Our floor-to-ceiling DIY kitchen makeover for $990

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Our updated kitchen
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Our 100-plus-year-old house was a rental property for many years before we purchased it, giving the home a plethora of crazy cobble jobs. When we bought the house in 2000, everything needed upgrading, repair, or remodel. With four children, a quick move-in deadline, and a tight budget, some projects got only cursory attention. Two years ago, we finally started redoing those quickie fix-ups. Being frugal, we're still working on a budget. I'm minimalistic when it comes to kitchen design and decor. It's my work space and I want it functional. As a family of six, there is plenty else I'd rather invest our money in. So we capped our budget for the kitchen at $1,000. After working on the kitchen here and there as our wallet and time permitted, we have come in under budget around $990. That's not a lot of money, but it was enough for us to makeover our kitchen from floor to ceiling.

Flooring. The cheap vinyl floor we installed at move-in started tearing immediately. I covered with another self-stick cheapie three years later. Both layers had to come up. It was agonizing until my husband thought to use a heat gun (a must-have for DIY floor repair). We decided to invest in a better floor and bought vinyl tile squares ($1.50 each). These are installed the same way as stone tile, but they're less expensive and I believe more durable. When properly laid, they fit snug, stick tight, resist cracking, and repel moisture. The floor is now two years old and still looks brand-new. Cost: $400.

Drop ceiling. We didn't want drop ceilings but were left with no other choice as the exposed pipes and electrical cords would have been too costly to move. The ceiling in place when we bought the house had been measured wrong and resulted in uneven panels. Also, prior to our move in, the occupying tenant defaulted on the water bill and abandoned the house; pipes froze and burst upstairs bringing the ceiling down, too. Initially, I repaired with cheap, square-edged pasteboard 2-by-4 tiles. I didn't want larger ones, but that's what the original drop ceiling was measured to use. When my husband redid the ceiling in 2011, he installed a new metal frame with beveled 2-by-2 tiles. It was well worth the rework headaches and extra cost of edged tiles. Beveling makes tiles easier to install. They fit and look better. And these smaller tiles don't sag and buckle like the longer ones did. This was the second biggest investment. Cost: $280 for ceiling remount kit, tiles, and tools.

Paint. The walls were in horrible shape, with one wall half-stuccoed. Originally, we sanded them down and wallpapered over. Recently, our 20-year-old son chipped in and redid the walls for us. He first had to scour the wallpaper off. He removed more skin than paper at first. Then a co-worker suggested spraying the walls with liquid fabric softener. The wallpaper came off much easier after that. Son made me vow never to wallpaper again. He sanded the walls and filled in holes and then painted. I like rococo (some would say garish) motifs and colors. I styled the kitchen like a vintage Victorian beach cottage, choosing cheeky watermelon pink semi-gloss paint (I prefer its level of sheen and found it on sale for $18 a gallon). This offset teal, gold, black, and olive accents as well as the dark wood cabinets. Cost: $45 for paint and tools.

Trim, baseboards, and backsplash. We got a great deal here. Our kitchen has only one window but four doorways. We found fluted door and window trim kits at our local home improvement store; I purchased rosette-style wooden blocks for the window corners at a discount of $.99 apiece. For the backsplash, we bought embossed tileboard (on sale for $15 for 32 square feet). We cut it into sections and attached to the wall behind the stove, cupboard, and sink. I was proud of my husband for thinking up this inexpensive alternative to the more popular backsplash options (like mosaic glass tile, which I've seen cost as much as $100 per square foot!). We installed white baseboard floor trim and repaired a window frame and sill ($10 for wood and insulation). Cost: $100.

Window treatment and decor. I bought a tension bar curtain rod so I wouldn't have to drill holes in the newly painted surfaces. I got a lightweight gauze curtain from a fabric store. And I found a picture, vase, sink set, table caddy, and rug at a secondhand store. Cost: $40.

Next up: Countertops and cabinets. We haven't totally completed our kitchen yet, but we have all the materials we need for the final elements. Our kitchen has an odd layout with little islands of cabinets. We found granite look-alike laminate countertops that cost $23 per 4-foot section (we only had to buy three pieces since we have such limited counterspace and we'll be installing them ourselves soon). We opted to keep the old plywood cupboards after finding most new cabinets are made of cheap pasteboard -- and they're expensive. We're currently in the process of cleaning and repairing the cupboards and replacing two damaged doors as well as some hardware. Cost: $69 (countertops) and $45 (cabinet hardware and repairs).

The national average cost for a kitchen remodel is estimated to be over $27,000. For our bargain upgrade, I didn't get my Brazilian cherry butcher block countertops and I still have the basic appliances I bought when we moved in 13 years ago (thanks to maintaining them, they still look good and work fine). Yes, our cabinets are dated (though they're better constructed than most new ones available today) and our decor is function-over-frills. But this house still needs tens of thousands in work. The kitchen is just one of many projects and if we were to spend big on something, it would be on layout redesign -- not redecorating. Our family meals are no less enjoyable in our cozy, spartan kitchen than they would be in a $30,000 remodel. Keeping costs at $990 has left us with a refreshed kitchen and money for other repairs.

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