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. Joan says:

    We had a similar color scheme when we moved in – chose a light yellow paint for walls and soffit instead of the aqua and it is much better.

  2. Lynne says:

    I’ll be very interested to see what path they take. I hope they report back and let us know.

  3. ineffablespace says:

    I don’t know that there is any correct answer to this if looking toward resale is a large part of the equation, particularly since we don’t know the location or demographic target for the price point of the house.

    In most cases, I think the correct answer would be do nothing except accessorize to suit as the safest option. But that could really be the least satisfying ultimately. To give a more extreme example of this: if you moved into an Edwardian house that had a 1970’s almond laminate and oak strip kitchen and you wanted a 1905-1920 looking kitchen you could accessorize it all you wanted with neat kitchen stuff from the period, and it would still be a 1970’s kitchen. (The argument then is, is a 1970’s kitchen in a house that technically did not have a modern kitchen as we know it yet inauthentic, or is it more authentic than a 2010’s kitchen tricked out to look Edwardian?)

    I think at most real estate price points this kitchen as it stands would check the boxes that a lot of people look for: updated from the original, granite, stainless steel appliances. “Original” or “new, compatible with the original style of the house” is not a box many people check off. In some markets the speckled granite and the age of the kitchen may already be a downside…but not many markets.

    That said, I am not sure that a very plain quartz in a solid color (to reference laminate like the original kitchen probably had) would be a terrible idea, because plain things don’t date as easily as heavily patterned things. It would just not be a low budget thing, and the issue with plain quartz is the limited number of colors.

    Ironically it’s not so much that granite in and of itself is dated, its just that now that the more “generic” granites are readily available at the big box stores, it’s become a big deal for a lot of people to search endlessly for unique granite (or other stone) species, and then to personally select their slabs, often driving to yards for hours around. I think these granites will have less universal appeal at resale, and possibly age a kitchen faster than something plain and “generic”. (Because while people want something “unique” it’s also likely they want something that is both unique and at the height of it’s trendiness).

    Honestly I am not sure how I feel about doing wallpaper “in retrograde” in this kitchen. First, I would say looking at real estate in general (and belonging to a different forum that discusses real estate, kitchens, baths and resale endlessly) I would recommend putting up wallpaper for yourself only if you are willing to take it down before you list. I would say the majority of the house buying population seems to have an almost visceral reaction against wallpaper, and think that taking down wallpaper is a special kind of torture. It’s not particularly rational all the time so it doesn’t matter if there is only a little wallpaper. I read in the buying and selling forum comments that people will automatically rule out a house with wallpaper, they just click on the next one.

    Secondly, it’s sort of reverse of the natural progression. You will see 1950s kitchens that have 1950s wallcovering, and you will see 1950s kitchens that have 1990s wallcovering. But you won’t really see older wallpaper in a newer kitchen…not a fixed element. Accessories and gadgets and collections, sure, but fixed elements, I dunno.

  4. Pam Kueber says:

    I hear ya, ineffable. I did mention taking down the wallpaper when you go to resell. Ironically (given what I wrote), wallpaper is trendy again right now. Well, at list with the decorati. Adding wallpaper — vintage or new/vintage- or even mod-contemporary-looking — would be my #1 way to give the kitchen a retro look that the owner could live with for a few years before selling. It’s, like, the only thing they would need to do, really, given the in-your-faceness of wallpaper.

    Watch on ebay and there are even super deals sometimes.

  5. Kim Ellis says:

    I had a 1920 Craftsman bungalow for 30 years that I slowly brought back to life and actually updated very little; mostly mechanicals and appliances. Solid, very well functioning house. When I realized my knees just couldn’t handle the basement stairs anymore, I bought a 50’s Rambler. Mostly, the sellers just painted, which was fine- I’m not a huge knotty pine fan. It has a lovely new but 90s style bathroom that they redid to sell it. When I mentioned that the bathroom didn’t seem to match the house, they said they didn’t think anyone would want the original pink bathroom. Sigh..

  6. ineffablespace says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of wallpaper, and the house I grew up in that was sold in 2015 had paper in most rooms including grasscloth installed in 1975, stringpaper, and chinoiserie panels installed in 1986 or so. (I think the newest paper was pre-1990).

    Those particular papers to me looked as good in 2015 as when they were put up, not all the patterns aged as well. Ironically some of the original 1969 papers would have looked fresher in 2015 than the 1980s stuff did.

    Of the three wallcoverings I’ve picked for my 1965 house so far, all of them are versions of papers of that house circa 1969-75, although honestly, excepting the grasscloth, the colorways will not really represent 1965 -75 completely accurately–even document papers of the period have usually had the colors changed a bit.

    I know that thinking of resale is important because of job mobility, but I do think that to some extent it has been overstated by an entire industry that has grown up around the phenomenon, staging and remodeling.

    Staging used to mean, cleaning, decluttering, removing highly personalized items or decor, changing colors or perhaps removing wallpaper that was highly taste specific or that the majority of potential buyers might find objectionable. (Dark floral wallpaper, fluorescent paint colors).

    Now staging for resale encompasses light to moderate remodels to “Neutralize for Resale”. And of course “neutral” doesn’t mean neutral so much as it means the “Current and Trendy version of neutral”.

    It’s gotten to the point that the Building section in that forum I participate in has people building custom houses and being afraid to pick something they like because what if they have to sell?

    So sure, it’s important, but I think it’s also come to a point where 1) people are selecting things for their own house that they are projecting that some anonymous future buyer will like and
    2) many anonymous buyers goes into a house for sale expecting that it will have been recently refreshed to reflect their own current tastes.
    and (3) in my market it has extended to many people in the rental market. I bought my house after it has been completely neutralized and staged for sale (In a manner I did not care for at all honestly but whatever). I had to rent it out for at least a year and the renters (first time, out of college) who were getting the house for slightly under market rent, wanted the entire house painted inside (because they did not like the neutral staging color) and they wanted the carpet replaced (because they were “afraid that maybe the previous owners had had cats or pets and also it might be dirty).
    When I pointed out that there were brand new remnants of the same carpet stored in the house, that it had been replaced for resale, and it had barely even been walked on, they said “Oh well we just hate the (neutral) color. Can we pick out our own carpet for our bedrooms.
    No, you can’t.

    I know this runs far afield of the original topic except in the matter of potential future owners, but in my opinion, I don’t think you can predict the desires of future owners anyway.

  7. Pam Kueber says:

    Yes, this is a tricky — and very very interesting — topic.

    It makes me recall when we were looking for houses to buy, which has occurred twice while I’ve been married (twice while I was single). I recall one house, in particular, that I was very very hot on, because it was decorated so very beautifully. Not really to my taste, but beautifully. Whoever lived in it, knew what she was doing. I think this points to: Beautifully done, no matter what they style, helps. But then, that’s me. Ima decorating person.

    Oh. We didn’t buy it. I came to my senses. It was not the right location for us.

  8. Jay says:

    Wow, I never thought someone would reject buying a prospective house solely on the fact that it has wallpaper. I think the main reason you don’t see older/vintage paper in a new/newer kitchen is it’s just not readily available. The paper hanger will show sample books of what is currently manufactured. Nothing wrong if a person wants to seek out vintage paper for a contemporary kitchen if that’s the style desired; it can be reversed.

  9. Pam Kueber says:

    I think the issue is around ‘inference’: Old (usually called “dated”) decor like wallpaper can lead prospective buyers to believe the house was not well taken care of. Of course, this is not necessarily true. But, it underscores the benefit of taking good care of your home and when you go to sell it, making sure it looks like it’s been well maintained.

    In that vein, reading about the types of projects with the consistently biggest paybacks suggests that updates to the exterior — the curb appeal — do well, because… you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Them — and attic insulation!

  10. Lisa Compo says:

    This feature comes at a great time for me. I FINALLY, after 4 years of hunting, found a very large time capsule ranch! We bought it, yippee! It’s untouched since 1970 when it was built. I wanted more 1960s, but feel so at home in it being a child of the 70s. It has a large foyer and formal dining room with floral wallpaper, kitchen full of wallpaper, every bathroom more wallpaper, peeling up in a few baths. It’s growing on me and we haven’t moved in yet, BUT….the first thing people say to me when they see pics is “Ewww, you have a lot of wallpaper to strip”. They have a cow when I say I plan on keeping most of it, mostly out of fear of the trouble to take it down;).
    I suppose everything boils down to personal preference. It’s an easy way to add character to a room that paint just can’t. It’s just more entertaining to the eye than a solid color.
    In summary, miles of wallpaper in a color scheme that is my least favorite didn’t prevent us from buying a house we felt was right in other ways. I would have passed on it if the kitchen had to have granite and updates removed to look right. Now I struggle with if I can put my 1958 Geneva cabinets in a 1970s house? I will if I want. 🙂

  11. Jay says:

    Pam, I’ve been awaiting your update on this post. I’m glad you echoed what so many felt, that it seems senseless to spend money to remove what is essentially a new kitchen. Your orange floral paper really ties the finishes together and is easily changed or removed.
    The link to the cost vs. value was interesting. What I have noticed in my area is that a small older house on large lot + desirable school district = instant demolition for a new large sprawling custom home so the remodeling with resale in mind is a moot point. Not far from me a small ranch was taken to its block walls, the roof removed and a second story added, it now looks like a Dutch Colonial.

  12. Pam Kueber says:

    Congratulations, Lisa!

    And I need to add: I have taken down wallpaper several times. I have never thought it was very difficult. Putting wallpaper UP, however: Ugh, that is painful!

  13. Jay says:

    Yes, I thought it was interesting that curb appeal had one of the biggest returns. Attic insulation didn’t surprise me, it’s something I have to do. Post war 50 -70’s era houses are under insulated; was not a concern when energy was cheap but the oil crisis and inflation changed that.

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