Author Archives: Elzy Kolb

Pro Tips: How to Save $ on Kitchen Remodeling

A budget-friendly kitchen remodel can be in your future, says architect Mark LePage, if you plan well, shop smart—and resist temptation.

Budget Kitchen Renovation Tips


Anyone with a kitchen that’s older than this century has probably entertained thoughts of a redo, although just mentally adding up the potential cash outlay may be enough to send the project straight to the back burner. But never fear: Careful shopping and creative money-saving strategies can help move a kitchen update from the to-do list to reality.

As you might expect, careful shopping for the big-ticket items will yield the most significant savings. Paring ten percent or more off the cost of cabinets and appliances will leave a lot more cash in your wallet than purchasing, say, a discounted light fixture or faucet—though small savings can add up, too.

To get your shopping off to a good start, step away from the professional appliances. They can be real budget-busters. The good news is that quite a few of the major home appliance manufacturers have mimicked the pro look, delivering robust styling in sleek stainless steel at steep savings. Since these appliances are designed for the home market, they may even have amenities that some pro versions lack, such as easy-care sealed-unit gas burners and self-cleaning ovens.

Consider Your Needs
Moving beyond appearance, keeping your lifestyle and culinary needs in mind when shopping for appliances can help save some bucks. If most of your meal preparation consists of plating takeout or heating prepared foods, a multi-burner, high-BTU cooktop or double oven will likely offer way more firepower then required. This could be a good place to scale back.

Related: 7 Budget-Friendly Kitchen Makeover Tips

Keep an eye out for appliance options and extras, and skip the ones you won’t use or don’t need. For example, a lot of refrigerators come equipped with external water dispensers—some even offer a choice of cubed or crushed ice. It’s a neat feature, but one that wouldn’t get a daily or even weekly workout in some households. Finding a model without these goodies would benefit your bottom line.

Budget Kitchen Renovation Tips - Plywood Cabinets

Maple Plywood Kitchen Cabinets. Photo:

Mix it Up with High-Low
When it comes to cabinetry, home remodelers can learn a lesson from clothes-conscious fashionistas, who have always found ways of making a statement with a kind-to-the-budget blend of high and low. Just as the well dressed and the beautiful can make headlines by pairing a Gap T-shirt with a couture skirt, savvy kitchen remodelers can create a stir at home by mixing and matching items from big box stores and boutiques.

Architect Mark R. LePage, AIA, president and partner in charge of operations at Fivecat Studio in Pleasantville, NY, recommends dressing up simple, budget-conscious IKEA cabinets with decorative high-end knobs and pulls.

Pairing IKEA cabinet boxes with custom wood doors and drawers is another of his money-saving strategies, as is using open wooden shelving in place of the lower cabinets. LePage likes to shop at commercial kitchen supply houses for open stainless steel shelving and rolling carts, which make versatile and smart-looking storage units. Though low cost, they tend to play nicely with upscale kitchen elements.

Plywood Can Be Beautiful
Sealed plywood cabinets are an affordable option, according to LePage. Made of wood veneer layers from trees like spruce, birch, or tropical hardwood, plywood often has a bold, distinctive grain and can be decorative as well as durable.

Related: 10 New Ways to Store Kitchen Necessities

Cabinet savings can go more than skin deep. Instead of ordering units equipped with built-in rollouts and dividers, consider retrofitting them from the array of less-expensive ready-made items available through storage specialty shops, catalogs, and big box stores. It’s also fun to improvise your own in-cabinet storage solutions: Stamp your kitchen with personal style by combining storage bins, boxes, and baskets in a mix of sizes, colors, textures and materials.

Budget Kitchen Renovation Tips - Laminate Countertops


Resist Temptations
Cutting cabinetry costs may make it tempting, and possible, to splurge on an extravagant countertop. Resist the temptation. There are lots of ways to get good-looking and well-functioning counters at a smart price, especially by aiming for that high-low blend. Use pricey materials such as stone or wood sparingly; focus them on specific workstations for tasks like baking or chopping. Topping the remainder of your counter space with less expensive surfaces (e.g., laminates).

LePage suggests dressing up laminate countertops with wood or stainless steel edging for a custom look. He also likes to create counters by repurposing salvaged materials such as stone, stainless steel or wood.

Consider Tiles over Slabs
For those who love the look of natural stone like granite, marble, and even alabaster, tiles are typically more affordable than the bigger, thicker slabs that must be custom cut to fit. Ranging in size from petite mosaics to 12-inch squares to even larger rectangles, and available in a seemingly unlimited variety of colors and patterns, stone tiles are a versatile option for counters, floors, backsplashes and elsewhere. Again, there are almost endless mixing and matching options, with the luxe-looking natural stone employed sparingly as accents, borders, or to create a pattern in a surface otherwise dominated by wood, ceramic tile, or another less expensive material.

DIY Your Backsplash
The backsplash can be a place to let your imagination—and your do-it-yourself chops—run wild. Applied to the walls, sheet metal such as copper, galvanized aluminum, stainless steel or traditional tin ceiling panels can add a touch of bling to the room. LePage likes using broken colored glass for a lively and nontraditional backsplash mosaic. Or recycle your broken pottery shards, tile scraps, and other ceramic odds and ends into a pique assiette pattern, reminiscent of the playful works of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

With a combination of careful shopping, imagination, flexibility and creativity, you can plan your way to an affordable new kitchen.

Small Can Be Beautiful—Even in the Bath

Just because your bathroom is petite, doesn't mean it has to be inefficient or unattractive. Award-winning designer Leslie Lamarre shares her pro tips for getting the most out of any bath.

Ideas for Small Bathroom

NKBA's "Best Small Bath 2013" by TRG Architects

When it comes to bathroom remodeling, small can be beautiful. With smart planning, a petite bath can be attractive, efficient, and luxurious. And here’s another beauty point: Working within your current bathroom’s footprint rather than bumping out a wall or adding on will help keep your budget under control, even if you opt for luxe materials—a real plus in these financially uncertain times.

Designer Leslie Lamarre, co-owner and principal of interiors at TRG Architects in Burlingame, Calif., and winner of the first place award for Best Small Bath in the 2013 design competition sponsored by the National Kitchen & Bath Association, enjoys the challenge of making the most of a small space. Working around size constraints requires “creative solutions to make the design outstanding and unique,” she says. “It makes things more interesting and less predictable. Take advantage of every square inch: A little gap in the wall can become a storage niche; an awkward jog in the floor plan might make room for a built-in bench or window seat.”

A creative approach to picking out fixtures is key to making the most of a tight space. The size and shape of the room, your willingness to move plumbing connections, and personal style preferences are among the factors that will influence your fixture choices.

Ideas for Small Bathroom - Corner Tub

Neptune WIND 60" Customizable Corner Bathtub.

Lamarre recommends sticking with an average-size bathtub. “A too-big tub is a real space waster. Most people sit upright in the tub, so a five-foot tub is sufficient for practically everyone. There are all kinds of ways to use the space that you save with a smaller tub,” such as adding a mini storage unit. Consider custom pieces to best utilize small or oddly shaped spaces: “The more you can build in, the better.”

If the average five-foot-long rectangular tub doesn’t appeal—or won’t fit—some readily available options are 48-inch tubs (including some extra-deep, claw-footed Victorian-style models), corner tubs, and square or oval Japanese soaking tubs.

Related: How To: Create a Spa Bath at Home

Or consider getting rid of the tub entirely. “It’s actually more comfortable to take a shower if you’re not standing in the tub,” Lamarre says, “and a frameless glass shower makes the space look bigger.” A clear glass shower enclosure visually expands the space more than etched or frosted finishes will. Using the same wall and floor covering throughout the whole bathroom, including the shower area, lends an open, spa-like ambience.

Older homeowners or those with mobility issues will find it convenient to enter a shower without climbing over the side of a tub. But think twice about eliminating the tub if you don’t have one in another bathroom; if you decide to sell later on, a totally tub-free house may be a turnoff to some buyers.

Whether you want—or have room for—a vanity will influence bathroom sink choices. Lamarre says a vanity has to be at least 24 inches wide to accommodate a full-size sink and provide some functional counter space. But the hidden storage even a petite vanity offers is still a plus if you can make do with a smaller sink and don’t need much counter.

Vessel Sink Vanity

Photo: Columbia CabinetWorks

If you’re pro vanity, a vessel or above-surface sink maximizes below-counter storage—a flush or undermount unit can take up as much as a third of the vanity’s internal area. And a vessel sink “doesn’t need a deck around it,” according to Lamarre, yielding more usable counter space.

The standard depth for a vanity is 21 inches, but you can go shallower if you choose a semi-recessed sink installation. These sinks are designed to be positioned about halfway into the vanity, and protrude several inches beyond the counter’s front edge. Besides being space-savers, they look great.

Corner sinks, with or without vanities, are another way to make the most of limited space. “When you’re remodeling, you’re handed the space that you’ve got,” Lamarre says. “Once I had a jog in the vanity wall, so I carried the countertop across the space. It feels cohesive, and created a dynamic design aspect.”

Related: 7 Easy Ways to Boost Bathroom Storage

If you don’t have room for a vanity, or just don’t want one, check out a pedestal or wall-mounted sink. These styles have a lighter, less solid look than a vanity, and may be ideal for truly tiny spaces. “There are some really cool options; some wall-mounted sinks are only 11 inches deep,” Lamarre says. Some have broad, integrated ledges or shelf-like surfaces at the side; some come with built-in towel bars.

There are lots of ways to incorporate storage into the open space below pedestal and wall-mounted sinks: open shelves, prefab or custom cubbies, even decorative baskets and bins.

Lamarre advises that wall-hung toilets or those with round rather than elongated bowls are the best picks for compact spaces. But keep in mind, “Your choices have to fit the design aesthetic,” she says. A wall-hung unit “has a contemporary aesthetic; a round bowl works better with a traditional interior.”

Don’t overlook the storage potential above the toilet—there’s plenty of wall space for open shelves or shallow cabinets. And there are lots of over-toilet storage units available at big-box stores and storage specialty shops.

Small Bathroom


Once you’ve picked your major fixtures, focus on the smaller but still important details, such as the medicine cabinet. You can stash more items in a deep cabinet, but one that’s flush with the wall might be a better pick. A protruding cabinet “will make the space feel smaller,” Lamarre says. Depending on the room and your cabinet choice, it may be possible to install two identical cabinets side by side. Besides doubling the storage, the expanse of mirrors can make the room look larger.

Last but far from least: lighting. A light, bright space is always more attractive and inviting, and in the bathroom in particular, light improves functionality. Recessed ceiling lights are a good starting place, but be sure to provide task lighting—Lamarre recommends sconces—around the mirror. If you like to shave in the shower, good-quality lighting will make the job easier and safer. She also recommends installing motion-activated accent lighting in the toe-kick area. It provides a gentle glow and can increase safety when someone enters the room in the middle of the night.

With careful shopping and planning, it’s possible to have the bath of your dreams in a compact space—without breaking the bank.

Closet Organization 101

So many closet storage conundrums are solved, not by adding space, but rather by using space more effectively.

How to Organize Your Closet

Photo: ClosetMaid

Though many of us would rather keep the door closed on the subject of closet organization, cleaning up your act storage-wise can yield abundant daily and long-term benefits.

For starters, well-organized closets are time-savers: It’s much easier and faster to get out of the house in the morning when you can put your hands on exactly what you need. And you can dig into a new project more quickly when you don’t have to search the house to find all the necessary tools and supplies.

Ideally, “You should be able to stand in front of your closet and take everything in at a glance, to see which jacket goes with which pants and which blouse,” says Diana Augspurger, a 30-year veteran of the organization and installation business, and the owner of Creative Storage in Buffalo, NY. Having everything at your fingertips “looks good, feels clean, and is energizing,” she says.

While great storage systems could make it easier to sell a house, they could also make it unnecessary to move: The amount of square footage you have doesn’t matter nearly as much as how well you use it. A small house with well-organized closets has room to accommodate more stuff than a larger home with jumbled storage, according to Augspurger.

How to Organize Your Closet - Storage SystemLike many home improvement projects, planning is the most important step in getting your closets shipshape. It’s helpful to have an overview of the way you’d like to use each space eventually, perhaps earmarking future sites for crafts and hobby supplies, sporting gear, or out-of-season clothing. But the good news is that you don’t have to revamp everything at once. This is a project you can tackle over time, spreading out the emotional and budgetary stress.

Pick one specific closet as a starting point and set a goal of what you aim to accomplish. Make a list of what you want to store there and consider how the closet is letting you down now. For example, do you need more shoe space? Among the many options are keeping them in boxes on shelves, hanging shoe bags, or floor-standing racks or cubbies. Not enough room for hanging clothing? Lots of closets can easily accommodate multi-level bars; consider leveraging the full height of available space with a pull-down clothing rod.

Want more places for folded items like sweaters, pajamas, and underwear? Shelves, drawers, cubbies and even hanging bags can do the job.

Big box stores, storage specialty shops, catalogs and the web all offer a huge spectrum of storage options, from the strictly functional to the highly decorative, from wire systems and clean-looking laminates to wooden cabinetry that would be at home in a kitchen or bathroom. Personal preference, available space, and how much you want to spend will influence your choices. With regard to budget, it’s a good idea to keep your budget in proportion with the overall value of the house, Augspurger says.

Depending on the size of the job and your skills, you may feel comfortable doing all or some of the job yourself. A simple solution might consist of weeding out items you don’t use, then organizing what remains by adding a shelf or two, a shoe rack, or a simple freestanding drawer system tucked beneath hanging clothing.

Get ready to measure—not just the space, but also the items you’ll store. Measure clothing while it’s on the hanger, as garments are longer and wider on a hanger than on the body. If you store your shoes in boxes, measure those too, since large boxes for tall boots may require deeper-than-average shelves.

While you’re measuring, take into consideration allowances for drawers and doors that open, or racks that pull down.

How to Organize Your Closet - Wire ShelvingMake use of overlooked space, adding hooks or shoe bags (the pockets are also great for small items like socks, gloves, and scarves) to the backs of doors. Installing high shelves creates a stash for out-of-season items; as weather demands, you can simply swap out the box of bathing suits, shorts, and tank tops for the box of wooly scarves, hats, and sweatshirts. Use transparent bins, or clearly label each container, so you can find what you need at a glance. And make room in the closet for a folding step stool to enable safe and easy access to the high-up storage.

Professional closet organizers will come to your home to talk over your needs, goals, and preferences; take measurements; draw up plans and make recommendations. “I like to see what people are dealing with,” says Augspurger. Before signing on with a pro, ask about their experience, how they learned the trade, and if they’re certified. Some design-assistance employees may be more experienced offering advice as to what will simply fit versus devising a system to best utilize every bit of space.

If you’re truly “stufficating” in possessions you can’t seem to part with, some closet-org pros are clutter coaches who can help you shed belongings.

It may be easier to let go of things if you feel they’re going to a good home. Consider charitable organizations such as Dressed for Success, which provides business-appropriate clothing to women entering the workforce, or, which offers prom and attire for other special occasions to those in need. Check out local coat drives; church or community organizations that need usable items for fund-raising sales; and schools and assisted-living centers that will accept books, magazines, and art and hobby supplies. If you’re able to sell some of your items at a yard sale, on Craigslist, eBay, or through consignment stores, you may even be able to recoup some of the cost of your spiffy new closet organizers!

Old Country Farmhouse Gets City-Slick Kitchen

In Upstate New York, architect Elaine Monchak's contemporary kitchen design animates the old bones of a 1789 farmhouse.

Architect Elaine Monchak's warm yet sleek modern kitchen

Photo: Monchak A+D Design LLC

If undertaking a home improvement project can take a lot of courage, the buyer of this 1789-vintage farmhouse in Chatham, NY, must have an abundance of the right stuff.

When project architect Elaine Monchak first visited the house with her client, it was in “very, very bad shape,” she says. But the house’s location—far back from the road on several bucolic acres with lovely views in every direction—made the necessary upgrades seem worthwhile.

Before the remodelPerhaps the greatest demonstration of valor was the decision to add a contemporary sunroom to the Colonial-style spread.

“For a project like this, where you have a house with a very strong character and structure, there are really only two ways to go. You can do a building addition that fits into the same character or do something completely different,” says Monchak, principal of Monchak A+D Design LLC, in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

The homeowner “is very sophisticated and appreciates modern architecture. The decision was made early on to preserve the traditional character of the main house and use the kitchen as a transition to the contemporary addition. The kitchen is the ‘knuckle’ that holds the two together”.

Slideshow: Old House, Modern Kitchen

The warmth of wood under a white milk-tint rubbed finish nicely bridges the centuries. Enhancing the effect is the rift-sawn oak’s consistent tones and minimal knots, which produces a less traditional look than other cuts of this wood type.

To maintain a light, airy, open feeling and make the most of the views, Monchak’s design nixed upper cabinets. Shelves in front of the windows and above the sink provide additional storage without adding bulk. The tall cabinet next to the microwave maximizes efficiency with pull-out drawers (other built-ins include a trash/recycling center installed below the windows).

This project is Monchak’s second for the homeowner; the first was a Manhattan apartment. For the Chatham house, the client was amenable to most of Monchak’s suggestions. As Monchak puts it, “She was confident in my abilities and let me do what I wanted”. But the client did have to be talked into the orange backsplash.

Exterior view of the sunroom that forms the addition

“I wanted something bright as an accent,” Monchak says. “Everything else is neutral. This color picks up the oranges in the mahogany window frames, it complements the wood.” The seamless, easy-care backsplash was created from a single sheet of back-painted glass.

The installation, however, was more complex than its gleaming simplicity may suggest. Durable tempered glass is too tough to cut to have accommodated the outlets or the shelves’ mounting hardware. So the holes had to be made before the glass was even tempered.

The range hood was another topic of debate. The client, who enjoys cooking, insisted on one. Monchak resisted at first, reluctant to install anything overhead. “I did a lot of research to find one as unobtrusive as possible,” she says. The solution: a cylindrical stainless steel unit with a sculptural look that’s at home in its modern surroundings.

Riftsawn oak cabinets with rubbed finishThe contemporary look of stainless steel is carried through in the mid-range appliances, which, chosen for looks and function, are more in scale with the modestly sized kitchen than pro-style models would be.

Other metallic touches include the sink and faucet, the cabinet hardware, the under-island cabinet and the niche above the microwave. The sunroom sconces and ceiling fan continue the theme.

The Fireslate countertop may look familiar to anyone who ever took a high school chemistry class. In fact, the manufactured slabs are so tough that they’re laboratory mainstays.

Available in a variety of colors, Fireslate won’t crack, can handle high heat, and is lighter and less expensive than natural stone. However, oil, acidic foods, wine and even water will leave their mark. Over time, the material develops a patina that yields a casual, organic, contemporary vibe that many homeowners prize.

Sliding doors—crafted of sandblasted glass and fiber-cement panels—separate the kitchen and sunroom, adding to the versatility of the space. The doors can be open for entertaining larger groups or closed to create separate intimate spaces. Even when the doors are shut, light filters through the translucent glass. Fiber-cement panels are used again on the floor; “It looks like concrete but is thinner and doesn’t crack,” says Monchak.

The flow between kitchen and sunroom continues to a stone patio perfect for al fresco relaxing, dining, and entertaining, further fulfilling the original project goals of creating an attractive and functional space to share with friends.

For some of the designer’s kitchen remodeling tips, click here.

Whether you are actively planning or merely contemplating a kitchen remodel, here are some smart design tips from architect/designer Elaine Monchak, Monchak A+D Design LLC, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY:

1. Determine how you want to use your space and what you want to get out of the remodeling project.

2. Do you want your remodeled space to blend with the rest of the house or be something different?

3. Take natural light and views into consideration, as well as mechanical necessities like outlets, ventilation, and plumbing.

4. Take time to think through suggestions from your architect or designer. An idea that surprises today may delight in the long run.

5. Think about how much maintenance different materials and products require. Certain items (pro stoves without self-cleaning ovens, stain-prone countertops, polished surfaces that show every fingerprint) may not be appropriate for a low-maintenance space.

6. A door between the kitchen and family room can be a plus while entertaining. With the door open, the host can prep food and still join in the fun; during dinner, a closed door hides dirty dishes and makes it easier to relax and put the cleanup out of mind for a while.

7. Use glass tiles as a budget-wise way to replicate the look of back-painted glass.

Countertop Care 101

When general clean-up fails to keep your countertop shipshape, consider these material-specific solutions.

Countertop Care

Photo: Gast Architects

Perhaps never before have there been so many enticing countertop options to fit every budget, décor, and culinary need. Today’s popular

Butcher block surfaces should be rubbed with tung, linseed, or mineral oil anywhere from monthly to quarterly, depending on how much use your kitchen gets. Small burns, cuts, and scratches can be sanded out of butcher block. Remove stains by sponging on a mixture of one teaspoon of lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide per ¼ cup of water. For tough stains, use wood bleach (oxalic acid); follow package directions and rinse thoroughly.

Non-butcher block wood countertops are usually finished with marine oil, which boosts stain resistance. Brooks recommends refreshing marine-oiled countertops monthly with Weiman’s Furniture Cream.

Naturally nonporous and stain-resistant, soapstone doesn’t need sealing. But cooking oil—or even just skin contact—can tarnish the surface color. Keep the countertop color uniform with sealer or by rubbing with mineral oil. Mineral oil will darken soapstone’s natural gray hue; sealing will not.

Soapstone is relatively soft, so it will nick, scratch and chip, lending the surface a natural, organic quality. Scratches can be buffed out with fine sandpaper or left to create a patina.

This manufactured countertop material is typically nonporous and doesn’t require sealing. Depending on the brand, quartz is scratch-, stain-, and heat-resistant and stands up well to normal use. Not all brands are created equal; reading your product warranty could contain some tip-offs as to what you can expect. If scratches aren’t covered, that’s a strong hint to be extra mindful about knives and rough-bottomed cookware.

To fight stains, mix two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide, a cup of flour, and enough water to make a paste. Apply to the stain, cover with plastic, and let the mixture dry for up to 24 hours; remove with warm water and a soft cloth.

Cad Kitchen Plans Stainless Steel Machine Hammered CountertopSTAINLESS STEEL
Count on stainless steel to scratch. Minor scratches can be buffed out using an abrasive pad applied in a circular motion. Whether a stainless steel countertop will dent depends on the thickness of the material and how it is installed. 14-gauge metal bonded to a waterproof core is “so solid you could park a Hummer on it,” says Brooks.

Even good-quality stainless steel can pick up rust marks from metal scouring pads, cast iron pans, and other rust-prone items. A mild abrasive cleanser or a homemade paste of lemon juice and baking soda will banish rust.

Treat stains on laminates with a paste of baking soda and water; let the paste sit for three to five minutes, then gently rinse without scrubbing. For tough stains, try rubbing for a minute or two with a cotton ball dampened with household bleach; rinse and dry.

Remove fine scratches or stubborn stains by applying a mild abrasive in small circular motions on the entire surface. These solid surfaces can acquire a plastic-y patina, which can be removed professionally.

A stainproof finish should be applied before installation by the fabricator or manufacturer; the surface cannot be retro-finished. A seasonal application of tung oil can boost the stain resistance of sealed concrete; paste wax lends a warm, slightly glossy look.

When it comes to maintenance, it’s not the tile but the grout that needs attention. Clean stained grout with a toothbrush and mildew-fighting cleaner or bleach diluted with water; rinse carefully. Sealing grout fends off stains and mildew. Tiles can also be re-caulked with mildew-resistant silicone products.

Perhaps the most important step in countertop care is accepting that every surface will eventually accumulate a few scratches and dings with regular use. “There’s a myth that there’s an indestructible countertop material that requires no maintenance,” Brooks says. “There is nothing like that.” He believes that attitude is everything. “If you look at a surface and recognize that it’s OK, then it is OK.”

materials are tough and durable, so keeping kitchen work surfaces in good shape relies more on common-sense daily use than on occasional onerous upkeep rituals.

Certain “dos and don’ts” apply to just about every readily available countertop material. Among them:

• Clean counters regularly with a sponge or soft cloth and a mild, non-abrasive cleaner such as dish soap and warm water; rinse and dry to nix smudges and water spots.

• Head off stains at the pass by wiping up spills promptly, especially notorious villains like tea, coffee, soda, red wine, oil, tomatoes, vinegar and lemon.

• No counter material appreciates puddles. Standing water can leave a film or mineral deposit; it dulls surfaces, causes grout to mildew, damages laminates’ seams, harms wood and shortens the lifespan of sealers.

• Knives and high heat are not any countertop’s best friends. Keep cutting boards and trivets (or hot pads) handy. Protect surfaces from warm appliances like toaster ovens.

• If jumbo-size canned goods drop from your overstocked pantry like bombs, or you juggle with cast iron frying pans, expect serious dent, chip, and crack issues.

• “You can damage any counter if you really try,” says Richard Brooks, owner and president of Brooks Custom, a Westchester County, New York, countertop manufacturer.

Newgreekmarble Marble CountertopGRANITE AND MARBLE
Sealing is the least understood granite- and marble-care checkpoint. Sealer makes a counter stain-resistant—not stainproof—by creating a barrier that delays how quickly the surface absorbs a spill.

There’s no hard-and-fast resealing schedule, but there is a simple test: Put a few drops of water on your counter and they should bead up. If the water is still on the surface after 10 or 15 minutes, your sealer is in good shape. But if the drops have spread and leave a dark mark on the stone after you blot off the excess, it’s time to reseal.

Most hardware stores and home centers carry countertop sealers with detailed application instructions on the packaging. The work typically consists of cleaning and drying the surface, then applying the liquid sealer with a brush or cloth. Let stand for five to 15 minutes, depending on the product, then remove the excess with a dry cloth and buff with a microfiber. Done.

To tackle oil stains on marble, try a non-abrasive liquid cleaner with bleach; mineral spirits, acetone, or ammonia are also effective, but do not mix these substances! Clean up food stains with a solution of hydrogen peroxide and a few drops of ammonia.

Removing stains from granite and marble may be as simple as a trip to your pantry. For oil stains, blot up any excess oil, then sprinkle the mark with cornstarch and let it sit for 18 to 24 hours. Vacuum up the cornstarch and repeat the process if necessary.

For food and drink stains, mix five tablespoons of dish soap with a cup of flour or baking soda. Add enough water to create a paste-like consistency and pread the paste over the stain. Cover it with plastic wrap and let sit overnight. Gently remove the mixture with warm water and a sponge. Do not scrub: Baking soda is a mild abrasive that can scratch shining surfaces. For persistent stains, beef up the paste with some hydrogen peroxide (or a few drops of ammonia) and reapply.

Etching is perhaps marble’s biggest problem. It mimics rings left by glassware, but etching is actually a type of corrosion caused by chemical interactions, which eats away the surface shine. To make etching less noticeable, wet the surface, then sprinkle on marble polishing powder and rub it in with a damp cloth or a buffing pad on a low speed drill.

For more care tips on wood, soapstone, stainless, laminates and other countertop materials, click here.

8 Tips to Keep You From Hating Your Kitchen Remodel

Given the expense and downright hassle of overhauling a kitchen, wouldn't it be unfortunate (to put it mildly) if you didn't love the result of your renovation?

Kitchen Remodeling Tips


Kitchen remodeling sits at the top of many homeowners’ wish lists, and for good reason: If properly done, a renovation makes the kitchen more attractive, improves its efficiency, and raises the resale price of your home.

Unfortunately, overhauling the kitchen is a complex job. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and even skilled designers and veteran do-it-yourselfers can miss critical details. Mistakes are not only common, they are inevitable. You can, however, keep them to a minimum if you watch out for the following missteps.

Set a Budget
If you’re planning to renovate your kitchen completely, be prepared to pay about 10% or 15% of your home’s current value. That’s no arbitrary percentage; it’s a budget that ensures that the quality of your improvements stays in line with your home’s worth. Although spending too little is a concern, it’s equally important to avoid overspending. Be sure to allow leeway for surprises. Who knows what plumbing or wiring nightmares lurk in the walls behind those old cabinets?

Size Matters
Are the cooks in your household taller or shorter than average? Careful shopping and strategic design can make their lives much easier without making your kitchen overly specialized. For example, manufacturers recommend installing a hood 30 inches above the cooktop—in other words, right in the face of a six-foot-tall cook. Luckily, there’s a simple solution: Most hoods work just fine if mounted slightly higher. The lesson is that no matter how lovely something looks on the drawing board, you must account for the lifestyle and physical characteristics of the people who will actually be using the kitchen.

Related: 7 Budget-Friendly Kitchen Makeover Tips

Kitchen Remodeling Tips - Pendant Lighting


Focus on Lighting
In the hardest-working room of your house, don’t underestimate the benefits of living with neither shadows nor glare. Use a mix of fixtures to layer light of different types—ambient, task, accent, and mood.

Recessed ceiling fixtures provide good overall light, while pendants and chandeliers are versatile choices for islands and dining areas. For kitchen work areas, under-cabinet task lights are popular, but you may wish to offset the reflectiveness of highly polished surfaces, like countertops, by choosing fixtures with diffusers or frosted glass.

Also important are your lighting controls: Install a separate, conveniently located switch for each light source, preferably near the doorway. Dimmers are excellent for modulating the strength of lighting according to the occasion or time of day.

Indulge (Some of) Your Whims
Maybe you’re right on top of the latest trends, or maybe you love bright colors. Remember, materials and colors that look fantastic in a sample-size swatch might very well appear over- or underwhelming in a larger dose. Resist the temptation of going over the top with busy tile patterns or purple appliances. Instead, integrate the design elements you love as accents, not centerpieces. Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating future buyers who don’t happen to share your idiosyncratic style sense.

Base Choices on Reality
Who wouldn’t want a big bay window? The question is whether it would work in your individual kitchen. A bay window shown overlooking a lake may look great in a catalog, but if you live on a busy street, it’s likely you’d regret giving in to your whim. Likewise, oversize professional appliances are swoon-worthy, but they’re simply not practical in a small, cozy kitchen. In short, don’t lie to yourself!

Kitchen Remodeling Tips - Utility Counter Space


Lots of Landing Zones
Include plenty of wide-open countertop space around each of your appliances. You know the feeling of removing a heavy, piping-hot pan from the stove, then finding there’s no convenient place to set it down? Think about how you use appliances like the dishwasher, refrigerator, and microwave, and adjust your kitchen design to suit your day-to-day habits.

Island Style
These days, a kitchen island is practically a must-have. But choose carefully: An oversize or poorly located island blocks both traffic and work flow. Allow sufficient space on all sides of the island, enough so that you can easily open cabinet doors. And as you are making design decisions, remind yourself that the island, being of finite and usually modest size, cannot be a catchall. Adding a sink or cooktop to your island would eat up a lot of the real estate you might like to have on hand for, say, casual dining.

Don’t Forget the Backsplash
Oh, the wonders of a backsplash. It ties together disparate elements even as it creates a focal point. (Plus, it makes cleanup so much easier.) Some complain about the paralyzing, seemingly infinite number of choices, but stick with the selection process and you’ll be amply rewarded. The best advice is to select your backsplash at an early stage of the renovation. Typically, the backsplash is installed shortly before project completion. If you postpone your decision until then, you may have to rush through the decision and end up settling on something you don’t love—which may become something you wind up hating.

Award-Winning Budget-Friendly Kitchen Makeover

See how designer Cheryl Hamilton-Gray turned a dated California kitchen into a budget-friendly dream come true for the owner.

Budget Kitchen Makeover

Designer Cheryl Hamilton-Gray's award-winning budget kitchen makeover. Photo:

Besides wanting a budget-friendly, easily maintained kitchen with clean, contemporary lines, the owner of this 1950s-era bungalow had few instructions for designer Cheryl Hamilton-Gray, CKD, of Hamilton-Gray Design in Carlsbad, CA.

The rather generic-looking one-story house had a neutral style that could easily be adapted to the midcentury modern aesthetic the young homeowner prefers. Revamping the floor plan was the first step. Opening the kitchen to the living room flooded the space with natural light and created “a great-room effect,” says Hamilton-Gray.

Budget Kitchen MakeoverSmart shopping and attention to detail were key to the project. Hamilton-Gray made her way to IKEA, where she knew she’d find items to fit the homeowner-approved black, white, and gray color scheme. “IKEA cabinets are very reasonable, and if you buy cleverly and get a good installer, it’s a great product,” she says. 

There are plenty of convenience features behind the sleek surfaces, such as a floor-to-ceiling pull-out pantry, a roll-out trash-and-recycling unit, and deep drawers providing practical storage for everything from pots and pans to dishes and plastic containers.

Milk-glass door fronts on the upper cabinets surrounding the sink yield “a lovely element of reflection” that lightens and brightens the room, and makes the window appear larger, Hamilton-Gray says.

Besides the cabinets, Hamilton-Gray found the stainless steel sink at IKEA—“I was so impressed with the value and the design!”—as well as the appliances. The under-counter microwave is less expensive than similar drawer units, and its brushed metal controls and door handle blend with hardware on the cabinets and other appliances.

The slide-in stove is “an affordable way to get the built-in look.” The refrigerator, too, mimics the appearance of a built-in model. “There was enough depth in the wall to inset it,” Hamilton-Gray says. “It’s not counter-depth, but the installation gives it the look without the price.”

Budget Kitchen Makeover - NKBA 1

The aluminum toe-kick, which gleams like stainless steel, complements appliances, sink, and hardware. It provides the space with “a nice lift, contrasts with cabinet finish, and gives the base cabinets a wonderful floating effect.”

The homeowner fell in love with the sculptural faucet and made it the number one item on the his short wish list. Rather than spring for a pricey unit from a designer showroom, Hamilton-Gray found this affordable model at Home Depot; even better, it was marked down as part of a closeout sale.

The granite countertops were another closeout. “Most stone yards have what they call the ‘bone yard.’ It’s full of scraps, many of which are big enough for an island, a backsplash, or a contrasting accent piece.” Hamilton-Gray found this granite—which is similar to styles labeled Kashmir White or Azul Platino—in the bone yard. The vendor had discontinued it, because it wasn’t a big seller, but “it’s a great neutral [that] you can put it with anything.” It works especially well with this color combination.

Budget Kitchen Makeover - NKBA 2The cork floor tiles are as gentle on the feet as they were on the wallet. The durable, easy-maintenance squares, installed like vinyl or carpet tile, are a good choice for do-it-yourselfers. “There are such great possibilities with cork, it should be investigated for its great value,” she says. “And the color is a warm anchor for what could be a sterile black-and-white kitchen.”

Textured porcelain tile installed on the wall to the left of the refrigerator provides a nice break from the kitchen’s slick surfaces and “fits the look so beautifully.” The tiles cover the brick backside of the living room fireplace, since as Hamilton-Gray points out, “brick didn’t work with the crisp, clean look we wanted.”

Besides living up to its owner’s expectations, this attractive, easy-care, and high-functioning workspace won the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s 2012 National Design Competition’s Budget-Friendly Kitchen Award.

Cheryl Hamilton-Gray, CKD, of Hamilton-Gray Design, offered the following budget kitchen makeover strategies:

• Negotiate: Ask everyone you deal with if there’s any flexibility in their pricing.

• Set priorities: Choose a couple of materials or design elements that are most important to you and make them your splurge items. Be flexible with all other choices.

• Save on appliances: Consider black or white appliances to avoid paying the premium for stainless steel. Remember that black appliances are easier to match than white, which varies somewhat between manufacturers.

• Salvage sources: Explore alternative shopping sources like Habitat for Humanity’s Habitat ReStores, salvage yards, thrift and antique stores, eBay—even yard sales and estate sales.

• Retails discounts: Ask vendors about overstocks, closeouts, floor samples, showroom models and upcoming sales.

• Shop for seconds: Handcrafted items such as ceramic tiles gain charm and character through slight variations in shape, color, or pattern.

• Do it yourself: Savings add up if you paint, hang wallpaper, or install floor tiles; advanced skills make an even greater bottom-line impact.

Visit Hamilton-Gray Design for more inspirational photos and info about the San Diego, CA-based firm.