Do you watch all of those renovation shows on HGTV? Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, Property Brothers, Good Bones, House Hunters Renovation – a seemingly endless list of programming. And in every one of them, a massive renovation budget. $17,000 custom cabinets. $6,800 quartzite countertops. $13,000 appliance packages. Total budgets start to eclipse $200,000 even when they’re only doing a few rooms of the house.
That’s just ridiculously too much for most people I know. Since the shows are meant to be entertainment, not instructional, that’s fine. But it’s not difficult to make a renovation look great for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a lot more challenging to make a renovation look great that only costs thousands, and is actually within reach for an average income. Isn’t it a lot more thrilling to watch someone pull off an amazing transformation on a shoestring budget? Is that too much to ask, is it too difficult to pull off?
Overspending on Fads
Kitchens and bathrooms sell houses. Most major renovations will touch one of those spaces. Consider, however: both of these areas go out of style within a decade or two, because they’re based on the fashion trend of the time period, and any reasonable quality cabinet will last that long or longer.
Don’t believe kitchens are trendy? Go check out the pictures at kitchens through the decades. Pastel, metal cabinets were all the rage in the 50s. Dark cabinets and Formica countertops in the 70s. All-oak cabinets in the 90s. Today, everyone wants “light and bright” with huge islands. Every 10-15 years, tastes change, and people want something different in the room that’s most visible to guests. How often do kitchen renos happen on average? Every 10-15 years is the number most often quoted, though that statistic is coming from contractors and kitchen cabinet manufacturers incentivized to upsell. I think a safer kitchen lifetime rule of thumb is 20 years, and is borne out by the design iterations back to 1950 (major changes within every 20 years).
Overspending on “Quality”
I wouldn’t be stressing the replacement point this much, except the number one thing I always hear to justify the cost of custom cabinets is “these will last forever”. It doesn’t actually matter, because a good percentage of homeowners will be pulling them out again in their own lifetime. But what if they don’t? Would those cheap cabinets start deteriorating a few years in?
Simple answer, no. Even inexpensive ready to assemble (flatpack) cabinets today come with dovetail joint drawers, plywood sides and backs, and solid face frames. My parents’ 1970s maple cabinets are much lower quality than these and are still going strong 40 years later. An Ikea or RTA store cabinet set might cost $4,000-5,000, less on sale, versus $15k+ for custom. Contractors don’t like these, because they don’t want to assemble them!
Overspending on Designer Appliances
On the topic of appliances, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but if you’re not Gordon Ramsey, dropping $8,000 on a 48″ gas range isn’t a good move. I’ve seen several episodes of shows where people admit they are busy professionals and only cook basic meals a couple of times a week, then drop massive amounts of money on custom Wolf or Viking appliances that cost more than a car. Why?!? A high-end consumer grade four piece kitchen package is around $3,000 (large french door refrigerator, range, microwave, and dishwasher, all stainless), or a bit more with special features. A five-burner range that can hold two turkeys at once is sufficient for that one-off event where you want to impress the neighbors. The rest of the week, that new inverter microwave will do a great job warming up your takeout.
Overspending on Finishes and Underspending “inside the walls”
I love Carrera marble, I get it. Floor to ceiling across your entire bathroom isn’t a good way to control costs. The crazy thing is, finishes are so flexible in application – you can get an amazing result with just a pop of expensive material coordinated with more cost effective options. Simple subway tile installed in a herringbone pattern can stand out, with strips of marble accents or a blue glass tile shower niche. There are so many ways to mix inexpensive material with upscale elements that are really cost efficient. The same goes for kitchens, an 8′ piece of butcher block goes for $300. Use that on an island, and put white quartz elsewhere (or vice versa) to mix materials and save cost.
When it comes to the things that don’t show, the same people who will happily drop $5,000 on countertops are reluctant to spend at all. The reality is, these are the areas where a little extra goes a long way. Closed-cell spray foaming your attic can really save on energy costs and make your home more comfortable. Light sleeper with teenagers? Build staggered stud walls (2×6 top and bottom plate) for bedrooms with rock wool insulation and 5/8″ drywall, for a few hundred dollars more in material, and cut your noise transfer in half.
$10k Reno Challenge: The Pitch
“On today’s show, we’re going to help Kathy and Greg remodel their house – their entire house – for less than $10,000. First, we’ll be painting the walls in every room. Next, we’ll install low cost LVP flooring throughout the main living spaces. The kitchen will get all new appliances, a new custom butcher block island, and the cabinets will be painted white with new hardware. The bathrooms will get updated vanities, floors, and lighting fixtures. We’ll have a few other surprises, too, but we have to do it all in three weeks, and under our $10,000 material budget. Let’s get started!”
This is a show I would absolutely love to watch. Contractors doing the work (not neighbors, looking at you Trading Spaces) and showing tips and tricks. Demonstrating all the ways to cleverly save money on extreme budgets. Even better, since labor is usually 2x material costs, it represents a $30,000 project on average with a contractor doing the work – an absolutely achievable figure for many people. Granted, this is more of a “refresh” than a remodel, since it’s not moving walls or accounting for plumbing/electrical issues. With all of the money saved compared to huge renos, however, there’d be a heck of a lot more buffer for critical fixes. And I’d wager there would be some really amazing transformations, made even more impressive by how little they cost, not how much.
P.S.: Due credit, the show that comes closest to this is Flip or Flop: Las Vegas. They mostly do quick-turn cosmetic projects (2-3 weeks) with a small crew, and the spaces usually look great, if over the top “glam” on some, since it’s Vegas after all. They only lasted three seasons but I hope they come back, the couple is still actively renovating on Instagram.