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Spice up your kitchen

Add one lavish helping of white cabinetry paint, a pinch of sweat equity, a cupful of countertop, a heaping spoon of subway tiles--and observe immediately

By Samantha Pynn, National Post

Some kitchens require a gut job, while others just need a refresh. Gut jobs cost the big bucks, starting from $30, 000 for a small and inexpensive off-the-shelf condo kitchen and topping out at six figures for a custom one.

A gut is necessary if you've purchased an older condo with a kitchen that's falling apart. But for many first-time condo owners, they've made the purchase to stop paying rent and get into the real estate game. If the cost of a condo is $300,000, for many, a kitchen reno that costs 10% of the purchase price just isn't in the budget.

Your choices: Keep on shoppin' until you find a condo with a great kitchen, or live with it. I don't like either of those options. And the thrifty and planet-conscious decorator in me says, why not a kitchen refresh? Depending on how much you want to freshen up, a facelift will still cost you between $3,000 and $12,000. But a couple of gallons of cabinetry paint, a countertop, faucet, sink, backsplash tile, and hardware and hinges can make your kitchen look brand new.

The biggest complaint I hear from condo owners is that the kitchen doesn't jibe with the rest of the space. So, I decided to do a little test to see just how many condo kitchens are the jibing kind. I called Jimmy Vlachos of boutique brokerage Core Realty ( corerealtygroupinc.com)and asked him to send me the latest condo listings. Of the 26 condos listed that day, ranging from $293,000 to $354,000, there were only three kitchens that connected to the entire space. The rest were filled with dated and cheap builder materials -- cherry-stained oak cabinets, white and black appliances, heavily speckled granite countertops and honey-stained floors. With an open-concept plan, every spot in your condo is a vantage point to the kitchen. Here is the problem: Those cherry-stained wood cabinets don't reference anything else in the condo, and especially not the floors, busy countertop and appliances to which they are in such close proximity. The good news is these kitchens are easily remedied, starting with paint.

Cabinetry accounts for more than one-third of a total kitchen renovation's cost. If you like the profile of your cabinet doors, painting will save money and a lot of wood from going into a landfill. The trick to making your cabinets look luxe is to remove the doors and bring them to a refinisher. Benjamin Refinishing in Toronto will paint your doors with a smooth long-lasting lacquer finish starting from $25 per door; plus paint. Wood, wood veneer and even laminate takes spray paint well. You can save money by painting the doors yourself, but they must be wood. Plus, you'll need to remove them, fill the holes, clean, sand, and prime for best results.

Don't love your cabinet doors? Many companies offer refacing or cabinet door replacement services. If you have an Ikea kitchen, note that Ikea cabinet boxes for the most part are a standard size, so it's easy to change the doors.

Most people want stainless steel appliances. I've heard designers say that white appliances look cheap, but this is not so. Paint your cabinet doors in soft white, add a marble tile backsplash, and you'll have one dynamite-looking kitchen.

My favourite design solution to appliances that are reading like black holes amid the competing wood tones of your floors and cabinets is to paint the lower cabinets black. This will also unify black appliances and a dark countertop. Next, giving the upper cabinets a coat of white paint will make your space feel lighter, and connect the cabinets to the rest of your condo's white walls.

I should add that if painting your wood cabinets is not an option (it's mostly men who object to painting wood. Sorry boys, but it's true), then approach your space like a prop stylist. Add accessories to your living area in the same colours as your kitchen. An orange pillow for the sofa and wood bowl for the coffee table will connect to the wood cabinets, a black drum table will pick up on the dark granite countertop. These are quick fixes, but a small investment into a few key accessories will connect your kitchen to the rest of the space.

Adding backsplash tile will give your kitchen a finished and upscale look. Of the 26 kitchens on the real estate list, less than half had a backsplash. Glass or marble mini-brick tiles work well with gray, black and white counters and cabinets. Marble adds sophistication, but because you'll be using it in a small application, it won't break the bank. Columns of 3x6-inch or large rectangular porcelain tiles will give your space a contemporary vibe. I love subway tile installed in a brick pattern because it's inexpensive, classic, and works well with natural stone, stainless steel, cement and woods.

A new modern faucet can become a real focal point in the kitchen. And changing the countertop usually means changing the sink. A large under-mounted single bowl sink has a clean and modern look, whereas a double sink works for people who like to keep veggies and dishes or the wash and rinse sides of the sink separate.

When it comes to countertops, there are so many options. Laminate is an inexpensive option that's great for people who are careful with knives and don't do things like put pots directly on the counter, or flambe steak and cherries jubilee. Seriously, as teenagers, my brother and I destroyed my mom's countertop, while the house next door, owned by a single woman, still has its original laminate counter that looks brand new.

Marble, granite, slate and soapstone are gorgeous and start at $65 per square foot, including fabrication and installation. Many natural stones require maintenance, soapstone for example needs to be sealed five to six times. However, look at all the incredible kitchens in southern Europe and you will see how natural stone has stood the test of time. Plus, stone counter slabs can be recycled and salvaged for smaller applications like vanity tops. Here's a money-saving tip: Installing a ¾-inch piece, with a 1¼-inch edge will give the illusion of a thicker slab.

Natural stone is durable and stain-resistant, with the exception of marble. Marble is porous, and if you can survive the heart attack of your first red wine ring or lemon juice stain, then go for it. I had a marble counter installed six years ago, and its beauty was worth the maintenance. And, eventually I surrendered to every scratch and water mark that added to its patina.

An alternative to natural stone is engineered solid surfacing material, more commonly referred to by their manufacturer names. Staron and Corian are non-porous acrylic solid surfaces with a matte finish. Some colours contain between 5% and 30% recycled content. Though you still have to be aware of hot pots, one of the major benefits to an acrylic solid surface is that it has no seams, meaning it can be shaped into one large piece, and scratches and cracks can be repaired. The cost for acrylic solid surfaces starts at $65 per square foot including installation and fabrication.

CaesarStone and HanStone are made from crushed quartz and depending on the colour you choose, some recycled glass and mirror. They're stain-, scratch-, chip-and heat-resistant with a polished finish and starting cost of $100 per square foot including installation and fabrication. Quartz-based countertops are becoming increasingly popular because they're available in colours that aren't available in granite. Another benefit, is that the man-made material is non-porous and doesn't require sealing. HanStone is locally manufactured in London, Ontario.

IceStone is a great eco option that's made from 100% recycled glass and cement. The cost starts at $100 per square foot, including installation and fabrication. My favourite colour is White Pearl, the tiny glass flecks have a glamorous iridescence and sparkle. Manufactured in Brooklyn, N.Y., the company diverts hundreds of tons glass from landfills each year. The company has also won many awards for its environmental and socially responsible initiatives, including Cradle to Cradle gold certification.

Whatever countertop material you choose, avoid any pattern that looks like cat barf. You will recognize it when you see it, and suffice it to say that neither you nor your guests should be reminded of regurgitation at mealtime. A good-looking kitchen will add value to your condo, so make smart choices. I suggest a good balance of classic and contemporary. You want your kitchen to appeal to a wide range of prospective buyers because chances are your kitchen reno will hang around the condo longer than you will.

- Samantha Pynn is host of Pure Design on HGTV, weekdays at 10:30 a.m.

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