Retro Renovating for resale when you already have a quality — but wrong-dated — kitchen

Readers Kate and Tom recently asked how to approach a Retro Renovation of their 1960s kitchen — which was updated by previous owners in 1990s style — with an eye toward being thrifty especially given potential resale in the future. I gave time for other readers to pipe in, and now it’s my turn. In this story, I point to research that underscores why you don’t typically get your money back on remodels — so beware, if you are not made of money… I spotlight reader comments that resonate with me… and I offer my advice for updates to Kate and Tom’s kitchen to give it a more retro look within the confines of the cabinet and countertop cards they’ve been dealt. Above: Kitchen shown with 1960s vintage kitchen wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures.

Research suggests that you don’t typically get your money back on remodels — so beware !$!$!

Via the sassy and wonderful Anne Taintor

I first wrote the following story in 2011 about the findings of the Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report (www.costvsvalue.com), and subsequent yearly data have not changed much: 

Short and sweet: Many — I see the research suggests 90% of — remodeling projects do not appear to fully return the money you spent on the projects when you sell your house. Read my story, and the links to all the primary source information, and you decide. If you are “renovating for resale”, be aware of the risks. If you are renovating to make the house your own — as a discretionary spend — well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing; for sure, over my lifetime, I have spent lots and lots of money on my houses that I did not, or doubt I will ever, recoup upon resale.  Above: Kitchen shown with 1960s floral wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures.

Beware the trendy: Relatedly, I wanted to feature Kate and Tom’s kitchen for another reason: It shows how massiviely popular design features from one era can relatively quickly become unfashionable and “dated”.

The case in point in this kitchen: Granite countertops. Many readers, in the comments, pointed to the gray speckled granite countertops at “screaming 1990s”, and I agree. Now, though, granite is “out”, and quartz  countertops are decisively “in.” Some readers recommended swapping the granite for quartz. I would not do so. Who knows how long quartz counter tops will be in style? One of the things I also recall reading from the remodeling survey is that the changes made, and valued, were for spaces that would be sold immediately. This suggests that, if you are in a “hot” area of the country where such investments are likely to recoup top dollar, you should make the investments shortly before you plan to sell so that what you choose is in style. Even then, be aware of the risks of not recovering your investment — spaces like kitchens and baths are so personal, in terms of what buyers want.

In a comment on the original story, Reader Martha nailed my view:

Frankly, and this is coming from someone who is home shopping right now, don’t do anything but paint, curtains, and accessories, if you are trying to look retro. Why? I love retro and would be jazzed to find an ultimate retro reno to buy. But in the perspective of the number of people shopping? I am unique. And I did say reno, because I want a smooth working kitchen. Not to mention the fact, that one persons cool 60’s reno is another person’s 60’s reno dud. If you’re not planning on making this your forever home, keep the big ticket and time consuming items off the menu unless they are timeless choices. Good luck ????

Stacia said:

….It sounds like you are not thinking you will always stay in this house. Do what you can with inexpensive changes and use your big money for things you can take with you, or save it to make your next house a reality sooner. My last house was built by someone with a 1982 country-kitchen sensibility. We changed out the corn-flower blue cutsey-rooster wallpaper and painted, but left the oak cabinets which were the opposite of our taste but well-built and in good shape. The house had other things we loved with young kids at the time: a big fenced yard, a great neighborhood, 5 bedrooms, and a big finished basement for them to play in. We just thought of those when the things we couldn’t change bugged us. We saved our money and bought land to build a house much more suited to our style. The other house sold to the first family that looked at it!

My advice — if building personal savings and net worth is your principal goal: 

Based on my understanding of the research, my approach would be that … if your goal is thrift and building your personal savings and net worth… and if your kitchen already is in safe (Be Safe/Renovate Safe!) and quality shape… and if you think you’ll be selling the house, especially sooner rather than later… spend as little as possible on changes. Yes: Keep the serviceable granite countertops, wood cabinets, appliances, and floor — and decorate around them. 

My go-to ways to retro-pep things up: Add vintage or retro-style wallpaper and window treatments, along with color-cued accessories that you love and can take to your next house. When you prepare to sell your home, either leave the wallpaper up if you think buyers might like the retro look, or, because wallpaper is such a personal choice, take it down and repaint in a neutral palette that will enable prospective buyers to imagine themselves in your space. Above: The kitchen shown with 1970s wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures.

This wallpaper is my favorite in the orange family (so far) for your kitchen — although I would surely get lots of samples and torture over the decision. It has the brown and gray bases in tones that you need, PLUS and accents of dark coral and light minty-blue that you can play with. It also appears to be a nice scale for a soffit.

Pull the clashing cabinet and countertop colors together with wallpaper:

My approach also means: Love the Colors You’re In. In this case, you’ve been dealt orange-blonde woodtones and gray. I am not 100% sure, but I think your wood is “warm” while your grays are “cool” — causing visual clash in this kitchen. Above: 1960s-70s muted flower-power wallpaper from whatabagain8 on ebay — five rolls for under $100! (affiliate link).

I know you like the aqua color on your soffit, but I really think that to pull the kitchen’s dominant colors together, you need to swap it out for a hearty dose of pattern based on the same colors as your cabinetry and countertop. And this is where wallpaper in particular can save the day, because it can cover lots of surface with happy, eye-catching pattern: 

  1. Find a wallpaper that includes the wood color, the gray, and a third and/fourth accent color that you can play up elsewhere in the kitchen.
  2. The scale of the wallpaper designed for your narrow soffit space should be not too big, not too small, just right.
  3. Wallpaper the soffit, at minimum. In my kitchen, I also wallpapered an adjacent wall.
  4. I think I’d paint the backslash a gray color that is harmonious with but probably a bit lighter than the countertops — “neutralize” it — gray paint will make the backsplash recede. And, even though it sounds counterintuitive, a gray-painted backsplash may even play down the gray granite countertops, because you will see less contrast (compared to the current gray countertop + white backsplash contrast). 
  5. I also like the look of these colors in your kitchen. The blue is opposite orange on the color wheel, so works, and the white feel has an airiness to it. I worry about the scale of this print, though: How much of it will show on a soffit? And, it might be too faint: You need the right measure of visual strength in the pattern to balance the expanse of cabinets and granite.

    You could also put the wallpaper — or a coordinating wallpaper — on the backsplash. But that’s a super in your face retro look. Are you game? See: Ben Sander’s kitchen transformation; he coordinated the wallpaper with the backsplash using tile, but you get the drift — you can do this look with wallpaper on the backsplash too.

  6. Find curtains and towels in your accent colors. You could put in a rug to add color, too, but personally, I am not a fan of rugs in the kitchen, because I have brittle bones and am clumsy and worry about trips and falls. *Do your own research on this issue.*
  7. Start collecting accessories in your accent colors. For example, I see that burnt orange Le Creuset. If your wallpaper has that color in it, you are on your way! 

Reader comments that resonated with me:

Reader Kate had this perspective:

I honestly think this is a kitchen that will age very well. Rather than screaming “nineties” to me, it looks much like the original kitchen in my grandparents’ modernist style cedar DeckHouse, which was built in the late 70s from a mid century kit. The appliances are a bit 2000s, but look like they are in good condition. The cabinets are beautiful, and will blend with a range of styles. In general, but especially if you’re planning on moving within 5 to 10 years, I’d recommend Pam’s “love the home you’re in” approach. Have fun with the inexpensive surface changes like textiles and paint. (That wood is too gorgeous for me to imagine painting, though!)

RL Johnson said:

….if you plan on selling the house in the next 5 yrs…. do not and i repeat this, do not do a taste specific mid 60s kitchen. at least not on the hard surfaces.. the Majority of buyers cannot get past someones vision to ‘see’ what they can do with it. most will simply state -this has to go, & if they are interested in your house they WILL lowball your price.. all they see is $$$ to redo your retro kitchen.. (i speak from experience here)

even paint can be a problem. unless you go with a very classic neutral.

clean almost plain cabinets and and appliances are the necessities.

Do your self a great favor and DECORATE your kitchen in the sixties designs with all the REMOVABLE items.. the kitchy fun and period appropriate counter top appliances towels paper towel holders etc.,.

then the day you decide to sell. PACK THEM UP nice and neat and ready for your next home and STAGE that kitchen back to neutral with only a few simple items of popped color..
just my thoughts and i wish you best of luck in your endeavors.

Reader wendy watson said:

I would leave the cabinets, floors and appliances alone. Those would be expensive to replace. My house is in the same situation as yours and I’m glad I didn’t redo everything now I worked with what I had and I’m very happy with it now. Things you can do to get a retro vibe would be to repaint, add a rug, change the drawer pulls, add some retro light fixtures and curtains, and just accessorize the heck out of it. Luckily most of what is there is pretty neutral and you can work with it. You’ll be glad you didn’t redo everything later on and then you can spend your money on other things. Plus you sound like you’re not going to be staying there for good.

Ky said:

I say love the house you are in, and sometimes that means living with what previous owners have done if it is in good shape and functions well. My house was built in the 70’s but the kitchen underwent a stainless and granite transformation before we bought it. While it doesn’t entirely mesh with the era, the granite chosen complements the original cabinets and is perfectly functional, so we’re keeping it.

There are so many other ways to bring in the retro look without making it look like you are doing a set design for a period piece movie or TV show. Consider changing out hardware or accessories, do simple things that add to the character. In my opinion, the best rooms have a look that feels like it has evolved over time, not stuck in a time capsule.


First off, what’s the budget and what are your diy skills? Secondly, you’re concern is resale, are you looking to move in one year? Two? Five? If its only a year or two, I wouldn’t bother with too much of anything.

Cheap and short term: Change the cabinet hardware. Wallpaper the soffit and the backsplash. (At the very least the soffit ) Clear the counters and stove of the modern appliances. Find some vintage canisters, and do-dads such to replace them. Try to find a throw rug in a style and color to complement the aforementioned wallpaper for in front of the sink. Same goes for dish towels, tie in your colors.

Bungalow Bill:

Ugh, I hate getting rid of things that are still fully functional. It’s a waste of money and bad for the environment. You can change the look totally by accessorizing. Change out the hardware to something chrome, add little 1/4 round plant/knick knack shelves on the cabinet at the window and sink, new hand towels, and decorate the soffit with a collection of plates, tiles, trays, or kitchenalia. Use the countertop to show off some vintage styled appliances, canisters and storage.

Matt said:

A couple thoughts… gutting a perfectly usable kitchen (with a higher resale value than a retro one, even before you spend all the money to make it retro) is the kind of landfill-stuffing waste that is steadily destroying the planet. My .02: gut the moldy useless messes and get the full usable life out of the perfectly good spaces. If you’re really thorough and buy nice used stuff, and find homes for all the materials you take out, only then can you avoid becoming part of the problem. Or do lower-impact visual fixes like previous posters mention.

I’ve asked the same question of my useless/freezing/horrid 1/2 bath as I turn it into a retro 1935 Ming Green full bath. All my efforts pay off for me, but it’s a dice throw on the next owner’s preference for modern or vintage.

The deeper question is about which style has the legs to survive for decades. Will 90’s granite kitchens (tick, tick, tick) someday be retro because so few survived the 2020’s wave of carbon fiber LED countertop kitchen redo’s? Are you simply re-committing the same sin of the 1980’s because all those mod kitchens looked ‘dated’ but weren’t old enough yet to be treasured? The writing on the wall is to preserve what you’ve got, and it’ll survive well enough to be a treasure someday. That’s the only reason we still have any original 40’s/50’s/60’s kitchens today…

Yes, Matt: Will 1990s kitchens be Retro Renovation kitchens of the future? Surely, the best of the designs will! So it is with all eras.

Yikes. This story took me, like, six hours to pull together, what with going through all the wallpaper options twice. But Kate and Tom, if I were in your place — which I have been! — I am sure it would take me much more time to map the game plan. Good luck! Let me know what you ultimately do!

And: Thanks, readers, for all your comments! They were really good — and to be sure, they map out a continuum of ideas for Kate and Tom to consider based on (1) how much they’d like to spend to make this kitchen their own given (2) the time they plan to be in it. 

  1. Kate Hennessy-Fiske says:

    It’s been almost a year since you posted this great response to our inquiry. The first time I read it I had a hard time imagining these things, but since I’ve read it again and time has gone by I am struck by how useful these comments are. Thank you for all the work you put into this; we are still pondering all the great suggestions that were made & advice given. You are so creative and it’s fun to read your blog. –Tom and Kate

  2. Joe Felice says:

    1. Cabinets can always be painted. That seems to be very popular these days. Painted cabinets can always be re-painted if someone doesn’t like them.
    2. Not-every vintage retro component wears its age well. There are many that people look at and say “What the heck were they thinking?” In 50 years, people will be saying that about our infatuation with granite and stainless steel.
    3. For this reason, choose elements and components that withstood the test of time. Just because something was used back then doesn’t mean it should be used today.
    4. There re some things that I feel should never be used in a retro renovation. Those include stainless-steel appliances (with some exceptions) and solid-surface counter tops. They simply weren’t used back then, and seldom impart an authentic retro feel. Use these if you must, but understand and accept this. Homes simply do not have to have these things in order to be serviceable, despite what HGTV preaches.
    5. If saving money is a goal, in most cases that will be apparent. You can decorate around something all you want, but the fact that you chose to skimp will forever be apparent. That does NOT mean it won’t be attractive, or that people won’t like it. It just may not look “authentic.”
    6. As Pam says, you will seldom, if ever, recoup the money you have put into a retro renovation. Do not approach the project as an “investment.” This is unlike other home improvements.
    7. You are doing this for YOU, not for some mythical, unknown, future buyer. There will ALWAYS be those who do not find the finer things in life to their liking. On the other hand, there will always be those who would die to have what you’ve done. We’ve seen examples of that right here on this site. And I’ve seen this with regards to the diner that I built in my dining room. (Joe’s Diner.)
    8. If you’re worried about finding a buyer, DON’T. That’s negative thinking that will not serve you well. Put positive energy into the project, and that will attract the buyers with which that energy resonates. In other words, the Universe will send you what you seek, so long a you always remain positive. (You reap what you sew.)
    9. Follow common sense, as well as the time-tested design guidelines that have been listed here.
    10. Your project will always cost more than you anticipated or think it should. You will have trouble finding contractors to help bring your project to fruition.

    The end result is what makes it all worthwhile,

  3. Evan says:

    I guess I’ll have to chime in because this is our situation RIGHT NOW. We are fixin to list our 1935 English Cottage/Tudor style home within the next week or so. We’ve lived here 17.5 years, restoring (ourselves) as time and finances allowed. We did everything with a mind to restoration, not renovation. We made minor changes in the kitchen, only to make the layout work better, using the original cabinetry. We tore out a lot of *stuff* that had been unfortunately layered on the poor old dear in the last 80 years. We took out cheap Kmart bath fixtures and replaced with authentic American Standard wall mounted sink of the period, and replaced the missing built in medicine cabinet with a period one we found. We pulled up awful cheap lino, stripped 1980s wallpaper and completely rebuilt the upstairs bath room that was an early 1970s nightmare. The house looks much like it did in 1936. It’s been a huge amount of work, but worth it—because we love this house. It’s too big now our family has grown and gone. 3500 sq ft and six bedroom…just too much.
    My feeling is, people who look at our house will be people who like old houses. When we’ve been in the market to buy a home (four times in our married life) we always looked specifically at old houses, never at ‘modern’ or just built homes. Why would someone be willing to look at a house built in 1936 if they don’t like old kitchens and old bathrooms? It seems a conundrum to me and one that has had me gnashing my teeth over comments by realtors! I have grown to hate the terms ‘update’ and ‘upgrade’. There is a realtor in Portland (Oregon, north of us) who specialized in vintage and historic homes. Boy do I wish our home was up there.

    1. Mary Elizabeth says:

      Evan, your house sounds fabulous! I hope you do find a buyer that appreciates are your labor to bring out the home’s finer points.

      Right now my daughter is having trouble selling her house with the retro late 70s kitchen in the Hartford, Connecticut area. I have always envied her the twin electric wall ovens in harvest gold, but I know someone will pull them out, thinking they are not only dated but also might not function. She has cooked many a Thanksgiving dinner in those ovens over the past 16 years and has only had to replace the elements in each one once.

  4. Kate Hennessy-Fiske says:

    Wow. Thanks to you ALL, and you especially Pam for all the curating and extra research you did. I’m not sure yet of our next steps with this kitchen, but I now have a bunch of fresh and feasible new ideas to ponder.
    One thing I keep thinking about when I read so many of these great comments is “oh, but this person doesn’t know what the rest of the room looks like!” Because our kitchen is not a stand-alone room, it’s actually part of an open-floor-plan great room which runs the whole length of the back side of our house–kitchen, dining and den/playroom all attached and open. So I guess I need y’all to help us redecorate our whole house!!!! Seriously, though, I have a ton of other questions when it comes to design of this 1960s house–from windows to open floor plans, to flooring….Guess I’ll be spending more time on this website! Thanks, again, and we’ll be in touch!

  5. Pam Kueber says:

    Here is another thought that just came to me: If you don’t want to make the big commitment to wallpaper (can be expensive and difficult to both install and remove), try retro-looking contact paper instead. I used this once as a border in my daughter’s college apartment and by golly, it stayed up all year! For further adhesion, you might spray-coat the soffit with that temporary spray adhesive you used for matte boards for advertising presentations (I forget right now what it’s called), however: The stuff stinks to high heaven – gives me headache — and spray likely difficult to control.

    1. ineffablespace says:

      It’s 3M Super 77.

      You will also need something like Goof Off to get the adhesive off at the end of the year.

      Or, if you get get your hands on it, Orange Solvent used in dental offices, which smells better than Goof Off. And sometimes hand sanitizer gets a lot of things off because of the alcohol.

  6. Allison says:

    What price joy?

    I feel so depressed by the constant ring of “resale! resale!” when it comes to decorating or renovating one’s home.

    So you potentially “lose” some money when you’re obligated to sell; how much is it worth to you to live in a home that is designed- not for you- but for some anonymous future buyer who doesn’t really exist?

    When my husband and I were first married, he was in the Navy and we moved every year or two or three, into one featureless house after another. All we had was furniture, we never had a home.

    Its worth a LOT to love your house; for me, enough that future resale isn’t even a consideration.

    There will be a buyer who either loves or can live with my decisions, and I won’t sacrifice my pleasure now to a vague and future Resale Perfection.

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      I agree with your sentiment — but point out: Decorating or renovating to feel comfy and happy in your house is not the same calculation as Decorating or renovating to maximize your savings and net worth. Every person needs to make this decision. My point is to try and counter, in my own little way, the prevailing marketing push that suggests you make all your money back, and then some, when you remodel.

  7. Carol says:

    My niece just moved into her first house this weekend. Built in “62, it is 90% original. She has a spectacular knotty pine kitchen with a peninsula. She said the first thing she would do is paint the cabinets white. After 30 minutes of fast talking and making many references to this website, she agreed to wait. I scared her with stories of painting knotty wood and the many failures of such. She said, in places, the finish was worn and the shine was dull. I explained to her about shellac and poly and assured her I would come and rescue her cabinets. (They look 100% great in photos.) She will replace the 80’s butcher block formica countertops because they CLASH with the cabinets. She is insisting on granite but I have told her about all the fabulous formica patterns that would look great in her kitchen. We will be pulling up all the kitchen info. on this website when I visit. I think she will be surprised at the options. Her Great Grandmother has knotty pine cabinets with gray cracked ice countertops and stainless trim with a peninsula. She likes that kitchen because it’s homey. She is thinking of wallpapering the backsplash, so I also need to show her a formica backsplash that matches the counters. This story will help tremendously. And Pam, I too, am concerned about falling since I ripped the ligaments in my left SI joint. My balance is off a little now. No throw rugs!!!! There is a whole new world of hazards I didn’t think would be an issue this early in my life. Sigh. p.s. We always read to the end.

      1. Carol says:

        Knotty is Nice is the first place I sent her. That’s when she called me back and asked how hard it would be to “revive” the finish. I’m secretly hoping it’s shellac and not poly. You published an article about a reader who revived the shellac on his floors and I think it would be easier to work with for a refresh. (you have turned our heads into retro filing cabinets) I’ll send photos one day if I can talk her into “formica” countertops. She wants granite but I think it will look awful with knotty pine. The kitchen has original oak hardwood floors. The counters and appliances will be the only non-wood surfaces in the room. She needs pattern and/or color.

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