinet (floor to ceiling height) which have pull out shelves that have configurable panels to organise. This pantry cabinet holds all our dry goods like pasta, spices, jars, baking goods, etc. I love it so so much.
posted by like_neon at 1:16 AM on March 11, 2021

On the condo end, please follow your condo association's renovation guidelines. Unlike some condo rules about appearance of balconies or such, renovation rules are usally there for a good reason, such as keeping people from knocking down structural/load-bearing walls that will negatively impact your neighbors as well as your own unit. Your contractor should be asking for structural drawings to double-check that they are not removing a load-bearing wall before doing anything like that, though. If a contractor doesn't mention that concern at all when they come in to give you a quote, that's a red flag.

That aside, not all walls are load-bearing, and it may be that you can knock down a wall, or at least part of a wall (eg. if it were me, I'd leave the section just behind the stove, for aesthetic reasons as well as having a place for the stove exhaust hood, and backsplash for cooking splatters). Or do something with posts and beams to open the space up. Condo galley kitchens tend to be interior and windowless, which I don't enjoy. Even opening a window-type opening up from the kitchen to the rest of the living space can be helpful (and may be a compromise that your condo association would be more in board with).

In my experience, installers from eg. Home Depot are just local contractors working on contract. So getting their contractor or your own contractor to do the installation doesn't make that much of a difference. Do ask around locally and get recommendations, as quality of work can vary a lot. Getting RTA cabinets from Ikea or Home Depot or similar will be less expensive than custom, and those stores have people on staff to help you plan your new kitchen. Take very careful measurements before you go in. It can also be helpful to looks at pictures and assemble some form of image board or Pinterest board or scrapbook or something so that you have a general sense of the style you like ahead of time. Definitely think about and make a list of how you use your kitchen, what small countertop appliances you use regularly and how accessible you want them to be, how much free counterspace you need for food/meal prep work and where, etc. Under-counter/task lighting is also the best, and it's easiest to have your contractor install that when the cabinets are going up rather than install it yourself afterwards.
posted by eviemath at 6:30 AM on March 11, 2021

(I did my condo kitchen renovation as part of some flood remediation work: my water heater broke and flooded the first floor of my townhouse-style condo a month after I moved in. The flood remediation involved removing the bottom two feet of drywall everywhere, which made it really easy to see the structural elements, and that there was a structural post at the corner of the two interior walls enclosing my kitchen. Looking at the architect's drawings for the units (which your condo association is likely required to have on hand) confirmed the structural constraints. So then I was able to remove/change some sections of wall without negatively impacting the overall structural integrity. But I also got the changes okayed by my condo board before moving ahead with the work. I am now on the volunteer board, and, as a volunteer who doesn't get paid for helping ensure that our buildings stay structurally sound and waterproof and such, people doing major renovations without checking in is a huge headache. Most condos I think are still majority owned and thus run by the companies that originally built the units, so someone is at least getting paid for dealing with that headache in those cases, and they may be just blanket resistant to approving major renovations just out of control issues rather than actual structural concerns; but it's still impolite to your neighbors to make potentially unsafe major structural changes (eg. if your condo association won't give you copies of the blueprints), of course.)
posted by eviemath at 6:42 AM on March 11, 2021

Storage... I've seen a few very slick "lazy susan" or carousel type organizers for the corners of L-shaped cabinets / shelves, really slick stuff. But they are specific to certain sizes... Another possibility is pull-out shelves. You usually see them down low, like a slide-out "tray" for the trash-can, but a flat slide-out shelf can work up high provided you don't put too heavy of an item on it.

I've seen some good "shelf" that fits over the sink, metal and sturdy, and adds a lot of stuff that normally would just clutter up the countertop. If you already have cabinets over the sink then no, but if your sink has nothing over it, one of those add-on shelfs can keep your kitchen quite neat, but be sure to measure first. :D I actually bought one and ended up using it as a personal storage shelf on top of a bookcase since I forgot to measure it and it didn't fit under the kitchen cabinet! :D

Finally, I would check if a wheeled shelf / storage cart can be useful in your kitchen. A slim one (less than a feet wide) can be pushed up against something and be out of the way, yet with like 4-5 levels store enough to be helpful without stuffing everything into cabinets.
posted by kschang at 8:44 AM on March 11, 2021

4. Do you have advice about color? We're thinking very modern. Gloss finish flat-panel cabinets - white on top and gray for the bottom cabinets. Would a sea-green gray be a good wall color? We plan to go with stainless fridge and sink, dark gray/charcoal quartz counters, and brushed nickel faucet and cabinet hardware. Thoughts? Which of the cabinet choices (pull-out trash? microwave shelf?) do you love most in your renovated kitchen?

I'm partial to wood cabinets so I went with cherry wood and then made choices from there, but in terms of the cabinet options - my favorite thing in our renovated kitchen is the huge super susan in the corner base cabinet. It's not pie-cut, so it's just two big round shelves that rotate. I love it.

I also needed one tall/narrow base cabinet for storing cookie sheets and cooling racks on end.
posted by bananana at 9:34 AM on March 11, 2021

I have an IKEA kitchen that was here before I moved in 10 years ago. I think they could have been installed better, but the cabinets themselves have held up well. No problems at all. They are wood, not painted. I have heard that painted cabinets don't last as long, but have on direct experience with that.

Things that I love:

- lower cabinet drawers
- pull-out trash

Things that I wish were different:

- We have a top and bottom corner cabinet and I hate it. Just opening the door annoys me, and it's hard to clean. I wish the bottom was just another drawer and the top was just a flat cabinet, and will make that happen when I can renovate.

- I wish our cabinets went to the ceiling. It's hard to clean up there.

Stuff that other people have commented on that I had a different experience with:

- I inherited dark counters and a kitchen the same size as yours. I wouldn't have chosen them, but it's perfectly easy to see things to clean, and our kitchen is still pretty bright, but we do have a window. So I think this is a style thing.

- I inherited a microwave over a cooktop. It's been perfectly fine for the last decade. No one has set themselves on fire or spilled hot liquids on themselves, and even my 10 year old child has used it for years without incident.

- We installed Hansgrohe faucets in our bathroom about 8 years ago. Less than 5 years later they needed to be replaced because the finish just did not last. Do not recommend at all.

Other comments:

- Like I said, my kitchen sounds like the same size as yours. If you get rid of a wall, you will have have the upper cabinets that we have. I'm sure it can be done, but I'm not sure I'd be happy with that little storage.

- Houzz is indeed a nice resource!
posted by pizzazz at 9:53 AM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

can you point me to the best possible way to design storage in a kitchen?

I don't know if it's the best possible way, but I would work out the amount of space that it takes up in your current kitchen, and whether you are happy that is enough. I did this by working out the shelf space that it currently took up, and assuming that a lower cabinet was twice the depth of an upper cabinet regardless of whether it was a cupboard or drawer. It's then a bit of an iterative process with your design, but you can get 2 shelves worth in a lower cabinet, and usually 3 but sometimes 4 depending on height into an upper cabinet. If you have a galley kitchen, depending on window and door placement, you'll have a max of between 8 and 14 linear feet of each of upper and lower cabinets, excluding the sink.

But, if you uploaded a diagram of your space with all the measurements to the Houzz forum, someone would create a reasonable layout for you, which you could work out the amount of storage it had and see if it was more, less or the same as your current kitchen. If you want to remove a wall and create an island they'd work that in. And if there are particular items that you have, people may be able to suggest good solutions.
posted by plonkee at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2021

We renovated our kitchen when I was 38, and within 6-7 years I found it was no longer bright enough for me. Eyes change after 40 or so, and it's a good idea to either install brighter lighting or choose fixtures that can handle higher wattage later if you need it. (Now that I'm over 60, I need the kitchen lit up like an operating room.)
posted by wryly at 9:00 PM on March 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

You may have to replace the floor tiles because of the cabinets, and do you want grubby tile in your nice new kitchen? MAY I PLEASE BANG ON ABOUT MARMOLEUM? It's a green product, cork-based and solid color all the way through ... so if you drop a knife or something it's good. Comfortable and warm underfoot, and dropped things don't generally break. It comes in tons of gorgeous colors and is easy to clean.

I used Marmoleum in my kitchen remodel in ... 2000? Sold the house to a friend and was there visiting last year. The floor still looks great and they still love it.
posted by cyndigo at 10:12 PM on March 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

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