Open thread: Real-world advice to consider if you’re NEW to your OLD house and contemplating a kitchen remodel

1960s-modern-kitchen-remodelSo this week I made a new Retro Kitchens Page aimed at helping helping readers get started with a kitchen remodel. Importantly, it shares some of my experienced aimed in particular at folks who are NEW to their OLD house and contemplating a kitchen makeover. My kinda major focus is… take your time. I came up with eight items. But, I want to make this the best page/advice possible. So today, OPEN THREAD: Readers, what else can we advise folks who are new to their old house and who are contemplating what to do with the kitchen? Above: Reader Rebecca recently finished a retro remodel; her story is in the pipeline. I bet she can add to the 411.

Here’s my start at it:

Some of my thoughts if you are NEW to your OLD house and contemplating a kitchen remodel:


  1. Environmental and safety issues come first. Vintage houses can contain vintage nastiness such as lead, asbestos, and more. Consult with properly licensed professionals to know what is in your house, and how to make informed decisions about how to handle.
  2. If you are new to your old kitchen — go slow. Before you proceed thinking you need a gut remodel, for instance, get to know your kitchen first. Live in it a year to get to know its flow. Get to know its original style and features. Get to know your “Retro Kitchen Style” — because not all retro is alike. It may turn out that, once you learn about the original features in your retro kitchen, you might come to love them — and you may not need to spend the money, and endure the aggravation of a major remodel.
  3. vintage-formica-catalog 1938Consider updates that are in harmony with the original architecture of your house. Sure, an original retro kitchen may be “dated.” But every kitchen is dated. For example: Don’t kid yourself: Put a 2013 kitchen in your 1955 house… and in a few years that 2013 kitchen will be “dated”, too — and, dated to the wrong year. But, put in a kitchen that is harmonious with the original 1955 architecture – and at least its date will match the date of the house. “Yes, but what about ‘resale’?” folks always ask. Well, my point of view is: Mid century houses are now old enough to be considered “historic”, either officially or non-officially. “Historical restorations” or period-appropriate remodels are desirable to folks who are “into” old houses. And, you can do a period remodel that isn’t “over the top” — one that’s kind of “flexible” (this is what I did with my three bathrooms.) On the other hand, going back to our example, a 2013 kitchen in a 1955 house is unlikely to appeal to a shopper 10 years from now who is into what’s new in 2023; in reality, your financial loss* (*See item #5, below) on your fabulous 2013 kitchen remodel will only grow each and year thereafter, especially if you put in “trendy” 2013 stuff.  And finally, mind you, “trendier” has a shorter lifespan every year. Disclaimer, thought: All this is IMHO, do not consider this financial advice, this is something you need to do your own research and consult with your own professionals on, based on your market conditions.
  4. edges-for-vintage-laminate-countersHumble materials – This point kind of goes with the one above. Many — probably “most” — mid century and older houses were decorated with materials that *today* would be considered kind of… low brow. Things like: Simple wood kitchen cabinets… laminate counter tops… vinyl flooring… even knotty pine. This is pretty much opposite of what the “mainstream market” wants to sell you today — (more expensive) granite… marble… blinged out cabinetry. I personally found it a relief not to have to spec out my kitchen to “Keep up with the Joneses.” My kitchen “fits” with the rest of my (humble materials) house. And by skipping the luxe, I think I saved a lot of money.
  5. money pitRecognize that most major remodels are a bad financial “investment”. Data indicate that most homeowners will not recover the cost of a major kitchen renovation when they to go re-sell. Read my story looking at the annual research — and be aware.
  6. Save your time, energy and money for the final fix. Unless there is a safety or environmental issue involved, I am not one for putting a drop of money into a space as a “stop gap measure” while we agonize over the big picture plan. Okay, I might paint the wall (off white), so that I can “see” the space better so I can figure out what I want. My husband is really good about reminding me: An old house is a time and money pit constantly presenting costly surprises. Be careful about squandering on half measures. ‘Invest’ in making plans that will endure for years… and then spend the time, energy and money — once.
  7. Get a subscription to Consumer Reports. When you are in spending mode like this, your head will spin. As far as I know, Consumer Reports is the only resource out there to do testing to try and really triangulate to “value”.
  8. Disclaimer and clarification to all of the above: I am not a contractor, an architect, a designer, a real estate expert or variant of some such profession. I am writing this from my perspective as an owner of four old houses over my lifetime, and as a blogger who has been writing on this topic for about six years. Do your own research… identify and engage your own properly licensed professionals… make thoughtful decisions that are right for you.

As you can see, I’m focused on the “planning” stage — not on prescribing specific solutions or “what to do’s”. Readers, I welcome your thoughts and experiences!

Readers, what else can we advise folks who are new to their old house and who are contemplating a kitchen remodel?

  1. Hi Pam. It has been said over and over again, “live with it.” I did freshen up of a mid-century modern kitchen that had been freshened up. Mine didn’t fit the period at all and in fact was in total conflict. I am ashamed!!! Well, it was way before your time (e.g. blogging), so I didn’t have the kind of awesome resources that exist today. I am going to do it one more time, with feeling… but I am going really slow and thinking it through. How can I retain the mid-century vibe of the house, but still get the update and benefits of today. This is a post I wrote about my failed kitchen remodel. **sniff** … hopefully when I finish, it will be retro renovation worthy. 🙂

  2. Lena_P says:

    I’ve never owned a home, but I’ve “helped” with quite a few renovations. One VERY important thing is plan the layout first, especially with a kitchen or bath. I don’t care if your kitchen is made from solid gold, it’s no good if the food prep area is ten feet away from the stove and the dishwasher opens in front of a door! Think about HOW you use a room before how you want it to look.

    Use graphing paper to sketch out your layout exactly and imagine moving through it. If you have a hard time visualizing the 2D drawing as 3D space, cut an oval about the same size as you (I’m about 20 inches by 15 inches as a broad-shouldered and busty woman) and any other people likely to use the space (24 inches by 15 inches for a man, maybe 15 by 12 for a kid). Now move the ovals through the space as though they were cooking pasta or making brownies or eating over the sink. Does the layout make sense for how you’re actually going to use the space? Is the counter where you need it? Would tall, shallow cabinets work better? How deep do your drawers really have to be? When my mom did her kitchen, the cabinet maker tried to convince her she needed drawers at least 12 inches deep for her pots. She wanted them nine inches deep, and measured one of her deepest pots in front of him to convince him it really was only six inches deep. He admitted she was right, and she got three drawers under her stove instead of two, increasing her storage by 50%.

  3. Hillary says:

    I love that my kitchen cabinets are painted with oil paint. I can use a magic eraser on them and all the dirt comes off. The surface oil paint forms is very hard and durable. Good thing you didn’t paint latex over the oil as someone did on the trim in the rest of my house – I can peel it off in long strips!

  4. Jennifer F. says:

    I have to say Pam, I have taken your remodel advice to heart, and not painted just to change the color as a hold over until we can stomach the thought of ripping out our cheaply remodeled kitchen (it screams flip, but was done by the previous owner) in our 1929 Spanish style. Our approach has been to do one room at a time. We’ve lived here almost three years, and have a pretty good idea of how to improve our kitchen, when the time comes. As far as period appropriate, with lighting and things like replastering, we’ve purchased things that are period appropriate, but we like. For the plastering, we’ve had the original ceilings that were falling down, ripped out and replaced with plaster, so that it looks exactly how it was when it was built. We had the ugly flip and not suitable fireplace ripped out, and an original plaster fireplace and mantle with quoin work made to replace. It’s always a shock to the wallet to go back to original, but it feels right, and although our home is modest, we do feel we are caretakers for the future. As far as resale value, we probably won’t get our money back, but we live here, and enjoy it, we love our house. That’s what it’s about. Love where you live.

  5. Tikitacky says:

    My advice before making unfortunate choices for your kitchen (or wherever) because you aren’t finding what you want on Craigslist or at the ReStore, search outside those standard parameters. I have found four 50s light fixtures, a full Homecrest patio set, a steel bathroom vanity and the three fixtures that surround it, a pink and black chrome dinette with the laminate in a pattern i have NEVER seen before along with the four chairs in the same pattern, all from (are you ready?) haunting the real estate listings. Yep. Religiously search for homes for sale that are of the same time period as yours and you will find houses that haven’t been flipped. But sadly, the chances are that they will be. Those great things that we want? They will more often than not go in the trash, so contact the listing agent and ask that they pass your contact info on to their client (the seller) as well as to the buyer’s agent when the house sells, offering to purchase the items you want. Only twice has this not worked for me. And both times my offer wasn’t declined, I just didn’t hear anything; I suspect my contact info wasn’t passed on to the buyers in those instances. I don’t know if that is really on topic, but I have had phenomenal luck with this system and can only recommend that if you’re trying to restore your Mid Century treasure, it’s worth investigating this avenue. On a side note, we are tearing our kitchen out because although it is original(ish), like the issue a previous poster had, the heavily painted wood cabinets (or which there is ONE full upper in the whole kitchen) have shelves that barely allow for a 24 oz can. No cooking oil, not even a box of Bisquick fits. We found a full St Charles steel kitchen that someone tore out for a ‘remodel’. So although we are gutting, when it’s all said and done, no one but us will ever know!

  6. Samantha Anastasiou says:

    I just want to chime in, with something about insurance companies. Never let them force you to throw out your kitchen cabinets if you don’t want to! My home had custom maple cabinets built on spot, which a lot of homes did, solid wood. Instead of having them refinished, they made me get new ones, which were top of the line. They are not solid wood, and after a few years really start showing it. =(
    I regret not keeping my cabinets and standing my ground!!

  7. Evie says:

    Great timing for me on this article. We’ve decided to move from our 1958 ranch to a 1965 ranch hopefully by the end of summer. We know the house as it belongs to friends. I remodeled our 1958 about 14 years ago and still love it. There were so many issues with the old kitchen that we did a total reno with new maple frameless cabinets, blue glitter booths and counter high stools, formica, checker board corn/wheat VCT–still love it. Can’t take the furniture to the new place, won’t fit. I initially thought I’d have the 1965 kitchen ripped out–non-standard counter height and no place for a dishwasher right now. I’m having second thoughts about ripping it out, just don’t want to spend the money and don’t want to lose the vintage formica counter tops. I’m resigning myself to no dishwasher (pssst, don’t tell hubby). The cabinets are really dark stain and that is really depressing to me. Thinking about painting them but the corgi jumps at them and there’s no stopping him. Not sure what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to rush into it! I’ll continue reading here for all the great advice and info!

  8. Mary Elizabeth says:

    I’ve read a long way down about the debate about painting/not painting knotty pine. Although I am a fan of MY knotty pine cabinets, they were (1) not cheap stock, but built in place by the original owner; (2) a light golden finish, not dark brown; and (3) mostly easy to work around in a gigantic kitchen that had obviously been the hub of the house and the largest room. Many of the houses we looked at while we were “ranch shopping” had dark, depressing, poorly laid out and sometimes shoddy rip-offs, and those I would have refinished or torn out eventually. I have in the past painted wood cabinets as well as refinishing them, and my advice is to go with the quality of the wood and the layout of the cabinet area. If the cabinets are good quality, consider taking the time to refinish them. You don’t need to use a chemical strip, but you can remove the doors to work on separately, then go over the cabinets with a small hand sander. (Put away food and dishes, and wear your particle mask.) Then when you are down to bare wood, decide whether you need stain or just want to leave the light wood. If you do decide to stain, pick a stain that is lighter than what you think you want. Instead of putting it on with a brush and then wiping off with a rag, wipe the stain ON with a rag. That way you can control the color. Finally, finish your cabinets with several coats of polyurethane. Since the doors are off, you can either do the same process with them or send them out to be stripped at a furniture stripping shop before you stain them.

    I have also painted kitchen cabinets with latex paint, and it didn’t fall off in strips or wash off when I cleaned it, even years later. Be sure the surfaces you are painting are real wood, not laminate, which is difficult to paint over. Preparing the surface is the key to a durable paint job. Sand well to get off all the furniture wax, paint or old lacquer finish, then paint with a universal primer. Ask for this at your own local paint store. If they are true knotty pine, you may have to use wood filler to fill in the knots, unless you don’t mind them showing through.

    Follow the primer with two coats of your chosen color in semi-gloss finish. And I always choose the color that is one shade lighter than what I think I want, as it always looks darker when on the surface.

    If all this is too much for you to contemplate, think about hiring a carpenter/painter to come in and refinish or paint your cabinets. He (or she) can help you assess the quality of the cabinets and may even be able to take out a section to allow you to put in a dishwasher. I can see that this was done to my cabinets after they were built.

    For ideas about kitchen cabinet colors that will go with the mid-century modern house, see the retro makeover kitchens on this site. No one should ever be discouraged from going with the colors and styles that work for you. But one of the things I like about Pam’s site is that she is encouraging us not to rip out what “isn’t broke.” So if you have real wood cabinets, and the kitchen layout works for you after a year living with it, I would strongly advise either refinishing or painting rather than ripping out.

  9. pam kueber says:

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Mary Elizabeth! My only add: My regular reminder to test old paint for lead — consult with a properly licensed professional to know what you are working with so that you can make informed decisions about how to proceed.

  10. Debra says:

    Hi Pam,
    The kitchen in my mid century modest home is somewhat small … but I’d love to have a built in dishwasher.
    I could accomplish this if I install a single sink with a drainboard. The ones I’ve found all seem to be somewhat small.
    Do you have any thoughts about what regrets I might have with a single sink? Or any advice?

  11. Pam Kueber says:

    I think that the choice of a single- vs. a double-sink is totally a personal decision. If you clean up your dishes promptly I think a single sink is fine. If you pile things, well, then, I think two basins are better: One for the pile, one to wash and rinse in. If you do go single, pull out your largest cooking pot and make sure it fits.

    There also are dishwashers that are narrower, and today there are dishwashers “in a drawer” even, I think. They are worth taking a look at — although I think they are likely notably more expensive.

  12. Pam Kueber says:

    One other thing I will say: Today’s dishwashers don’t seem to live very long. I need to replace my 10-yr-old Bosch already. What a PITA — and a pity for the environment too.

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