$5,000 Remodel, and Kitchen Is a Dream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kasaba, a writer and actor, lives with her husband, Shelly Johnson, a cinematographer, in Pasadena, where they tend to remodel anything that doesn't move

Our dream kitchen: natural wood and glass cabinets with pull-out storage, granite countertops, deep stainless-steel sink with Euro-faucet, Sub-Zero refrigerator.

Our budget: under $5,000.

It took my husband, Shelly, and I four years and some compromise to come up with an idea of how to do it, but we did.

You'd think the color scheme in our 1950s kitchen would have prompted us to act sooner. The plywood cabinets and walls were painted in various tones of ocher, with a matching sheet-vinyl floor. The vintage O'Keefe & Merrit stove (with patented Grillevator) was pale avocado. The countertop, however, was harmless off-white Formica.

For a couple of years, we entertained new countertop options. The stumbling block was a handy lift-up section of counter that opened to a trash compartment with outside access. Preserving this feature limited our choices. Tile would be too heavy to lift, and granite was definitely out.

Pending a solution, we puzzled over the cabinets. Why not just paint them and replace the hardware? But what about the floor? It was ocher and horrid, but in mint condition.

Thinking big, we visited kitchen showrooms on tony Robertson Boulevard. There we collected glossy brochures that read like novellas about fresh-squeezed morning people whose successful lives revolved around their fabulous kitchens. Inside the showrooms, we caressed the sleek Euro-hardware, felt the smooth motion of balanced Euro-hinges, ran our hands across silky Euro-finishes. Then we requested an estimate for a kitchen our size.

It was $20,000 to $30,000.

We stopped thinking about the kitchen for a few months.

Then, while thumbing through an IKEA catalogue, we got an idea. IKEA makes kitchen and bath cabinets in a variety of styles that you can install yourself, or have installed. Shelly took measurements and discovered that we could keep our existing (harmless, off-white) countertop, knock out the cabinets and plug in the IKEA units.

At the time, our first choice--a natural oak with glass insets--was on sale for 40% off (sale price: about $1,600). We measured and planned out what we needed, hoping they could fill our order with what was left in stock.

After a day of demolition, we painted away all traces of ocher (about $120) and prepped for a new floor while waiting for the cabinets, which arrived a week later, completely dismantled. Because they had adjustable plastic and came in a variety of sizes, we were able to work them into the existing kitchen space. Filler panels were available, which we utilized in a couple of areas where we couldn't get an exact fit. By moving the dishwasher over two inches, we were able to come pretty close.

Careful planning beforehand paid off during installing, which took five more days to complete, not too big a job for someone with intermediate carpentry skills. As with any kitchen remodel, the hardest part of the job is living without a kitchen.

While the new cabinets looked great, shopping for a new stove was a disappointment. If it wasn't a $3,000 restaurant-quality stove, like a Wolf or a Viking, our old O'Keefe had it beat. Eventually, I found a company called Antique Stove Heaven that re-enamels appliances, including pick-up and delivery, in an array of colors (about $700).

Because the counter was off-white, the popular choice of "appliance white" would make it look dingy. We chose black, and inserted a black panel in our dishwasher to match. In black, with its shiny chrome trim, our stove looked good enough to drive.

One thing we liked about Sub-Zero refrigerators was their ability to blend in with the cabinetry. One thing we didn't like was the price--at least half our total budget. And the only thing wrong with our "appliance white" Whirlpool was that it no longer matched our new wood-and-black scheme.

Instead of painting it black, Shelly constructed an oak plywood housing for it, with shelf storage on top (about $100). I set out to find the same kind of chrome edging we'd seen on the Sub-Zeros. After much searching, (even getting quotes from metalsmiths to fabricate something in stainless steel) I found a magnetic chrome trim kit at Sears (about $120) that could be custom-ordered to fit our refrigerator. We cut some 1/8-inch oak (about $20) to create custom panels, mounted them with the trim kit, and we had a Sub-Zero style fridge that matched the cabinets. Since everything is attached magnetically, we can easily return the refrigerator to white without marring the finish.

The one new appliance we opted for was a big Elkay Gourmet stainless steel sink with a Grohe Euro-style faucet (about $1,000 for both).

And we decided to job out the floor. The old vinyl had to be torn up (exposing a tar-like linoleum), the plywood subfloor filled and pre-finished cork tiles put down (about $1,200, materials and labor). We're happy with the result, but the workers took so much longer than estimated that we were reminded once again how stress-reducing and gratifying it is to do the work yourself.

We may have compromised a bit, but we still got our granite counter. When a Formica corner bookshelf was replaced with an glass-front cabinet, it needed a 16-inch square top. A marble showroom we visited had some postcard-sized samples available, but we asked the dealer if we could buy just one 16-inch-by-16-inch granite tile to take back to our palazzo, explaining that we'd need it to get a proper sense of scale. To avoid paperwork, he said, "Here, just take one."

Shelly installed it, trimmed it in oak and now we have our granite countertop.

Our new kitchen totaled about $4,860, before cabinet hardware. We splurged on that, spending about $260 at Pottery Barn for cast bronze twig drawer and cabinet pulls.

Without a brighter shade of white to compete with, the countertop looks just as new as the rest of the kitchen. We also saved between $400 and $1,000 by not replacing it.

Five-thousand dollars and three weeks later, our new kitchen has a granite countertop, natural wood and glass cabinets with pull-out storage, deep stainless steel sink with Euro-faucet and a Sub-Zero style refrigerator.

And although our successful lives may not revolve around our kitchen, at least now it wouldn't be so bad if they did.

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