It was a bona fide kitchen disaster

It was a bona fide kitchen disaster.

When a burst pipe beneath the floor left a gaping hole in the middle of their kitchen, Germantown residents Joe and Melanie Crowell found themselves facing a major unexpected expense.

The kitchen is, after all, one of the highest-dollar areas of the house to renovate.

But once they contacted Karen Kassen, co-owner of Memphis-based Kitchens Unlimited and a certified master kitchen and bath designer, the Crowells realized it's possible to complete a successful kitchen overhaul without breaking the bank.

"We had to work quickly and efficiently and on a tight budget because the renovation had not been planned for," Kassen said. "They ultimately ended up with a new kitchen."

The Crowells' situation is extreme -- for most of us, renovating a kitchen is a "want-to" rather than a "have-to" proposition. But as more homeowners opt to stay put in their homes rather than enter the still-sluggish real estate market, many are choosing to update kitchens and baths to meet their families' present needs.

There's no magic formula for kitchen design -- each space and each family's needs are unique. But designers agree there's a trick to pulling off a budget-friendly renovation: It's all in the planning.

Check out the following top five tips offered by local experts on how to get the most bang for your buck when you undertake a kitchen revamp, large or small.

1. Pick quality where it counts

"The place to put the money is in the cabinets and the countertops," said Leah Fors, a kitchen and bath design consultant at The Home Depot at 800 Truse Pkwy. in East Memphis.

That doesn't necessarily mean springing for the most expensive products on the market.

Mike Donovan, general manager and partner with Creative Kitchens, said, "There are a lot of product lines out there now that have good value -- nice door styles and finishes and wood dovetail drawers with soft close -- and you don't have to go into upper-end, semi-custom lines to get these nice features. You can get them in stock lines. That's what a lot of people are buying."

Appliances are another area where it's important not to skimp.

These days, most homeowners are opting for stainless steel.

"Stainless is definitely here to stay," Kassen said. "There will always be other colors, but I think stainless steel will be around for many years, so I think it's a wise investment."

Kassen also pointed out that kitchen design showrooms are a great place to look for deals on floor- model appliances.

"The manufacturers we work with are constantly updating, and we always have to show the latest and greatest pieces," she said. "We constantly change things out, and a lot of times the appliances haven't even been turned on. You can get a great discount on display pieces."

2. Focus on the details

If you want a kitchen facelift but don't want to undertake a massive overhaul, there are small things you can do to add style to your space without spending a fortune.

"One of the easier things you can do to update the kitchen at not a lot of expense is changing and updating cabinet hardware -- knobs and pulls," Kassen said. "You can really create a whole different look in the space. I kind of consider it like putting jewelry with the outfit."

Changing the wall color is another simple fix, Fors noted.

And even flooring can be upgraded at minimal cost.

"There are very affordable flooring products out there now, your glue-down hardwoods, nice vinyl products and affordable ceramics," Donovan said.

A new back splash is another great way to spice up the kitchen without spending a ton.

"You can add an interesting tile or stone back splash if you're not wanting to remodel the whole kitchen and get a lot of wow factor," Kassen said. "There are so many interesting choices now with recycled glass and stone mosaics."

Lighting is yet another area that can make an impact.

"A lot of people don't put enough emphasis on lighting," Donovan said. "That's very important in a kitchen. You can create very nice ambience with under-cabinet lighting for just a few hundred dollars."

"Sometimes you can find great-looking fixtures for not a lot of money and you don't have to go to the expense of installing recessed cans," Kassen added. "You can get a lot of impact with lighting and create a focal point."

3. Shop around

Price several places for major elements of your space.

"I think it's good to go out to two to three places and look around for your cabinetry, countertops and appliances," Donavan said.

Also check out all the available options before making a decision. Fors pointed out that in some instances, cabinet refacing is a feasible option that can save money and reduce the mess involved in a kitchen overhaul.

"If you've got nice cabinet boxes and don't want to change the configuration of your kitchen, you don't necessarily need to get new cabinets," she said. "If you just want to change the look of the fronts, refacing is the least expensive way to do that and it's also quicker than getting new cabinets."

However, although it's less expensive than replacing cabinetry, refacing isn't necessarily inexpensive, so Kassen advises that before undertaking a refacing project, be sure it's what you really want.

"People think that's an inexpensive route, but it really depends on a couple of things," she said. "A, if the cabinets are not in good shape, or B, if the layout is not exactly what you want, you're spending a lot to get something that's not quite right."

Also, she noted, be aware that some older cabinetry styles don't easily accommodate the size and shape of modern appliances.

"You can spend a lot of money trying to retrofit and sometimes not end up with good results," she cautioned.

4. Seek expert help when needed

Yes, that means you. There's nothing wrong with a DIY job when it's properly approached. But if you're undertaking a major renovation that requires moving plumbing fixtures or reconfiguring the electrical system, unless you're a licensed professional yourself, consult one.

Hiring a professional might not be as expensive as you think.

"A lot of builders are now available to do remodeling because of the downturn in the new construction market," Donovan pointed out. "Make sure if you're using a contractor, that they are a reputable contractor with references and so forth."

A professional can also help you avoid costly mistakes, Kassen said.

"A lot of people don't realize they could have a better layout or more functionality or they could gain more storage," she said. "Just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you can't use a professional.

"You've got to love what you're putting in your kitchen when you're investing any amount of money, because you use it every single day."

5. Start with a solid plan

Talk to any designer, and you'll realize this point cannot be overemphasized.

"It can be more expensive in the long run to make cosmetic changes that won't stand the test of time," Kassen said. "Do things in the right order so you don't have to knock things out later when you go for the full renovation."

For example, don't install new floors that block the path to old appliances you might have to rip out down the road. Don't install new countertops if you eventually want to replace your cabinetry. And the list goes on.

"It's kind of a Pandora's Box," Donovan said. "You don't want to go back in and start ripping and tearing again -- you have to pre-plan. If you can, you need to save and do it all at once instead of piecemealing it."

That's a point Kassen makes to any client she talks to who's on a budget.

"I tell them, even if you can't do the whole thing right now, let's come up with a plan," she said. "Let's do the island right now and next year, the rest of the kitchen, but let's not do something you're paying for twice. You don't want to do something that you're just going to have to undo down the road."

With a little foresight, you can create a space that's perfect for your family without spending a fortune on high-end products, Donovan stressed.

"Remember, people who own a $120,000 house, it's their castle, just like somebody who owns a $1.2 million house."

Stacey Wiedower is a staff designer at Memphis-based Virginia Rippee & Associates Interior Design. Read more from her at

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