Acing Your Small Kitchen Remodel: 7 Tips for First Time Homeowners

Acing Your Small Kitchen Remodel: 7 Tips for First Time Homeowners


After months of searching, waiting, packing, and moving, you’ve finally unpacked your boxes and settled into your first home. Now you’re considering customizing your living space through a renovation.

But where to begin?

In this article, you’ll learn why a small kitchen remodel is a great place to start, then get 7 exclusive tips for a successful project.  

Why start with a small kitchen remodel?

You’ll likely use your kitchen more than any other space in your home. It’s where you’ll spend much of your time – preparing meals, raiding the fridge, and doing dishes. It’s the epicenter of family gatherings and major holidays; it’s the place where, inevitably, people gather. So it’s important that your kitchen really feels like home.

Because you’re in your first home, you probably have neither the space nor cash to create a big dream kitchen. But size doesn’t have to matter. With careful planning, a splash of creativity, and flexible financing, you can achieve the look you want in your kitchen–no matter the size.

Here are seven tips to ensure your kitchen makeover leaves you with a stunning space to call your own.

1. Start by Dreaming Big With a Mood Board

Diving into a kitchen remodel can be scary, so a fun way to get going is with a mood-board that helps you clarify what you want. Imagine your ideal kitchen, and don’t hold back. Pretend money and time aren’t issues and collect looks and designs you love.

Scour design blogs, magazines and catalogs for inspiration.

-Go on Pinterest and create a board for your project. Pin things you’d like to have in your small kitchen.

-Or go old-school – print or cut out images and arrange them on a poster board to find looks that resonate with you.

-Head to your hardware store and pick up some paint color samples; add your favorites to your poster board.

Once you’ve created your mood-board (digital or otherwise), you may notice repeating elements – perhaps certain types of tiles, color palettes, or layouts. These elements are your new roadmap for your small kitchen remodel.

Your mood board may have items that aren’t within your price range, but don’t let that deter you. By dreaming without limits, you’re able to discover what you really want and can consider how to get that perfect look for less.

Additionally, with financing that spreads your payments out over time, your budget may have more flexibility than you realize. We’ll dive into that a bit later.

2. Research Appliances and Evaluate Your Needs

Make a list of the appliances and features that are must-haves for your kitchen: oven, stove, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher. Decide how you want your kitchen to function by considering the following:

-Ask yourself whether you want your kitchen’s core items built into the walls or as standalone objects.

-Evaluate how you like to cook. Is it more comfortable to have your stove positioned as an island, or against the wall? Does it feel more natural to have the dishwasher set to the left or the right of your sink?

-Also consider how else you may want to use your kitchen – Do you need space for a dining table? Will you ever use it for work or helping your kids with homework?

-35% of first-time homeowners cite integrating smart tech as a priority, and if you’re among them, be sure to plan if you want built in USB ports, charging docs, or WiFi enabled lights and appliances.

It may seem tedious, but nailing down these details early on makes for a much smoother experience with your contractor later on!

You’ll also want to keep kitchen standards in mind as you plan your layout. For example, renovation-regulars on A Beautiful Mess recommend:

“making sure major circulation pathways are at least 36-48″ wide; countertops should be 32-36″ high, and upper cabinets or shelves should be 18″ from the countertop so that they’re easily reached but far enough away to allow space for appliances.”

Once you have your list of appliances, spend an evening doing research. Read up on customer reviews and product details. Decide which brands and styles are right for your small kitchen remodel, and jot down their retail prices.

3. Style Your Tile

Obviously a huge design element in any kitchen is the tiling and countertops.

With so many options for floors, counters, and backsplashes, choosing one for your space seems overwhelming. But again, having a clear picture of what you want now makes the actual renovation go much smoother.

Read up on less traditional options (but often more affordable and trendier) like concrete countertops, and subway tiling.

Consider your lifestyle. Does cleanability count for more than a beautiful aesthetic?

Research various options for getting the look you want. Often there is a less expensive option for every surface staple. For instance, there are usually 3-4 grades of granite, each at a different price point.

Learn about the price and quality differences of various surfaces so you can make an informed choice.  

4. Set Your Budget

Once you’ve decided on your priorities and kitchen needs, it’s time to price out your costs and create a budget. Because first-time home buyers are 50% more likely than long-term owners to have difficulty staying on budget, it’s important to follow these tried and true methods for staying on track:

Look at average costs of mid-range kitchen remodels to project your own spending. In 2017, the average cost of a small kitchen remodel is about $20,830.  

Consider how long you’re planning to stay in your home. If under 5 years, your main focus is likely adding to your real-estate value. That means spending more on cabinetry and countertops, and less on appliances, may increase your ROI when you sell.

Take advantage of online budget calculators and budgeting spreadsheets to determine and organize your costs. A great place to start is with Hearth’s home improvement loan calculator.

Account for unforeseeable expenses, such as delayed production or backordered items. You don’t want to be caught off guard. Add about 10% to your budget as a buffer.

Make cuts. When you have the numbers laid out in front of you, it’s usually pretty clear what to save on vs. splurge.

This initial research and planning is critical:

One of’s Ten Commandments of Kitchen Renovations is to “remember that your contractor and designer aren’t going to live with this kitchen — you are! You’ll save money and time by doing your own homework on what you want”

After you conduct this initial research, you can then turn to a contractor.

5. Choose The Right Kitchen Contractor

Perhaps the trickiest part of renovating is finding the right contractor, but here are several ways you can find a good fit:

Use online services like BuildZoom to find and vet contractors in your area. BuildZoom also provides quotes and customer service that simplifies the process of finding a contractor.

Look for people who specialize in small kitchens. If the focus of your kitchen is going to be on the cabinets for instance, find a contractor who is a seasoned cabinets guru.

Get recommendations from friends and neighbors. Chances are they’ve been through the same process and will have some valuable feedback.

Make sure whomever you choose fits your budget and has verified insurance and certifications to do the work.

Interview a few candidates to ensure you find someone who understands your vision and will work with you to achieve it–then get multiple bids.

Create a clear contract with all the costs carefully spelled out.

Remember that your contractor needs to be someone you can collaborate with openly. He or she will be in your home for a good length of time and you’ll want to select someone with whom you feel comfortable.  

6. Find the Best Financing

Making the right decision about how to pay for your renovation can be the difference between success and disaster. 33% of first-time homeowners struggle to fund their project, but there are ways to get it done without falling into too much debt or risking foreclosure.

Financing through a personal loan is a fantastic option for new homeowners because it removes a myriad of renovation risks and helps you stay on budget, something 47% of first time homeowners cite as a priority. Personal loans are also often several percentage points cheaper than those on credit cards. Here are some financing facts to consider:

-Financing helps you afford a better project by spreading out payments over time, instead of paying everything at once.

-You’ll be able to pay a down payment for your contractor in a timely manner, avoiding common issues like losing them to another project. You may even be able to use a quick down payment as leverage to negotiate your costs down.If you don’t have much home-equity, getting a personal loan lets you pay fixed installments without putting your home at risk of foreclosure.  

39% of first-time homeowners finance their projects using credit cards, which is hands-down the most expensive funding option. With high interest rates and the likelihood of fast mounting debt, you’ll come out of the process with a diminished credit score, and an ugly statement balance.

It’s important to shop around for personal loans through tools such as Hearth to find the best rates. Hearth makes it easy to apply for financing and provides various options so you can find the best loan to fit your needs.

7. Think About the Big Picture & The Long Term

Your small kitchen remodel may be the first of many home improvement projects in your new home.

On average, three in four homeowners approach three rooms at a time, and for good reason. Often this may mean they can get a better deal on contractor costs, as well as be able to keep the design cohesive throughout their space. So while it may seem like biting off more than you can chew, with the right financing, renovating multiple rooms at once may actually be the more practical option.

Finally, as you dive into your small kitchen renovation, don’t lose site of the long-term returns your investment can yield. Not just in your bank account, but also in the hundreds of happy memories you’re sure to gain in the warmth of your perfectly renovated, small kitchen.

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