Before and After: A Tiny Galley Kitchen Gets a Bright, Airy Redo for Under $5,000

published Aug 18, 2022
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Before: kitchen with counters on either side with brown cabinets

New York City apartments can be notoriously small — like 55 square feet small. One place where it’s easy to feel the lack of square footage in a tiny apartment is the kitchen, but fear not: There are plenty of small-space tips and tools specifically for kitchens.

If you’re like Aleena Cherian (@artbyalchemy) and her husband, Jebin, and you own your apartment (or have a permissive landlord), a little DIY can do wonders. Renovating can take a typical old apartment kitchen from minuscule and “very dated,” like theirs was, to “bright and airy.”

“Our first rental in Queens was new construction with an open kitchen that we loved for the prep space and for the open flow when hosting,” Aleena says. “We knew whenever we purchased a home, an open layout was a must-have but nearly impossible to find in many of the older NYC buildings we saw. Our realtor would often comment about how easy it would be to knock down walls to open up a closed kitchen, but having never done any renovations, we were overwhelmed by the idea.”

When Aleena and Jebin first toured their current place, it needed a lot of TLC, but they thought it had great light and good potential, so they made an offer with plans to renovate. “Before renovating, we struggled not only with the claustrophobic feel when we were cooking, but also the awkward flow moving between the living room and kitchen,” Aleena says.

“The previous owners had a table in the kitchen they used as a dining table, but we saw how crammed that looked from the listing photos, so we knew having an island in the open space would be the right fix,” Aleena adds. “The cabinets and countertops were in decent condition, so it made sense to keep the existing cabinetry rather than do a full gutting but update the look wherever we could. So a combination of professional help (to open up the wall) with a lot of DIY love was in order.”

Aleena and Jebin were planning on staying in this home for about three or four years and were looking to make updates “that were practical, but also cost-conscious for a shorter-term investment.”

With the help of their building superintendent and handyman — both licensed contractors who made sure the details were in line with building codes and regulations — the couple knocked down the wall, installed recessed lighting overhead, and built a peninsula with counter seating where the wall once was.

“We learned that knocking down a non-load-bearing wall was surprisingly affordable for the impact it can make on the space,” Aleena says (their wall project rang in at $1,500). The new cabinets, island, countertop, overhead lights, and installation all added up to $3,000 ($2,000 for materials; $1,000 for labor).

For the major DIY project in the space, Aleena and Jebin decided to keep the cabinets but update them with new hardware and two coats of paint — no small feat in such a small space. “Without a garage or backyard to work in, we were laying out painted cabinets on every available surface of our empty 850-square-foot apartment and opening every window to let it dry thoroughly,” Aleena recalls.

But, Aleena says, thanks to online resources, they knew what to expect and learned some great tricks along the way, like labeling the cabinets when they took them apart, keeping the hardware organized in labeled bags, and using Krud Kutter degreaser to clean off cooking gunk.

Aleena is proud of the work that went into the cabinets and the way the “after” looks. She says the paint color (Glidden’s Old Fossilstone Grey) is “a near-white neutral that was a perfect choice to not only brighten up the space but also coordinate with the white fridge, which, while not our first choice, didn’t make sense to replace since it was brand-new” — plus, she’s been pleased with how the cabinets have held up in the kitchen over time.

“We love that we made the most of what our kitchen already had, even when it wouldn’t have been our top design or appliance choices,” Aleena says.

The final step in their kitchen remodel was figuring out what to do with the tiles above the cabinets and on the walls. “It wasn’t the worst choice for a backsplash, but we didn’t love the look for the entire kitchen,” Aleena says. Removing all of the tile would have been costly, so Aleena and Jebin turned to self-adhesive wall planks with a faux whitewashed wood look.

Now, the subtle but character-enriching detail is one of Aleena’s favorite parts of the kitchen. “So many guests have commented on our unique kitchen walls,” she says.

Although Aleena and Jebin added some new elements, Aleena is also proud of how many of the galley kitchen’s existing features they were able to work with. “Don’t be afraid to work with what you have,” she says.

Her next bit of renovation advice is to have patience. “Renovations don’t need to all happen all at once!” she says. “We painted the cabinets when we first moved in, then did the wall breakdown/island about a month later, and the wall paneling about four months after that. “

And lastly, Aleena says don’t be afraid to DIY: “DIY is not always necessarily easier, but we had a great time with the process and loved the opportunity to truly make this space a home,” she says.

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Before and After: A Tiny Galley Kitchen in NYC Gets a Timeless, Functional Redo for Under $5,000