Monday, April 6, 2015

First-Time Renovation? What to Expect and Some Things to Avoid

Inspired by this floor I saw on Houzz, I made it a focal point in my bathroom renovation
Getting ready to start a renovation project and wondering what to expect? Every project will vary, depending on the room you are renovating and the scope of changes. But the process from inspiration through execution remains pretty much the same. Most renovation projects follow these phases in this order:

Phase 1: Inspiration

Like many people, I enjoy the inspiration phase. For me it involves hours of poring over beautiful rooms on Houzz and Pinterest. Both sites allow you to easily peruse and collect photos of rooms you love and categorize them. Start small with just one ideabook or board, I called my first Houzz collection Bathroom Ideas. Very soon you will find yourself breaking out subcategories, such as Black & White Bath, Marble Bath, Subway Tile Bath, Retro Bath, Clawfoots, etc. It's a fun way to know what's out there and to get in touch with what you love. 

Inspired by this marble tub apron on Houzz, I made it another focal point
What do you take away from these inspiration boards? A lot of good design ideas and one or two show-stoppers. It can be tempting to make every single product something "special", but don't fall into that trap. It's a good way to blow your budget and end up creating a room that is overly busy. Everything can't be a "focal point" or the eye doesn't know where to settle. Choose one or two items to be focal points.

In a bathroom, this might be a deep-soaking tub and some beautiful floor tile. Or a vanity and a lighting fixture. In a kitchen it might be a professional range and a colorful backsplash or a copper farmhouse sink and a patterned cement floor. Then go plain to neutral on your other choices. It's the neutrals such as simple subway tile that create the backdrop against which your focal points stand out.

Our bath is your standard mid-centry New York City apartment bathroom. The only thing at all "special" about it is the standalone shower stall. This meant that I could have a deep soaking tub without an enclosure as my main focal point. Then I fell in love with a floor tile from Heath Ceramics Dwell Collection that I knew was going to make a strong statement. After that, my other choices needed to be plain - white porcelain sink and white field tile for the walls and gray subway tile in the shower. It was tempting while ordering the sink to consider a marble top or while standing in the tile studio to consider adding some flashy glass boarder tiles to the shower. I resisted, and I'm glad I did.

You will be making a lot of decisions in isolation that will later be combined together and will need to add up to one singular effect. While it's natural at each decision point to want to spend your money on the thing that is most special. Every single choice doesn't have to be a show-stopper. And it shouldn't be.

Phase 2: Planning

Once you have a good idea about what you like, depending on the size of your project it might be time to meet with an architect, especially if you intend to change the floor plan of your house by, say, bumping out a wall or adding an addition. 

I didn't require an architect on our home renovation. But I did have to do a lot of planning, some of it pretty technical. I read up on and learned a lot about what goes on behind the walls of a bathroom, spent hours on the phone with the Kohler reps to understand what kinds of plumbing valves I needed to order, and drafted this shower configuration to have ready to hand to my contractor:

My shower configuration was fairly simple. It can get complicated. If you are dreaming about multiple wall sprayers, you need to know the size of the pipes in your wall. The standard behind most walls, especially in older homes, is 1/2". If your shower configuration calls for multiple body sprayers, that likely requires 3/4" pipes - certainly in the supply lines. And then you have to learn if your water heater is up to the task of supplying enough hot water. Do you want the shower heads and sprayers running at the same time? Or do you want each controlled separately? This decides the number and types of valves you need to order. Your handle style can impact your valve choices. You need to discuss all of this with your contractor so that you know what to order. My bathroom order contained about 20 products.

If it's a kitchen you are renovating there will be double that amount of products to order. Now might be the time to consider hiring a kitchen planner who will help you with this. All of the big box stores have kitchen planners on site to help. And if you are taking advantage of a seasonal sale, this can be a good way to go. 

Or perhaps you are planning to use Ikea cabinetry. Go in first to look at styles and colors, then mess around a bit with their online planning tool before meeting with one of their kitchen designers. If you like Ikea's prices and love their organization tools but worry about your kitchen looking too "cookie cutter", consider buying just the cabinets and having the doors custom made. Companies like SemiHandmade and Dunsmuir, make doors in all kinds of beautiful even exotic woods to exactly fit Ikea cabinets. You simply buy only the cabinets without doors, then send the company a copy of your final Ikea purchase order. They will make doors to your wood finish and/or paint color specifications. 

The SemiHandmade doors made this kitchen of Sarah and Rupert Samuel at Smitten Studio something rather special:

Smitten Studio
If planning is just not your thing and you know it, congratulate yourself for being a realist. There is no reason to do it yourself if you don't like this kind of thing. There are independent kitchen designers out there who have years of experience who can help you think through how you live and what you need. You will find references and reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie's List, and Sweeten - or even better, ask friends who have had renovations done that you admire to recommend someone. Just note that some kitchen designers are affiliated with certain product lines and they will only show you products from those lines. You could miss knowing something else even exists. That might be okay with you but it's  good to ask upfront if this is the case before you hire.

Phase 3: Hiring Your General Contractor

Much has been written about hiring contractors, and I've read a lot of it. The horror stories about bad general contractors are enough to keep a person from even embarking on a renovation project. I'm not here to tell you any scary stories.  I've been hiring contractors for more than a dozen years and I've had only good experiences so far. How do I account for this good contractor karma?

I do what the experts say to do:
  • Get recommendations
  • View past projects
  • Get everything in writing
  • And pay in thirds (first third on contract signing, second halfway through the job, third upon completion)
When I am interviewing, I look at the person's past jobs. Remember, you are not judging the taste of the homeowner, but looking at the workmanship of the contractor - is everything symmetrical and finished looking? If not, ask for explanations. Was the job a similar complexity to yours? Are you comparing gut reno bath to gut reno bath? Full scale kitchen reno to full scale kitchen reno? If you can get in to see one of his current job sites, do it. Is the job site neat and tidy? That's a very important sign in my book. 

My go-to contractor, Henry Almeida of Almeida Renovations in Kew Gardens
Above all, I look for a person who conveys collaboration. No project is ever perfect. There are going to be problems. You will invariably have to troubleshoot together with your contractor, sometimes in stressful, time-strapped situations. I look for a professional with a collaborative spirit. Not a boss, not an employee, not an advisor, but a team mate. For your own part, expect to be a good collaborator also. You will at some point have to compromise on something you wanted or have to quickly change a product order. These things happen.

Subcontractors installing marble tub surround
Meet perspective contractors at your job site. Walk them through the project, showing sketches, layouts, designs if you have them. Ask them to get back to you by a specific date with a detailed breakout of the work they will be doing, material they will be supplying, and a price quote.

Phase 4: Ordering 

Once you've decided on a general contractor, you are well on your way. He will hire out and oversee the other work that has to be done, including plumbing, electrical, carpentry & framing, plaster or wall board, and paint.

Did you know that ordering everything is on you? Not just the choosing, but the actual ordering. Unless otherwise specified your contractor will likely be supplying only framing supplies and perhaps some finishing wood like baseboards if stipulated in your agreement. Some contractors will be happy to order your tile or other products for you if agreed upon. Make sure that anything that you expect him to order is detailed in your contract with him.

It is a big responsibility to place these orders and have everything come in on time, and it's also the thing most likely to affect the timeline and cost overages of your project. Sweeten blog warns that the number-one cause of delays and cost creep in a renovation are delays in product orders. And ordering products is stressful.

The moment you start putting down your credit card against all your dream finishes brings a jolt of reality. First, it is a lot of money. But more than that, you are forced to rule things out. You may think you made a decision about something, only to realize that you are still vacillating. Get real with yourself quickly; your timeline depends upon it.

It's especially imperative that you order any custom materials immediately. Custom tile can take 10 -12 weeks to arrive. Special order bath fixtures can take 6-8 weeks. And they may arrive damaged and have to be replaced. It happens all the time. It happened to me - twice! If you are hoping to have your renovation completed in six weeks - as they seem to do on so many home shows - you will have had to order these things a good six weeks before demo even starts.

Our bathtub arrived damaged and had to be replaced

Sit down with your contractor and walk through your purchasing plans. Have him take accurate measurements of your rooms so that you can place your tile or flooring orders. Make sure that the products you want will be able to be supported by the electrical and plumbing systems behind your walls.

Purchases that will need his input include:
  • Square footage for every type of tile you are using
  • Flooring square footage
  • Paint amounts/types
  • Size and weight of bathtub
  • Toilet rough-in specs 
  • Shower valves - behind the wall
  • Size and dimensions of kitchen appliances
  • Electrical specs for appliances and jet tubs (some need a dedicated line)
  • Light fixtures - if pendants, for example, how low can they hang?
  • Placement of outlets
Know that he may not have all the answers yet. Things like shower valves and weight of the tub may need to be confirmed after demolition, depending on your project. If this is the case, ask him how he is going to work around the product, given you can't order until he tells you this information.

Phase 5: Demolition

All those home shows make demo look like fun, as homeowners take a sledge hammer to old fixtures they dislike. In reality, for a person who likes cleanliness and order, it is dreary and depressing.

Make sure you have stipulated in your contract that your contractor bag and remove all debris promptly, especially if you are trying to live in your home while it's being renovated - which I do not recommend. I have a line in my agreements that the job site will be swept up at the end of every day. I learned this from one of my contractors who always includes it in his proposals.

Your contractor will lay down stiff boards and paper to protect floors that are already finished. And he can also close off finished rooms by hanging plastic. But for the next 4-6 weeks you will be looking at something like this. And it can get very tiresome very quickly. 

If you are renovating a bathroom in a home that only has one bath, forget about trying to live-in during demolition. The toilet could be out for days, depending on your order timelines and certainly the shower and bath will be out for weeks. If you are renovating a kitchen-only, you might be able to get by if you set up a table in your bathroom with washing up supplies and a morning coffee station. But it's not pleasant. Avoid it if you can.

Phase 6: Framing

Framing is an exciting and usually quick phase. By now debris is mostly disposed of and the job site swept clean. As 2x4s go up, you can start to envision how your new rooms are going to look.
Sink plumbing and electric boxes are in and wallboard is up

Phase 7: Electrical & Plumbing

This phase is exciting but can also become protracted and tedious, as your contractors and subcontractors rough-in electrical, plumbing and HVAC behind the walls. Make time to visit the job site regularly during this phase, even if it means taking some time off work. Be on hand to answer things like how high do you want this medicine cabinet? How far to the side the sconces? Now’s the time to note everywhere you want an outlet and what kind of switches they should have. In this phase, you will be making decisions and dealing with issues such as product delivery delays. And you will be hemorhaging money. It's stressful. But try to remain calm and be quickly responsive to your contractor's texts so that you don't hold up the job or lose subcontractor's windows of availability and incur costs.

Phase 8: Plaster & Wallboard

Once the rough-ins are done - and if required in your area, inspections - insulation, drywall, and plaster can commence. 

Phase 9: Finish Work

This is the phase where cabinets and countertops, moldings, floor refinishing, and painting happen. I personally love this phase, because the debris is almost nil and visually things are really starting to come together. 

But this stage is where the rubber hits the road for the home owner. If you did a good job planning and ordering, your products are coming in. Some are fitting as expected, some are not. You will find yourself running to stores or ordering online to make up for mistakes. 

On our current home reno project, in the 11th hour we realized we needed different finishing tiles for the beveled field tile in the bathroom. I had to find them, special order them, and pay an exorbitant overnight delivery fee to get them in on time. Even so, I counted myself lucky that the whites actually matched - if you have ever tried to color-match white tiles from two different product lines you will know how very many shades of white there are and what a miracle this was. On a previous project, the supplier sent the wrong shower body and it was installed in the wall and tiled over before anyone realized the mistake. I had to run out of work on my lunch hour to buy a different type of spout with a diverter that was needed the next day. Sadly, this meant that I couldn't have the Purist spout that matched my handles that I had my heart set on. I found one from another line that worked okay with the handles. These things happen. And you have to roll with it.

In the end, it all worked out, and we are very happy with our renovation.

Our finished bathroom

Things I would have done differently?
  • I wish I had spent more $ on full scale floor restoration. The price of full restoration of our pet-damaged hardwood floors was eyebrow-raising. We compromised and fixed only the worst and most visible areas of damage. I wish now that we'd spent a few thousand more to fully restore them. They turned out so beautifully that the few places I still see damage really rankle me. And we will never have that opportunity of an empty house again. 
  • I wish I had taken the day off to be on hand for the bathtub delivery to ensure it was thoroughly inspected before accepting. It had a crack that was not discovered for a few weeks when the guys fully uncrated it. In the end Kohler came through with a replacement for us, but it was touch and go there for a while. Note: The second tub also arrived damaged, but in an area that would be hidden by the apron. The clock was ticking, so we accepted it. Just be aware that damage to tubs is very common, and the way they are crated and tied up makes them difficult to thoroughly inspect as they come off the truck. Don't worry about irritating the driver. Take your time and thoroughly inspect your product. Don't sign for it or accept it if it's damaged. It goes back on the truck.
  • I wish that I had pressed my contractor to early on about the finishing tiles that I felt gut-certain we would need for the beveled tile. It turns out I was right, and trying to match whites from two different product lines was risky and could have been disastrous.
  • I wish that I had given more thought to my outlets and dimmers. I have two light fixtures that should have been on dimmers. Sure, I can still do this myself, but I could have had my contractor do it at no extra cost.
  • I wish that I had removed all the doors and cleaned up the original brass hardware. After the renovation was complete I removed all the doorknobs and boiled them on the stove to slough off years of paint. Then I shined them up with Brasso. They are original to the house and the mid-century brass just gleams. The hinges however are still all painted over, sadly. It's a project that I will get around to in the future, and I'll be wishing I had my contractor's guys around to do the heavy lifting.
  • I wish that I had let my contractor do my kitchen tile cuts. I was in DIY mode in the kitchen, and itching to try out the top of the line tile cutter he loaned me. I should have taken him up on his offer to let him do my cuts for me at no charge. My top tiles were cut unevenly; what a mess. It doesn't show because it's under sight line of the cabinets. But I know it's there!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Remodeling Around an Ugly Granite Countertop

Would you choose this granite for your countertop?

Our home's previous owner (PO) chose it. I think it is a Juparana Florence or Juparana Bordeaux or Juparana Crema. It's hard to know for sure. The color looks very different depending on the light.

Dark area over the dishwasher

Distinctly coral-colored in the light near the window 
Lots of brown near the sink
While I'm not in love with this granite, I can cut our PO some slack. Having had the nail-biting pleasure of choosing a slate slab for my previous home's kitchen and a marble slab for this home's bathroom reno, I absolutely understand how a renovator with the best intentions can end up with stone that doesn't turn out as nice as what they'd intended.

When you go to "choose your slab" from the fabricator's yard, it comes out at you in big raw blocks like this:

You are generally standing outdoors in blinding natural light with only, if you are lucky, a door sample of your cabinetry to hold up next to it as a test. Meanwhile, your contractor is texting you that your timeline will be blown if you don't make a decision today.

So, I'm not baffled when so many people end up with granite they don't like (just Google "Ugly Granite" to read some harrowing tales). The question is, for those of us who inherit granite that we don't love, what if anything can we do about it?

Countertops are a costly rip out and redo. If you are replacing stone with stone it is going to run you $5k and up.

Can you "tame" your ugly granite? Is it even worthwhile to try? Ask yourself these questions:

1. Is the stone in good condition?

2. Is the footprint of your kitchen staying the same?

3. Are there colors in the granite that you DO like?

4. Are the cabinets paintable?

5. Can the backsplash be altered?

If the answer to these questions is yes, you may be able to dodge the "gut renovation" bullet and be on your way toward a not so costly remodel of a few thousand dollars.

Condition of the Stone

If your stone is in good shape - there is no pitting or cracking, chips or gouges and the seams, if any, are subtle and were properly joined - it's probably worth preserving.

The Footprint of Your Kitchen Isn't Changing

If you are not altering the layout of your kitchen, it's probably a good candidate for a remodel rather than a full scale renovation and that means preserving your granite.

There Are Colors in the Granite That You Like

All granite is multi-colored with 3 or 4 strains of color running through it. Our (I think) Juparana has a lot of cabernet, cream, chocolate, and coral in it. I'm not a fan of coral at all - and our backsplash was playing ours up - but I love both cabernet and cream. And that is important, because one of your granite colors is going to save the day.

The Cabinets Are Paintable or Re-stainable

Sometimes the problem is not the granite itself but the way its color is affected by surrounding colors, such as the color of your cabinets. Very often simply staining wood cabinets a darker color or painting them a lighter color will bring out other colors in your granite that you do like. And if the new colors are all complimentary, it will bring out the beauty in your stone in a way you can't even imagine.

This was what happened in our case. The yellow birch-look cabinetry in our kitchen clashed with the coral undertones of our granite that the pinky travertine-look backsplash was bringing out. Any one of the other underlying colors in our granite - cream, cabernet, or chocolate - applied to our cabinetry would have worked, and looked 100% better instantly.

I seriously considered the cabernet. A rich, dark red-brown would have looked great with this granite. I once helped my parents reno their kitchen using one of those Rustoleum kits in Cabernet and it turned out great (truly, this is not a paid testimonial). I was sort of itching to use that kit again for this project.

However, my parents had new stainless steel appliances that complemented the cabernet color. Our white appliances, which were all new Fridgidaire and in great condition, would look jarring with cabernet cabinets I felt. And new appliances were definitely not in our budget. In addition, ours was a narrow galley kitchen with just one window bringing in light. Dark cabinets were going to make the space seem even more closed in. We decided to paint our cabinets cream. 

And it was the right decision. You can see how this new color brought out the luster in the granite - before we even touched the pinky backsplash.

The Backsplash Can Be Altered

And what about that backsplash? Once you have your cabinetry color and granite colors working in harmony, updating your backsplash in a similar color is going to bring it all together. We chose a simple subway tile in almond.

If you are purchasing a new home and have inherited a granite countertop that you are not in love with, ask yourself the five questions above. If the granite is in good shape and has some colors in it that you do like, the kitchen footprint is not changing, the cabinets and backsplash are alterable, it's worth a shot to change the color of the cabinets and backsplash. A little bit of paint and tile is a lot less expensive than new stone countertops - and it's the greener way to go.

For a breakdown of the costs of our remodel see: Our White Kitchen Makeover for Under $3,000.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Right Height for Hanging Artwork in Your Home

This weekend I broke down and did something around the house that I'd been meaning to do for some time: I re-hung every single piece of artwork the proper height.

When we moved in, there was still renovation work going on in the apartment. The paintings arrived by moving van and my immediate goal was just to get them up on the walls and away from foot traffic as soon as possible for their own protection.

We didn't even measure, we just eyeballed the nails and hammered and hung.

Now that things have settled down, the position of all the paintings was starting to really bug me. They were almost all hung far too high on the wall.











There's a lot of advice out there on the interwebz about how high to hang pictures. Galleries and art museums it is said have the 57-centered rule of thumb.

That is, the exact center of the piece of artwork should be 57" from the ground, or perfect viewing height.  And if you walk into a gallery, you will notice that all the artwork is centered. You can imagine in your mind's eye a clothes line running along the wall and you will see that it bisects each painting in its exact center.

The overall affect is very harmonious. The perfection of 57" though is up for debate. Some say it is approximately the right viewing height for a person standing and looking at the artwork (approximates, because people come in all heights).

So, how does this apply to paintings in a home? Well, not everyone will be standing and viewing. That's for certain. Many of your guests will be seated at times. Also, in a home, you will have to take into account nearby furnishings. For example, you wouldn't want a painting hanging behind a bookcase.

But even in a home, you will get the same harmonious "gallery" affect by centering all of your artwork equidistant from the floor. It doesn't have to be 57". Find a constant, and stick with it.  I chose a 60" for my home - mostly because it makes the math easier. But also because our ceilings are higher than the average 8 feet, at 103".

So, let's take a look at that math. How do you find the right height to hang a particular painting?

Measure the height of your artwork. Say, it is 34" high.

Divide by 2 to get the midpoint. 34/2=17".

Now add 60.


The top of this particular artwork in our example should measure 77 inches from the floor.

But you are not done.

Look at the back of your painting and adjust for hanging method. Is your painting suspended on picture wire? Measure how much slack to the top. Is it a wood-framed canvas that will hang from the wood frame on the back. Measure the thickness of the wood frome.

Subtract this amount from your 77".

It's a lot of work, and I'm still filling old nail holes. But I think you can really see the difference. Do you?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Restoring Luster to Mid-Century Wood Furniture

One of my favorite antiquing finds since we've moved into our home is the little mid-century console table in the foyer that I found at Beall and Bell in Greenport, a go-to for their great eye and edited selection of mid-century furniture.

After a year, the wood was starting to lose some of it's luster.  I had heard about Feed-n-Wax from bloggers like HouseTweaking, so I decided to give it a try.

It's an easy application with a soft cloth. It smells really nice going on - like oranges and honey. And almost immediately you see results. Here it is about halfway done.

And now, completely finished.

For so little elbow grease, it is a fairly dramatic result.  I was inspired to try it on the wood frame on this sketch we have in the office.

It has some sun damage on the left and a major scratch on the bottom of the frame as well as some smaller nicks on the right.

Feed-n-Wax didn't fix the scratches, but it definitely made an overall improvement on even this yard-sale find.

I'm inspired enough that I'm game to try another product in the same line called Restore-A-Finish on the library table in our living room.

It has lots of little dings and scratches to the sides and top. So, more on that to come!

Note: This is not a sponsored product review. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Savvy Renovator Flips Towers Wreck in Jackson Heights?


This week a listing for a  900 sq ft 2 BR in the Towers for $515k caught my eye. Back in September  the same unit on the first floor sold for $230k. Why the almost $300k price differential? It was a wreck, indeed, as the side-by-side photos below show.

The recent listing caused a flurry of speculation in the Jackson Heights Life forum. Did someone "flip" that wreck? And brought up a good question: can you "flip" a co-op apartment in Jackson Heights?

No, you can't; not in the conventional sense. In the conventional sense a "flip" is bought and sold quickly and sometimes, not even renovated. In the heady days of the real estate bubble in Northern California where big tech salaries and low inventory were inflating the housing market - still are, in fact - a savvy flipper who got in first with an all cash offer could turn around and put the home back on the market for more money a few days later without even touching it with a paint brush. And that is where the term flip came into the recent "home show" vernacular (though its been around for as long as property has been bought and sold).

In New York City, several realities make flipping impossible. 1. Most residential real estate in NYC takes the form of a co-op, in which you are buying shares in a corporation that is governed by a board.  2. The paper work and approval process that it takes to buy a co-op apartment takes at least 3 months from contract to close, sometimes longer. 3. Generally the buyer has to make promises (both to the board and the bank) that he/she intends to live in the apartment as their primary residence. There are a few exceptions and some boards allow pied-a-terres which are "second homes in the city" that often the adult children of the buyers may live in. But for the most part, you see, quick turnaround is not possible. 4. In addition, most co-ops impose a "flip tax" on the seller that takes a portion of the profit on their sale, sometimes up to 50% in Jackson Heights.

So, not so easy to quickly buy and sell an apartment in NYC and turn a quick profit.

The Towers 2BR that sold for $230k last year would more accurately be called a "fixer upper" or a "handyman" special or in more refined circles a home in "estate condition" (think Gray Gardens). And as a renovator, those are all terms that catch my eye. Because I know that few perspective buyers are willing to take on a renovation of that magnitude, so competition for that property will not be high. And this puts you in the position of having a below market value offer accepted. But I don't look for just any fixer upper. I look for one that is a good value.

How do you know a good value? Often by looking at other apartments in the exact same "line" that sold for market price.

That wreck in the Towers was just the kind of property I look for, and looking at the two units side by side will show you why.

Living Room:

After: NY Times | Before: RedFin

Dining Room:

After: NY Times | Before: RedFin


After: NY Times | Before: RedFin

Bathroom 1:

After: NY Times | Before: RedFin

Bathroom 2:

After: NY Times | Before: RedFin

Bedroom 1:

After: NY Times | Before: RedFin

Though the "wreck" looked like a "money pit", the renovation probably wasn't all that bad. Consider that The Towers is a very well-kept building in good financial standing with a strong co-op board. The building would have a solid foundation, a well maintained roof, and mechanicals in good working order. There were probably not serious structural issues behind the walls. The hardwood floors looked in excellent condition. There remained some incredible period fixtures in the bathrooms. You were probably looking at some framing and wallboard to close up weird openings, plaster and skim coating, electrical upgrades, regrouting and reglazing two bathrooms, and a full-scale kitchen build.

Given the difference in purchase price for the wreck and the asking price for the nicely kept version, you can see that renovating the wreck would have more than paid for itself twice over.

The Towers is one of the premier prewar co-ops in Jackson Heights. Most of the layouts are what are called "classic seven" - living room, formal dining room, 3 "formal" bedrooms plus a tiny bedroom that was called the "maid's room" which had it's own small bathroom plus two more full baths, one in the "master bedroom". These 2BRs were created back during The Depression, when even buildings like the Towers fell on hard times and had to split up some apartments into smaller apartments. That makes them a great investment now.

What's the convential wisdom? Better to own the smallest house on the most beautiful block? In Jackson Heights that might translate into better to own the smallest apartment in the most beautiful building. Especially given the grand scale of the rooms and some of the architectural detail.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Our White Kitchen Makeover for Under $3,000

Lower Cabs, Benjamin Moore, Ivory White; Upper Cabs, Behr Color-Match, Kraftmaid Canvas

Right after we closed on the purchase of our home, a 1946 apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, we immediately embarked on a gut renovation of the bathroom, which was in dire shape.

A bathroom renovation of that magnitude - taking walls down to the studs, floors down to the beams - will run you about $20k-$30k these days. So, I knew there wasn't going to be a whole lot of budget left over to upgrade the kitchen. I had to get creative and focus on the things that could be most easily and most economically fixed.

They might not be the things you'd think they'd be. Here's a look at it "before":

Kitchen - Before

In Praise of White Appliances

Do the white appliances jump out at you? Well, I'm okay with them. While I'm by no means one of those alarmists predicting the demise of stainless steel, I also don't feel that every kitchen must have it. In some kitchens, especially those in houses built before 1970, white appliances look right at home. I think they look great with blue cabinetry. And in my opinion, they look spectacular with cream cabinets and butcher block counter tops. That's what we have at the cottage, and I love it:

But the bare wood cabinets in our new home were not doing us any favors.  In fact, those builder grade wood cabinets were what I objected to most - that, and the loud peach granite. My personal tastes run to slate or polished concrete. But even something as economical and simple as butcher block would have been more welcome to me than this granite.

However, granite is what we'd got and it is an expensive and durable stone. I was determined to try to make this peachy granite work.

Painting the cabinets white was the first thing that crossed my mind when I viewed this kitchen. Painting cabinets takes a lot of sweat and elbow grease, though. And when all's said and done, would it even work? And were these cabinets even worth salvaging?

I was not and I'm still not a fan of the cabinetry style. The doors are a partial overlay style, which means the framing, with the T-bar coming down between where the doors meet, prohibits efficient use of interior space. We actually have to turn some plates sideways to get them in. Dumb.

But they are solidly built and in almost-new condition. (They still had sawdust in them when we moved in.) What I really disliked was the shortness. At 30" high, they fell so very short of the ceiling, leaving a good 15" of wasted space above that just looked... wrong. Too bad the previous owners hadn't sprung for longer cabinets. But I felt certain I could remedy this by adding a second row above in a similar style and painting them to match.

I wasn't even going to try to match the cabinet style of the two rows. I couldn't bring myself to spend money on more of something I disliked so much. Instead, I ordered the new cabinets with glass front doors, so that the slight variation in style would not be so obvious. But also because it's just nice to have some glass front doors in a white kitchen, to break up the block of white, to reflect light, and to display some of our nicer stemware and crockery and give some pops of color. I mean, I would not want glass doors on my pantry cabinets, displaying all my cans of plum tomatoes. But up high like that, I thought they would look great. And maybe someday when I get around to it, I'll run some puck lights in them.

Painting the Existing Cabinets White

At first I was going for a pure white with just a touch of cream. So after removing the doors, washing and sanding, vacuuming and tack-clothing, I laid on two coats of Benjamin Moore Semi-Gloss in Ivory White. And when I was finished, they looked great.

Here are some progress shots of them with two coats of BM Ivory White:

Already they looked so much better!

It was only after we got the new glass-front uppers that I realized BM Ivory was too white against the new Kraftmaid Canvas cabinets. So, off came the hardware and down came the doors again to be sanded and vacuumed and tack clothed once more, and given a third coat, this time of Behr Plus, color-matched to the Kraftmaid canvas cabinets. Then up they went again, including another round of adjusting the doors to hang evenly and replacing all the hardware.

If you want to see more progress shots of the sanding, vacuuming (90% of painting is vacuuming), and painting, see this post: Painting Cabinets to Match Kraftmaid Canvas Color.

Next Stop: Cream Subway Tile

There's almost no better deal in the renovation world than subway tile. Classic, timeless, inexpensive. Replacing the pinky travertine-look backsplash with Daltile 3x6 field tiles in almond in a traditional brickwork pattern did more than any other change we made to bring our loud peach granite down a notch.

Here are some progress shots of the tiling. You'll see that I tiled right over the existing tile. Yes, you can do that!

While I was at Home Depot picking up the subway tile and grout, I picked up a quart of Glidden flat paint from their Martha Stewart collection in Spanish Olive. It's a green with a lot of yellow in it, so it complements the undertones in the creams and the peachy granite. Eliminating the beige wall color was the final touch to taking this kitchen from boring beige to dreamy white - all for under $3,000.

Kitchen - After
I should say "dreamy whites". If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the variation in color in the upper and lower cabs. On the lowers we kept the BM Ivory White. The uppers are color matched to Kraftmaid canvas color of the new glass front cabs, which is a creamier white with more yellow in it. The paint desk at Home Depot mixed the Behr paint to match a sample door.

You'll also see that we replaced the shoddy plastic chrome-look faucet with the real thing, a simple chrome Delta Trisinic faucet. And we added a towel rack to the sink front.

We got lucky with our timing on this project, and our contractor who was cutting tiles for the bathroom loaned us his tile cutter, saving us the cost of renting one. And wow, was that an experience. His was like the Cadillac of tile cutters!

So I put the unspent tool rental funds toward this indoor/outdoor runner from Dash & Albert instead. It pulls together the ivory cabinets and the green wall color perfectly, don't you think? And hides that pinky-beige floor tile until I decide what to do with it. Inspired by Domestic Imperfections, I may actually paint over these floor tiles.  On the other hand, I heard from a neighbor that there are hardwood floors somewhere beneath that tile. Can you believe that? Someone covered hardwood floors with tile?

That's a project for another day!

Source List & Price Breakdown for Our Kitchen Makeover

Kraftmaid Cabinets, Canvas Doors, Home Depot: $2,100
Delta Trisinic Faucet, $250
Bygel Rail, IKEA, $2.99
Benjamin Moore Ivory White Semi Gloss, 1 qt., Schatz, Steinway Street: $15
Behr Custom Color Semi Gloss, color matched to Kraftmaid Canvas, Home Depot: $15
Glidden, Martha Stewart Collection, Spanish Olive, 1qt., Home Depot: $13 (discontinued)
Daltile 3x5, Almond, Home Depot: $35/case (covers 12 sq ft.)
Custom Building Products Grout, Non-Sanded, Linen, Home Depot: $13.87
Spacers, 250-pack, Home Depot: $2.97
GE Silicone for Kitchens & Baths, Home Depot: 3/$6.50 ea.
Striped Runner, Dash & Albert: $125
Paint brush, Rollers, pan liners, Home Depot: $20 (I have a lot of paint supplies on hand.)
Tile Cutter: $0. (We lucked out and the bathroom contractor loaned us his!)