Tips For A DIY Kitchen Remodel

Money-saving tips, design hacks and big impact projects

Planning to update your kitchen? Learn from my mistakes.

Earlier this year, I embarked upon a full-scale kitchen remodel, ripping out the 70s-era cabinets and Formica countertops, and peeling up all three layers of vinyl flooring. My partner, Rob, and I took our kitchen down to the studs—not even the pipes remained—and vastly changed the layout, no small task in a space that's about 150 square feet. Six months later, as we near completion, I'm pleased enough with the results (although I'm already plotting upgrades) but unashamed to admit that are a few things I'd do differently next time.

① Pick your appliances before doing anything else.

When we planned our kitchen, we slotted in small-to-average-size appliances, but we didn't know exactly what we wanted. Big mistake. Three months into this project, I became obsessed with a refrigerator—one that wouldn't fit into the space. Trying to notch in the right appliances after the fact is like a frustrating game of Tetris.

② Save money on your cabinets.

Speaking of layout, we knew we wanted the famous kitchen triangle—easy flow among stove, sink and refrigerator. We also knew that if we brought our measurements to Home Depot, the store would draw out our kitchen for free, dropping in cabinet dimensions, advising us on island height and sending us away with a blueprint. What we didn't know, though, is that we didn't have to actually buy our cabinets at Home Depot—easily the most expensive element of the project, though there was a sale running at the time.

In fact, we could have—and should have—taken Home Depot's detailed scheme and gone to Ikea. Even if we'd wanted something custom, we should have considered Ikea's line; many companies now customize door fronts for Ikea's standard cabinetry. Our design consultant, Kelly Christensen, also suggested repainting our existing cabinets and replacing the pulls—which would have been even cheaper—but since we were ripping out our walls, we decided to scrap them and start over.

③ Let the pros do the most important things.

When we couldn't get an appointment with an electrician for a month, Rob thought he'd save time and money by wiring the kitchen himself. But hanging new lights, adding a dishwasher in our island and rewiring old outlets took him weeks, with several inspections in between. A pro would have been faster.

④ Remember that some elements will require a lot of advance notice.

We heeded Kelly's advice and had our cabinets professionally installed—mess that up, she warned, and you screw up your countertops and backsplash, too. And although our windows were professionally installed as well, I wish I'd known beforehand that windows take six weeks to fabricate. Looking back, I should have ordered them before we did the demolition; after all, you can't install insulation or drywall without windows.

⑤ Know where to find discounted materials.

Kelly had some great suggestions for finding discounts; for instance, I scored remnant countertop pieces (about half the price of a whole slab) at a stone yard. I scoured Overstock and other tile purveyors for remnants as well (in this case, the last few square feet of a batch) and lucked out with a Cle Tile moving sale that got us a 30 percent markdown on the end of a lot. And I worked Etsy for designer-imitation light fixtures, chairs, pulls and other odds and ends, unearthing unique pieces for about 60 percent of what we would have paid at a retailer like Room & Board.

I could have saved even more money, though, had I considered extending my countertop into my backsplash or using painted glass instead of tile; tile has a higher material and labor cost, and, again, you need a pro to install it well. And instead of looking for sales at Home Depot, I wish I'd checked Craigslist and eBay for opened-but-never-used top-end appliances. In fact, a professional-grade range, procured this way, is going to be my first upgrade. 

Laura Shunk is a food and travel writer and noodle addict who spent a year researching Asia's food culture. Follow her on Instagram at @laurashunk.