I got my bargain hunting gene from my mom. Seeing her score a cashmere coat for 25 cents once when I was a kid sealed my fate—I will always look for ways to make my money go further. This has led to a lifetime of scouring thrift shops, browsing clearance aisles, and stalking Amazon price drops. And it’s paid off big when remodeling my home.
We originally paid $200,000 for our 4,000-square-foot home and intend to own it for a good, long time. We’ve worked more or less nonstop since moving in three winters ago, and kept a close eye on rising housing prices in our (way undervalued) neighborhood, a historic district that’s home to the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the country. So, when our house appraised for over $340,000 after those three years, we took out a renovation loan thinking we could do an amazing kitchen, or convert a laundry room into a master bath. I decided we wouldn’t have to choose: I would make both renovations work for what money we had available. In this case, $50,000.
In the end, we spent exactly $50,000 redoing both the kitchen and the existing bathroom (even throwing in some upgrades to the dining room while we were at it). Yep, I stayed on budget and on schedule.
Was it worth it? Our realtor’s new estimate of what he would list it for now blew past my wildest expectations: $429,000 to $448,000! Based on his assessment, we added about $100,000 in value to our home.
So how did we spend $50,000 on what I’m calling a $100,000 remodel? There’s no one magic bullet; it meant saving on absolutely every aspect we could, large and small. Settle in for the full run-down:
1. DIY contracting
To start, I ran the projects myself. General contractors have great value (my dad is one so I know this firsthand). If we’d had the money and been able to line one up, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. It became a heavy part-time (veering into full-time) job and there are a lot of drawbacks to being your own GC. But, that’s 10 percent right off the top of your budget. What’s more, while a contractor will go a customary route, I had the freedom to bargain hunt to my heart’s content, like buying kitchen cabinets for dirt cheap on Facebook Marketplace, for instance. Which brings us to…
2. Big money for boxes? No way
I have a thing about spending a ton of money on cabinets. Cabinets are normally a massive expenditure in a kitchen reno. So we did a couple of things here: no upper cabinets, instead opting for open shelving. Besides the island, we also only had room for two lower cabinets, which also saved money. And those were a fortuitous, albeit somewhat, shady find: A longtime employee of a local cabinet shop was selling their practice runs and samples. They’re slightly imperfect and they cost 50 bucks apiece.
3. Floor model appliances FTW
Ok, so a Ferrari red Bertazzoni range was NOT part of the plan. But when we randomly walked into a floor model clearance at a fancy fixture store and saw the shiny red Italian range for half price? It suddenly happened. The $6,000 stove, something I’d never have dreamed of having, was $3,000. We also scoured the internet looking for a deal on the fridge we lusted after at Lowe’s, a gorgeous black stainless KitchenAid French door model that was an eye-popping four grand. Excessive Googling finally led me to a floor model at a Sears Outlet. Even after paying for shipping, we saved almost half (and ended up getting a refund on shipping costs).
4. Strategic timing
We couldn’t find the matching KitchenAid dishwasher on any kind of crazy deal, so we waited for Lowe’s to offer an extra 10 percent off to Lowe’s cardholders to buy that—while it was on sale, no less.
5. Love the one you’re with
We wanted to start completely over in both rooms, but to move plumbing in the kitchen alone was going to cost $2,500. So we opted to keep the same footprint. I spent a couple hundred dollars working with a design consultant, who helped me make smart choices on how to tweak what I could without expensive plumbing moves. That was money wisely spent.
6. Change gears mid-stream
We’d planned to install a high-end(ish) floor tile in the kitchen, then found original hardwood below the ugly old stuff on demo day. We’d budgeted about $3,000 for the tile and installation, so the $1,100 we spent refinishing the existing floor was a coup. That price included a sweet discount for being a repeat customer—we’d hired the same company who restored the beautiful floors in our third floor.
7. Stalk Amazon Warehouse and monitor prices
Buying the kitchen and bathroom fixtures refurbished or repackaged from Amazon Warehouse and third party sellers was a huge savings. We paid builder-grade prices for high-end finishes, saving as much as 500 bucks on one faucet alone. I also used the price tracker camelcamelcamel to watch for prices to drop on whatever we needed.
8. Price match
I bought a lot of stuff online, but wanted to see some things—lighting, for instance—in person, so we went to a local lighting store. I found a great fixture I’d never have chosen online, but cost more than any of the cheap lighting stores on the web had it. No problem—the sales assistant just had me show him the lowest price I could find for the same thing and he matched it, to the tune of a couple hundred dollar savings.
9. Take advantage of contractor discounts
I asked for a discount everywhere and from everyone. Many vendors offer ‘to the trade’ pricing so, since I have a side gig helping Airbnb hosts with their listings, I explained that I’m a short-term rental hospitality and design consultant, and several shops gave me 10 percent off my orders. Your mileage may vary, but it seems like a lot of places are willing to work with shoppers.
I scored even bigger discounts using my sub-contractors’ connections. The bathroom and the kitchen backsplash tile both dropped drastically in price at the specialty tile shop after they plugged in our tile installer’s info. And, after giving my plumber’s name at the plumbing supply house, they dropped about a hundred bucks from the toilet’s price.
10. Use the big box stores wisely
I avoided the big box stores for the most part, because I wanted a more unique look. But when I couldn’t find an affordable bathroom vanity/medicine cabinet/linen cabinet set anywhere, I turned in desperation to Menards, where I found some very similar versions of items I’d eyed at the high-end shops online, but for a fraction of the cost. I also tracked down a farmhouse sink online at Home Depot for about half what I’d seen from the high-end places.
11. Shop around
Yes, this isn’t a secret. But let’s take the quartz countertop I had my heart set on. I called practically every cabinet and counter place in town to get prices, and the cost varied tremendously. I went with the cheapest, and while I can’t give them any compliments on their service, they did the job and the Silestone Eternal Calacatta Gold I chose is just delicious.
12. Create big impact with lower cost materials
We did an interesting twist on subway tile for the shower—the tile is longer than the standard 2″ x 6″ dimensions, and has a wavy texture. And then we took it all the way to the ceiling and wall to wall, set on thirds. It created instant drama with a (relatively) low cost tile. The shower floor was a much smaller space so we could splurge on a special order tile. Meanwhile in the kitchen, we balanced the pricey quartz countertop on the island with a butcher block top on the cabinets at a fraction of the price.
13. Know when to go custom… and when to not go custom
I first priced out custom shutters for our very old kitchen windows and the quote took my breath away. So I went to The Shutter Store for made-to-fit wooden plantation shutters at (yep) half the price. I measured like sixteen times to be sure, and it was fine.
But I also knew I didn’t want a run-of-the-mill cabinet shop island. Dreams of repurposing a vintage French store counter had to give way to our limitations, so instead, I contacted a woodworker friend and told him what I had to spend and what I wanted. He was able to work within that budget to design and build a beautiful custom piece using reclaimed wood from the same time period as our house. The island is now the anchor of the kitchen.
14. Don’t forget to thrift!
My first purchase for the new kitchen was vintage brass knobs for the cabinets. I found them at my old stomping grounds, Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Detroit for 50 cents apiece.
15. Shop the house and make it fun
When it came time to accessorize the kitchen, there wasn’t really anything left. But I realized that an old, heavy mirror I’d found in the house and stashed in the garage would be perfect. And we took advantage of a painting workshop to collaborate on a small mural to hang on a wall. A free mirror and $40 workshop to make a statement on two walls? Done.
At the end of the day, getting this kind of savings boiled down to a lot to time, a lot of work and research, and being willing to take a non-traditional approach. And it couldn’t have happened without advice from people smarter than me, and sub-contractors we knew and trusted and who were patient with my frequent lack of knowledge.
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