6 Things I’ve Learned from Completing 3 Kitchen Renovations in 5 Years

updated Jan 18, 2021
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Installing a kitchen in a new house.
Credit: AMR Image | Getty Images

Renovating a kitchen is kind of like getting a tattoo. It can be painful while it’s happening, but the end result is so worth it that you forget the bad parts. I’ve done three total-tear-out kitchen renovations in the last five years (plus three more non-gut-job remodels in the last six), with another one currently underway in a sagging Victorian I’m fixing up with a friend. We had to sit tight for a few weeks after demolition day while we lined up financing, so that’s given me some time to think about what I’ve learned in those renovations that I can put to work on this one. 

First, a quick look at the from-scratch operations. First was the attic kitchen in my Airbnb where I turned the former hoarder’s space into a vintage-vibed, cute and cozy space for travelers. Then I did a dramatic do-over of the kitchen in my own home, transforming a cramped space in Crayola colors to a glam, black-walled space I’ve been happy to cook in for the last two years. And last year I flipped my first house, swapping a dated and dirty kitchen for a clean, bright space that helped me get an immediate full asking price offer. 

What hard-won wisdom am I taking to my newest project? 

1. You can do it on a budget (with some work and some compromises).

Kitchen renos are notoriously expensive. And it can be so very easy to decimate any sort of budget. Ooooh, pretty tiles! Oh, fancy appliances! And wait, look at that yummy countertop! It adds up so (so) fast. But I had a very limited budget on the Airbnb and the flip house, and a smaller than average (and strict!) budget on my own kitchen, and I managed to stick to budget every time. It takes effort — price comparisons, shopping deals online and off — but that effort pays off when you score amazing bargains. And for every splurge there has to be a counterbalance (thrift and vintage go a long way on that front). 

2. Skip the gimmicks.

Is the brass faucet in my home kitchen gorgeous? Yes. Would I do the touch-sensor option again? Never ever. It sounded good — never have to touch raw poultry and then your faucet again. But guess what? When the batteries die, you can’t turn on your faucet. Guess when that happens? The absolute worst times (think: sink full of dirty dishes). It’s also confusing to guests and just generally an annoyance. Before I ever buy tech for the sake of tech again, I’ll spend some time thinking about just how useful it actually is.

3. You need a statement piece.

Every kitchen needs a star. In my home it was the Ferrari red Bertazzoni range I was lucky enough to find at a steep discount. For the Airbnb it was also a stove, but a vintage 1940s Florence that took four people to carry up the stairs. Both these pieces add serious punch to the kitchens. I was missing that in the flip kitchen, and while it turned out well, if I could do it over, I’d definitely have something with some sizzle. For my current project my friend and I are eyeing an amazing quartzite counter for the island that will make an immediate impression. 

4. Always (always) scope out reviews on big-ticket items.

I loved, loved, loved the black stainless look for appliances, but didn’t do my homework. (Why? Maybe I didn’t want to give myself a reason to not make the purchase when I found it for half price online.) And I really wish I had. It scratches if you so much as look at it wrong, and I’m not the only one to regret this purchase. If I’d spent some time reading about black stainless, I would have gone a different route that would have saved some grief!

5. Don’t cheap out on the flooring.

It’s so hard, because you can’t splurge on everything. But I made the mistake of shaving costs with a few-cents-per-square-foot vinyl tile when we redid the Airbnb kitchen. And real (!) fast (!) we saw why it was so cheap. Several years later I’m still living with it and still regretting it. Kitchen floors take a beating, and cheap material is definitely one of those penny-wise-pound-foolish purchases. Sure, we saved money in the short term, but the floor is in need of replacing now — and it’s going to be a lot more annoying to redo now versus if we had just done it right during the full-blown renovation. If I could go back in time I’d have figured out a way to get a more durable flooring. 

6. There’s no such thing as being too clear and specific with instructions.

We were incredibly fortunate to find original hardwood flooring under the tile of our home’s kitchen on demo day, so when the universe gifted us that, we opted to refinish the floor instead of re-tile it. Some areas needed patching, though, so the floor refinishing crew said they could pull pieces from the area where the island would go. I outlined the island with painter’s tape on the floor to help with the layout planning, but didn’t think to tell them that included the countertop. They cut it ALL out, leaving a gaping hole several feet wide and the length of the island. The patch job is less than ideal, and I could have prevented the issue by specifying exactly how much floor they would have access to. Lesson learned: Go overboard with details in any project scope or instructions.

Have you ever renovated a kitchen? Do you have more lessons to add? Leave them in the comments below.