Before & After: My Renovating Mistakes Helped My Neighbor Get Her Dream Kitchen

published Jul 24, 2021
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Galley kitchen before
Credit: Courtesy of Laura Fenton

Before moving into our apartment, my husband and I renovated our kitchen (which you can see a “before” shot of above) in a hurry — and on the cheap. The one thing we had going for us was the fact that we hired a contractor that had already remodeled several kitchens in our building. He came with knowledge of where to find pipes behind the walls and the nuances of the building’s wiring. Recently, I learned just how valuable this type of knowledge can be. This isn’t your typical before and after story, with a play by play on the hows and what to use to get the look (though there’s some of that here, too). Rather, it’s worth noting that sometimes you really can learn what you need most for a reno from your neighbors.

Unlike my husband and I, my friend Jill and her husband, Brian, lived with their dated kitchen for a while before deciding to upgrade. In that time, they gathered first-hand knowledge of what worked and didn’t work for them in their current set-up. They also gained another important perspective; they got to snoop on all of their neighbors’ design decisions. They could see that one neighbor had gotten a way-too-big fridge. A dark blue and black color scheme that looked amazing in an upstairs neighbor’s kitchen seemed like it might feel crowded in their more narrow space.

By that time, I’d also figured out all the mistakes I’d made in my own renovation (there were plenty), and I was eager to help my friends avoid them. The minute Jill said she was planning to upgrade, I typed up pages of notes about what we liked and did not like in our own renovation, which had basically the same footprint as theirs. The Schoolhouse Electric fixtures that looked right at home in our 1940s building? A total win. The stylish-yet-affordable counter-depth fridge our contractor had suggested? A total bust. My choice of floor tile? Good but with caveats. You can see our finished space below here, with both the slam dunks and mild regrets on full display.

Credit: Weston Wells

My kitchen reno recap was probably the most detailed and honest I’d ever been with anyone about the ins and outs of a project, but I wanted my friend to get the kitchen of her dreams. Jill also wisely asked other friends for their advice, hired an architect to help her with the project, and took her time. It took a village, but I think I can tell you that she got her dream kitchen. Our neighborly renovation story is not unique: There are many similar stories in New York. My friend, architect Yaiza Armbruster, once had a client whose neighbor liked her design work so well that the neighbor hired her to renovate his identical kitchen a few floors down.

Credit: Courtesy of Laura Fenton

Even if you don’t live in an apartment building or condo complex with fairly identical kitchens (like myself and Jill, whose finished reno you can see right above), you can benefit from your neighbor’s remodeling wisdom. Houses from similar periods can tell you what materials might look good in your house from the same time frame. The paint color that looks amazing in your neighbors’ similarly north-facing kitchen will likely shine in yours too. The guy next door might have a hot tip on where to get a remnant piece of marble for your countertops or backsplash. You’ll never learn more about a product or material’s durability than from real-life use right next door. You can probably spot some similarities between our kitchen and theirs; both have dark flooring, but they went with a smaller hex tile that’s maybe more period appropriate. The fridge’s position is flipped to the other side of the room, and the stove and sink are swapped but still on the same side of the space.

These close-to-home sources of inspiration are often much more useful than anything we might find in the pages of a design magazine. So, go ahead, ask your neighbor about her renovation — she might even have better advice than “Architectural Digest.”

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Before and After: How One Neighbor’s Mistakes Helped Another Get Her Dream Kitchen