Renovation Diaries

Before & After: A Run-Down 1950s Kitchen Gets a DIY Cottage Makeover

published Nov 27, 2021
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Credit: After Photo: Liz Daly, Before Photo: Erin Burke

Few (if any) homeowners are grateful for a bad home inspection, but that wasn’t the case for Erin Burke. Roughly seven years ago, she and her husband, Nick Wildman, had their hearts set on buying a 1950s fixer-upper in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but were quickly outbid. When they were told it wasn’t going to work out, they were understandably devastated. But their luck changed, and it turns out the home would soon be theirs.

So, what happened? The initial winning buyers went ahead with a home inspection, and after the report unearthed some issues, they backed out of the sale. Nick and Erin were back in business! Erin says she was undeterred by the amount of work the home needed. In fact, she was excited about it! The couple closed on the house and moved in December 2014. 

Credit: Erin Burke

“The kitchen was the most glaring of needs,” Erin admits. “We moved in at Christmas and the house was a mess.” Retro veggie-themed wallpaper covered the kitchen walls, and the beige-painted cabinets “smelled like death,” Erin explains. Oh, and the upper cabinets had been installed only 13 inches from the counter, using a countless supply of nails. Erin and Nick didn’t have a whole lot of experience with renovating, but as professional biologists, the couple was well-versed in problem solving through plenty of research. They decided they’d use those same logical skills to tackle all of the steps this makeover would require. “My scientist brain thought, we can figure this out,” Erin says with a smile. “I approach a lot of things in life that way.”

Credit: Erin Burke

To keep the cost down, they decided that they’d do most of the actual labor themselves. Of course, the couple didn’t realize quite how much work they would need to do until they moved in and faced two back-to-back surprises. Not the good kind of surprises, either. Their original game plan was to leave the layout just as the previous owners had it, with the oven in one corner to the right of the sink. But then they realized that was no longer an option once Nick opened up the kitchen ceiling to take a peek. 

The stove was venting through the mudroom and into the garage attic. As homeowners who enjoy cooking, they knew they needed the new stove to vent externally. The position of one of the ceiling joists presented a problem, and that’s when they realized they weren’t going to be able to keep the stove in the exact same spot.

Credit: Liz Daly

It gets worse. The second surprise? When Nick began the demo in April 2018 (he did the whole thing himself!), he discovered there was a squirrel’s nest in that problematic stove vent. Fortunately, he didn’t find any unwanted roommates living in the nest, but it was a pretty unpleasant find.

Once the couple addressed those two problems, it was smooth sailing from there! The demo only took a few days, and Erin had started the design process by creating a mood board on PowerPoint. She ordered the appliances, cabinets, and corbels, all of which arrived before demo was done and were sitting in the basement ready to go. Everything followed “an order of operations.” For example, they needed to order the sink to see if it would work depth-wise with the faucet, and they chose the stove first so they could figure out how wide the cabinets around it would need to be. Logic, it seemed, definitely came in handy!

Credit: Liz Daly

Erin’s Renovation in 12 Easy-ish Steps

  • Step 1: Open the ceiling
  • Step 2: Rethink the layout
  • Step 3: Order cabinets and appliances 
  • Step 4: Demo 
  • Step 5: Get rid of the squirrel nest
  • Step 6: Bring in electricians
  • Step 7: Fix the ceiling  
  • Step 8: Insulate walls and put in studs for shelf brackets
  • Step 9: Install new flooring, cabinets, and countertops 
  • Step 10: Install the backsplash tile
  • Step 11: Put in lighting and appliances 
  • Step 12: Paint the walls and add finishing touches  

Now that the kitchen had been taken down to the studs, it was time to get going on the fun part: building the actual 168-square-foot kitchen. Erin and Nick started with the ceiling, which by now had huge holes in it from evaluating the old stove vent. While they could have easily patched everything up, they figured it still might not look quite right. That’s when they got inventive. Using pieces of wood, Erin and Nick installed a mock plank ceiling. The change instantly gave the kitchen a rustic, lived-in vibe. Then, they insulated the wall that marked off the home’s exterior. As for the floor, Nick installed the rich red oak himself, and the couple hired an outside contractor to stain and finish it. 

Credit: Liz Daly

Once that was done, they put in the appliances and cabinets, including one of the most expensive pieces of the renovation: the Italian-made Verona stove. They also bought a stainless steel Maytag fridge that Erin loved because it looked more expensive than it really was. The couple then chose budget-friendly IKEA cabinets to complete the look. After shopping online, Erin realized the cabinet hardware she originally wanted would have cost $600 alone, so the couple looked at other options and found reasonably-priced Amerock handles that were 6 inches long — exactly the size she needed. Next up for installation: the Silestone quartz counters and a white subway tile backsplash, as well as overhead and wall lighting. With all of that installed, by August of that year the couple had a not-yet-finished-but-functional kitchen. 

Credit: Liz Daly

The rest of the pieces took a little more time — not because they were difficult to do, but because the couple admittedly ran out of steam. Fourteen months later, they were back at it. Erin and Nick painted the walls and ceiling themselves in a bright White Dove by Benjamin Moore. Plus, they added a wood island they picked up from Craigslist (they painted the base themselves) and purchased floor runners for additional style and comfort.

Once the kitchen was all finished, they were (and still are) thrilled with the results! Having a realistic budget and sticking to it helped them stay on course, along with having a good sense of how they wanted the finished space to look. Erin’s biggest piece of advice? “Don’t be afraid to do stuff yourself!” 

Credit: Liz Daly

Thanks for sharing, Erin!

See Erin’s Full Reno Diary

Credit: Kitchn