If there's one thing we enjoy more than decorating, it's cooking. Leisurely sipping a glass of wine while concocting a culinary feast (or quick weeknight meal) for our friends or family is truly one of life's simple pleasures, wouldn't you agree? That's why we have so much love for the space where this magic happens: the kitchen. As the hero of the home, it deserves special attention. If yours is looking a little dated right now but you don't have the finances to renovate, don't stress. There are some low-cost kitchen home improvements you can make that don't require a ton of cash. (For those who do, these home improvements are worth the money.)
We called on two of our favorite interior experts to share their budget-friendly kitchen upgrades (rentals included) that don't involve a renovation. Ahead, Portland-based interior designer Max Humphrey and co-founders of Thea Home Inc. Thea Segal and Dorianne Passman share their kitchen home improvement tips to make yours look like a million bucks on a dime. Your credit card will approve.
Paint Over it
Paint is a transformative technique that can be applied to every room in the house, from the outside in. The big dilemma is choosing the hue. Prepare for multiple sample pot swatches on the wall as you test them out through the decision-making process. For Humphrey, it's all about the darker tones for kitchens. He's noticed a growing trend toward navy and charcoal gray cabinets, but he'll never tire of an all-white kitchen.
His go-to whites are Dunn Edwards Whisper and Benjamin Moore's Simply White. "People get crazy about which white paint to use," he told MyDomaine. "They're all a little different, so it's always good to test a swatch out before you pull the trigger on the whole room. I try and avoid white paint that looks yellow. Right now I'm having a client's kitchen cabinets painted in Benjamin Moore Gray Owl, which is a nice alternative to all white. Olive green is pretty hip too." If you do decide you have the "guts to go green," Humphrey highly recommends the Sherwin Williams Olive Grove.
Kitchens are the hero of the home, and having them look fresh and clean is an important design feature—almost more than aesthetics. If you have old, outdated tiles for your backsplash, there's no amount of bleach that will save them, but there is a cure. According to Segal and Passman, putting a simple and classic white subway tile on top of the existing tile is a great low-cost alternative. "This way you save on demolition costs and subway tiles are extremely affordable," they said. "This will clean it up and make it fresh."
But if retiling is still out of your budget, Humphrey has a frugal suggestion to tide you over. "Oak is the on-trend wood finish right now, and a good way to draw the eye away from a lackluster counter is with a big ol' cutting board," he said. "This bad boy chopping block from Crate and Barrel will make you forget all your ugly tile woes."
Fix the Lighting
There's nothing worse than a dimly lit kitchen. We're all for ambiance and setting the mood, but while you're cooking you need to see what you're doing. Clever placement can also hide design features you'd rather keep in the dark. But don't match your lighting to the era of your home. Instead, choose lighting based on its architectural features.
"In my old apartment (a 1920s building), I swapped out the existing ceiling flush mounts with schoolhouse inspired fixtures," he said. "When it was time to move out, I just put the old ones back in and took the new ones with me to my next place."
Segal and Passman said there's one place in the kitchen that takes precedence above all else when it comes to lighting. "Dropping some pendants above an island can help bring great light to the kitchen," they said. "This is also a very practical choice since most of the prep and cleanup is done at the kitchen island." For low-cost but luxe lighting, both designers recommend Schoolhouse Electric and Rejuvenation, but you can find great deals for vintage lighting on Etsy, eBay, and in your local thrift stores.
If there's one thing that instantly updates a kitchen (without costing you), it's art. It brightens up a blank wall, injects instant personality to a small space, and ramps up the style factor. The kitchen isn't the first place most people think of to hang artwork, but it's this unexpected element of surprise that makes it so perfect.
Humphrey is a big fan of colorful posters in a kitchen. "It's the one room where you can use something fun and not overly serious," he said. "I like sourcing vintage ones, but there are a million great sources out there for cheeky art. Society6.com is a go-to for me, and Minted.com has great stuff too."
For Segal and Passman, it's all about the flea market finds. "You're guaranteed to find some beautiful forgotten art at a flea market or antique store," they told us. "Old painted portraits can be beautiful and really warm up a space." The best part is the low price, and you can always barter that down too—these insider tips will help you score.
Ditch Old Blinds
If your kitchen is shielded from natural light thanks to old blinds, Segal and Passman have a quick fix. "Take them off," the duo said. "You don't need blinds on every window. A kitchen is the best space to have natural light anyway." But if your heart truly is set on them, woven bamboo blinds are Humphrey's first choice when he's on a tight budget.
"You can find them at any price point and almost any size, and they work [everywhere from] modern kitchens to traditional ones," he said. But he does agree with the girls on removing them altogether. If you don't need the privacy, he prefers au naturel. "I'd take no blinds and a fresh coat of paint on the window casing over bad blinds any day," he said.
When it comes to affordable upgrades, it doesn't get more low cost than hardware. It's such a simple update, and it won't break the bank either. "I always err on the side of modern to make the kitchens I design look current," advises Humphrey. "MyKnobs.com has an endless amount of options. I like shiny square bar pulls. Life is too short for matte finishes."
The team at Thea Home Inc. loves antique hardware as a "great way to spruce up and give character to your space." They add: "We prefer not to use a mishmash of hardware. Find a complete collection of matching knobs and pulls so that it looks sophisticated but has character. We love Liz's Antique Hardware or tried-and-true eBay."
Add Open Shelves
A common complaint of most kitchens is the lack of storage, but a simple and affordable way to fix that is by adding open shelves. While open shelving isn’t for everyone (it does require some strict editing), when done well, it can really become a striking design feature. Humphrey suggests sticking to a palette of one to two colors, preferably neutral. "Being able to display your cookbooks and a few decorative objects is a way to bring in pops of color, and they can be conversation starters too," he said. "IKEA has great lacquered shelving, and West Elm has a few reclaimed wood options that are a good price and look great."
The Thea Home team is a big fan of the open-shelf look. "We are true believers in making a kitchen feel open, inviting, and airy without using upper cabinets, so open shelving is the next best thing for storage," they said. "Plus it's a great way to display all of your beautiful finds, accessorize your kitchen, and give it some character."
Lay Down a Rug
This final upgrade is more about aesthetics than anything else, but nothing quite compares to the transformative power a rug has on a room—we can attest to that. They're the perfect pick-me-up for a fatigued kitchen, and interior designers swear by them. "I always put a runner rug in a kitchen, especially in front of a sink or next to an island," said Humphrey. "It's a great way to incorporate color and pattern, but it can also be really functional—not to mention nice to stand on when you’re doing the dishes. Dash and Albert are my go-to since they make a ton of indoor/outdoor options that can withstand the inevitable spills."
Segal and Passman agree: "We pretty much always put a runner in our kitchens along the island," they said. "This really makes the kitchen feel like it's part of the home. It's also a great way to add a splash of color since most of the kitchens we design are neutral. We love Woven Accents, Marc Phillips, and Lawrence of La Brea for our Turkish rugs."