Megan McArdle at home in her newly remodeled kitchen.
And now, the Main Event! Ladies and gentlemen, let us join Megan McArdle as she lovingly describes her latest large expenditure, the partial remodeling of her kitchen. She begins by relating the poor quality of the renovations on her old flipped rental and new Victorian row house and then goes through her just-finished renovations.
We--okay, well, I--longed for one of those lovely kitchens you see on television or in nicer homes--acres of cabinetry and counter, broom closets and drawers and six-burner stoves with hoods that actually vent smoke, rather than swirling it more briskly around the kitchen. However, being journalists and newlyweds, rather than 55-year old hedge fund managers, we were not exactly overburdened with the necessary.According to McArdle, she and her husband P. Suderman, boy Koch-whore, make over $300,000 a year. They have no children, do not support aged parents, and probably do not give to charity. (Being libertarians.) They can afford a very nice renovation but McArdle places a very high value on money and prefers to know that there will always be plenty of it around. So she tries to renovate on the cheap, something she already knows will not end well when other people do it.
(yip yip yap)
The day we moved in, friends helped us install Ikea Grundtal shelves and rails, which double as potracks. We also installed our assortment of extra kitchen islands.McArdle loves the idea of cheap furniture. It does not seem to occur to her that buying solid wood will save her money in the end. One wonders if P. Suderman came at a discount as well.
Over the next few months, we did a few things that we (almost) had to do--the dishwasher broke the day we moved in, and since the appliance store offered us a decent discount, we replaced the too-tiny fridge as well. But mostly, we ignored the shortcomings. The only sizeable change we made was when our contractor came to reinforce those improperly cut joists; while he was there, we had him move the laundry downstairs, and rip out the sloppily-built laundry-cave that had been installed just off the kitchen. This didn't look very good--naturally, they'd installed the washer-dryer first, and painted only up to the edge. But with a couple of bookshelves added, it at least gave us some extra storage. And the change alleviated the funereal effect of a dark grey wall jutting out into our hallway, blocking off a great deal of light.
McArdle's new "butler's pantry," as she calls it, actually looks rather nice but since she needed storage and it is in a small alcove it would have been much better to frame it out and shelve the entire thing. She would have easily tripled the amount of storage space and been able to keep everything out of sight. The key to storage and organization is utility. McArdle makes decisions based on image, not practicality. She obviously did not sit down and figure out the most efficient and cost-effective way of designing the kitchen, which would be strange if she were a real business journalist. Fortunately she is not.
Kitchens are workrooms first of all. They must be easy to clean since they get very dirty, easy to organize since they hold a great deal of equipment and stock, and the right size and shape for an active cook. If they are too big or badly laid out the cook will wear herself out walking from one end to the other. My kitchen is about 12x8 and has 8 linear feet of counter space, but I make meals for a family of five nearly every day. Experience and research taught me many tricks for working comfortably in a small space.
We also had him run a water line for our fancy new fridge. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed the convenience and ease of Door Ice.
But after that, I declared that I was done. Unless something broke, we would put no more money into the kitchen until that distant day when we had actually saved enough money to renovate. That's where we stood in January of this year. Then our dishwasher tried to kill me, and I decided that maybe we should Do Something about the kitchen after all.
Unless you are an 18th century novelist, Random Capitalizations look Stupid.
It was the day after New Year's, and the dishwasher was very full. Also, my arm was very sore, due to some unspecific, slow-healing rotator cuff injury that had been exacerbated in the frenzy of getting ready for the previous night's dinner party. I sleepily stumbled into the kitchen and opened the dishwasher so that I could unload it and put the rest of the dishes in.
Unfortunately, as they'd informed us when they installed the dishwasher, our counters weren't level, which meant that one screw holding in the appliance was under more strain than the other. Sometime in the winter of 2011, it had ripped out of the cheap laminate, at which point its colleague decided to go on strike too. Every time we opened the dishwasher, it tilted towards you, and the racks slid forward.
Perhaps sensing my languor, on New Year's Day 2012, the racks decided that the time had come to finally make their break for freedom. Just in time, I threw my aching left arm in front of the drawers, and stopped them from leaping across the floor with all our good china inside.
What a drama queen. Someone should tell McArdle that exaggeration doesn't always create dramatic tension. Sometimes it just makes you sound silly. More important, what kind of idiot puts her good china in a badly-mounted dishwasher that slides forwards when you open it? If the dishwasher doesn't scour the fine china it could be chipped or broken by the racks' movement. McArdle tells us in the comments that the dishes are only used and put into the dishwasher twice a year, but if they are only used twice a year, why not do them by hand?
I also nearly stopped my heart--I haven't felt such a sharp burst of pain since I ripped up a bunch of ligaments getting thrown into a fence by a horse. I must have emitted some interesting noises, since my husband, normally a late sleeper, came trotting downstairs.The life of a Reason employee must be a very pleasant one. Sleep late, write erroneous papers on subjects one knows nothing about, and spend the rest of your time playing video games. As TBogg puts it:
"[Expletive deleted]" I said calmly. "We're replacing this [bleeping] counter or I will [censored]."
I just want to add that what cracks me up about McMegan’s kitchen/foodie posts is that all available evidence seems to indicate that her manchild McSuederman, when not penning articles defending big business, spends his time squatting in his video game rocker chair playing Xbox 360 while McMegan is clattering about in her kitchen nirvana whipping up a mango gastrique to go with his Tater-Tots.Heh.
But replacing the counter had Implications. If we were taking it out, we might as well replace the annoying black sink that was impossible to clean, and put in a backsplash so that I didn't have to spend so many happy weekend hours furiously rubbing our walls with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. And since we didn't want to install anything fancy in a kitchen that we eventually want to get rid of--I adhere to the principle that one should either buy expensive things that will be loved forever, or cheap things you won't feel bad about throwing away--the counters we could afford probably wouldn't match the cabinets, which meant they might have to be painted.Since right now the average family is trying to decide whether they will need to visit the food pantry this week or next week, thanks to McArdle's good buddies in business and politics, spending several thousand dollars on bad kitchen renovations is probably out of reach.
However, my steely resolve did not extend to tapping our emergency fund, or borrowing money. And even if it had . . . well, the Official Blog Husband is himself a man of formidable will. Which left us a quandary: how to do a minimalist kitchen renovation that would give us more storage, without costing more than we could cash flow?
The answer, for those of you who are interested, is below the jump: how to do a semi-renovation for a few thousand dollars that adds space and makes the thing look sort of all right. It wasn't exactly cheap, but it wasn't entirely out of reach of the average family, either.
On the other side of the kitchen, there was nothing but the tiny refrigerator, which the husband and I referred to as the "My First Fridge". Oh, and a garbage can. We kept the garbage can. The refrigerator had to go . . . although, before it went, it did give us hours of enjoyment arguing whether it was the largest dorm fridge on the market, or the absolute smallest regular model.
The laughable fridge is no smaller than many European refrigerators. Evidently they buy fresh food frequently, however, instead of trying to impress the neighborhood with the size of their appliance.
By the time we decided to semi-renovate, we'd already ripped out the laundry cave and stuck some mismatched bookshelves in that area. And on the empty side of the kitchen, we'd put in our carts: a large island from Target, an unfinished Catskill Craftsman kitchen cart, and a little unfinished cart from Ikea were all there when the above picture was taken. It was eventually supplemented with some plastic drawers that we'd had in the old house. The plastic drawers stuck, and looked awful. I'm not very sorry that I don't have any pictures of them.
As with so many things in modern homemaking, our semi-renovation started with a trip to Ikea. We investigated fixed cabinets for the laundry area, which would have been nice, but cost at least $2000, including installation. My heart said yes, yes. The little personal finance guru who lives in my head reluctantly vetoed the expenditure. Husband quite sensibly sided with the personal finance guru.
Or she could have hired a carpenter to turn the alcove into a pantry, as I said earlier.
Instead, we bought paint for the hallway, a freestanding cabinet, and shelves to make a sort of butler's pantry. We also bought yet another unfinished kitchen island/counter, and a $99 set of silver-and-plastic drawers to replace the sticky plastic set next to the refrigerator.
While we were there, we priced sinks and countertops. We easily agreed on wood counters, both because we like them, and because our handyman could cut and install them himself. But we didn't buy until he could come by and give us an estimate.
Meanwhile, we painted the hallway and spent about seventy hours building our drawers, and our freestanding cabinet. The result was not perfect--the drawers are not quite flush. But it looks much nicer than the laundry cave.
If McArdle had spent 70 hours writing and selling free-lance articles instead she probably could have paid to have the entire room redone. Especially the way she writes--a minimum of research and a maximum of ideology.
We put all the serving dishes that we use every day out here, as well as our "set and forget" appliances. The prep areas are in the kitchen.When you organize a kitchen you need to consider how often you use each item. If you use it twice a year you can put it far from the kitchen, in the attic or basement or the top shelf of the pantry. If you use it every day you should put it very close at hand. Everyday dishes go next to the dishwasher or sink (or fridge, perhaps). Cooking utensils go next to the stove, if possible. Coffee and coffe cups should be stored next to the coffeepot. Think vertical as well as horizontal; with only one row of cupboards, I store my casual dishes used for breakfast, lunch and snacks in the cupboard next to the sink and the nicer dishes in the sideboard in the dining room. I only have to carry them four steps every morning when I put them away and it gives me enough space to store everything I need for food preparation in the cupboard next to the counter where I do the food prep.
Then we got the greenlight from the handyman for the larger project. Back to Ikea we went!
We had decided on birch counters, to match all our unfinished wood. Bad news: lots of people are apparently attracted to the low cost and convenience of Ikea wood counters; almost everything was backordered. They only had oak, and only in one length: enormous. We had to purchase $350 worth of counters, instead of the $200 we'd been expecting. Also, the oak was going to look decidedly weird with our maple cabinets, so we'd have to paint the cabinets white.
The sink also added unexpected expense. We decided on a nice white farmhouse model that was wide and long, but there was a little problem--it only had one hole, and you couldn't drill another. We either needed a new faucet that combined taps and sprayer, or we had to give up the sprayer. Luckily, the husband found a nice model on deep discount--chrome apparently having gone out of fashion, they were selling it for a fraction of the price of the same model in brushed steel.
We chose subway tile for the backsplash, not even because it's cheap, but because that's what I grew up with. But happily, it's also quite cheap.
I bet she forces P. Suderman to reuse aluminum foil and string.
When our handyman removed the counter, we got a big surprise. Now we found out why the counters weren't level: whoever did our kitchen had used a wall cabinet on the floor. It was substantially shorter than the sink cabinet, so the counter sloped. It wasn't even attached to anything.
This was entirely predictable. Anyone who has watched enough HGTV, like McArdle, would realize that a flipped house or renovations done in absentia are huge warning signs. She knew this but seemed to think that she was special.
I assume they bought these surplus. I'd love to see the kitchen someone was remodeling with two corner wall cabinets, and only two floor cabinets.
Our handyman shimmed up the cabinet to level with the others, and built a sort of bracket to attach it to the wall. And he put in a brace for the dishwasher to attach to, pictured below.
After that he installed the counters, the sink, and the backsplash, and painted the cabinets. We stained the counters ourselves, since that's about the only thing I know how to do around the house, besides assemble Ikea furniture. We chose a darker oil-based stain that complemented the oak nicely, and finished with high gloss polyurethane--about 70 coats, if I recall correctly. It's easy to keep clean, and I can always slap another coat on from time to time.
Wait a second. Seventy coats? Polyurethane takes hours to dry. Yes, a quick google confirms this, and tells us 4-6 hours depending on the weather for quick-dry polyurethane and at least 24 hours for regular polyurethane. Mr. Google also informs us that you will need about three coats. If McArdle did the work in one or two weekends, she did not let the polyurethane dry between coats and put on about sixty more coats than she needed to.
What does McArdle have against research? Or reading directions?
[yip]Here is her photo. It does not look pulled together, it looks mis-matched, awkward and cluttered. The line of sight is broken up by the individual pieces of furniture, which might be okay if there were just a couple of pieces but there are too many pieces jutting out at odd angles and covered with too much clutter.
Another effect I wasn't anticipating was how this would make the other side of the kitchen look. We had four islands, made of different woods: the cart was birch, the two Ikea pieces were unfinished pine, and the Target island was some sort of eco-friendly tropical wood that was solidly finished. The collection looked even more motley next to this. We tried putting a left-over length of counter atop the Target island, but it didn't help much.
The solution was obvious: sand and stain. But sanding and staining a bunch of furniture is a very different job from doing a flat countertop; it's time-consuming, fiddly, and tedious. We dithered. I averted my eyes from the sight. Then we bit the bullet, with a small compromise: we let the finished piece alone, and just left the extra counter on top. Since we're both tall, the extra height was actually a plus. Added bonus: the extra length covered our previously exposed garbage can.
Do you own a detail sander? Because we own a little detail sander, and I'd never realized before this how much I love that thing. I'm not saying I'd leave my husband for a detail sander, or anything. I'm just saying that I'm very glad I don't have to choose.
Because the wood of the cabinets was lighter than the oak, we had to do a pre-stain with something close to the oak before we layered the color ("English Chestnut") on top. I knew it wouldn't be perfect--and it was even more imperfect than I expected, as I discovered that the body of our kitchen cart was an undistinguished pine. This was a fun opportunity for me to learn what happens to pine when you don't use a filler before you apply the stain.
I'm telling people that it's a tiger stripe pattern, and implying that it was deliberate. The whole thing has a sort of rustic air, if "rustic" is a code word for "people who aren't very good at applying stain."
Nonetheless, it does look more pulled together, even as if someone might have almost planned it that way. Here's the final result, as best as I can photograph in a relatively constrained space:
The coffee maker moved to the left of the fridge. As you can see, our kitchen is optimized for tall people; my husband and I, both 6'2, can just reach to get stuff on and off that top shelf. My mother has to use a step stool.Ah, her famous pan collection, which greatly adds to the visual clutter. Every pan will collect dust and grease and odds are that she does not use more than six of them regularly, especially with her beloved Thermomix, which is supposed to cook small amounts for her.
The other side of the fridge. The toaster oven has moved to replace the coffee maker Yes, I have a lot of pans[.]
Overall, we saved hundreds of dollars by doing the work that we could ourselves. But we saved even more by compromising, and accepting that it was not going to look like a showplace. Open shelving instead of cabinets; a lot of stuff that doesn't quite match, and an aesthetic that leans towards functional rather than elegant.
That's not for everyone. I like having things in the open where I can reach them, but it takes a lot of work to keep it looking neat--work which, as you can see from my jumble of pans, we have not entirely completed. Finished wood surfaces do not stand abuse as well as granite, or even Corian. (Though I'll put them up against porous stone like Carrara marble any day). And we're well aware that the paint on the cabinets will probably scratch, and need to be touched up.
But lots of people could do some variant of this: upgrading or installing a few items, rather than re-doing the whole thing. The kind of kitchen renovation we would still frankly love to have would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars and involved moving our badly-placed and too-large half-bath. Not including the appliances, which we would have had to replace anyway, this cost us a few thousand dollars, even with labor included, and I expect to be happy with it for years. And if we needed to sell for any reason, I'm confident that we'll more than recover the money we spent. (I mean, after we move out my crazy array of appliances and pots and kitchen islands. I'm well aware that my taste in such things is somewhat, um, singular.)
Every other woman on the planet will take one look at that hodge-podge and grimly start adding up the cost of an entire re-do.
Unfortunately, they never show you things like this on television. Instead they show you what you can get with $2,000 if someone throws in tens of thousands of dollars worth of contractor labor for free. I suppose that's fine if you're a swell all-purpose handyman, but most of us aren't. Nor, in this fast-paced world, can we necessarily learn in time to corral our rebel appliances and save our walls.
So I thought it was worth offering this as an alternative to house-porn. Call it house-PG-13: something that should be accessible to most people, provided they are properly chaperoned by a good handyman. No one is going to catch their breath in admiration when they walk into a kitchen like this. But hopefully, that will just leave more admiration available for the food you produce in it.
Sorry, we know the food produced in it; bland main dishes, sloppy cakes and jello salads. No thanks.