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Kitchen Refresh vs. Kitchen Remodel – How to Decide

Kitchen Refresh vs. Kitchen Remodel – How to Decide

As an interior designer, I routinely consult with clients who need help answering the question: do I completely remodel my kitchen or refresh my kitchen without remodeling? It’s a very common dilemma especially when budget, home value, and the time you plan to live in the home are primary considerations.

First, let’s establish the difference between a kitchen remodel and a kitchen refresh.

There are varying opinions on the difference between a kitchen remodel or renovation and a kitchen refresh. A kitchen remodel can involve various degrees of invasiveness, but in my mind, even the simplest remodel will start with creating a blank slate by removing everything existing in the kitchen.

A kitchen remodel might also include reconfiguring the space, moving walls, shifting openings and possibly adding doors or windows. As part of the remodeling project, we might move plumbing or gas lines and reconfigure electrical wiring including the locations of switches, outlets, and lighting. Everything we put back into the kitchen will be new with few exceptions.

By contrast, a kitchen refresh is primarily cosmetic. It leaves the layout and major elements of the kitchen largely intact, specifically the cabinetry. A refresh can be very basic and simple or it can encompass nearly every element in the kitchen resulting in a complete transformation of the kitchen’s aesthetic.

Kitchen Remodel or Kitchen Refresh? How to Decide.

white kitchen white oak floors
Kitchen Remodel by Jillian Lare

I take several considerations into account when I advise a client on whether to remodel or refresh their kitchen. I’ve also used this criteria in my own homes. We refreshed our last kitchen. In this house, we are holding out for a gut kitchen remodel and bypassing the refresh. I’ll share why we made this decision throughout the post.

#1 – Budget

Budget – the dirty word of kitchen remodeling. If you aren’t sure how to determine your kitchen remodeling budget, check out my post and download my budget worksheet.

Your budget is one of the biggest determiners of whether you choose to remodel or give your kitchen a facelift. As of writing this post, I have a baseline for kitchen remodels that starts at $100,000. A few years ago, it was closer to $50,000 for a small kitchen on a budget, but this number is becoming more challenging to achieve even with DIY labor and IKEA cabinets.

Clients who are going through a full remodel often want all of the bells and whistles of a brand new kitchen, and I don’t blame them. Budget is the main reason we are waiting to update our own kitchen. We want to save the money we would spend on a refresh and keep it for a full scale makeover.

#2 – Layout

If the layout of your kitchen is optimal for your space, home, and lifestyle and does not require major reconfiguration, you might be a good candidate for a refresh. However, if your layout is awkward, constricting, or inefficient, a remodel might be able to address these issues and improve the functionality.

An interior designer or contractor should be able to assess your kitchen and advise you as to whether the layout makes sense as is or if it can be improved. Sometimes the layout isn’t great and can optimized by changing the cabinetry or moving walls, and other times there are limited options due to the architecture of the house such as load bearing walls or circulation routes.

#3 – Cabinetry

If the layout of your kitchen is functional, if not optimal, the next thing to consider is your cabinetry. Is your cabinetry solid? Are the boxes in good condition? Does the cabinetry configuration provide you with ample storage? Are the hinges and drawer glides in good condition?

There are different ways to address cabinetry in a refresh that can improve both the look and the function. Cabinet refacing – where you paint the boxes and update the door and drawer fronts – is a popular option, though it can cost almost as much as new cabinetry. But, if the boxes are poorly constructed, the hardware (which can be replaced but adds to the cost) is low quality or failing, and the storage inadequate, you might want to think about replacing them.

In our current kitchen, the layout of the kitchen works (for the most part). The cabinetry is solid oak but 35 years old now. The door style is dated, and the boxes don’t maximize storage for the size of the layout. The uppers are too short, and the base cabinets include only one drawer base (with failing drawer glides) yet three mostly unusable corner cabinets. For all of these reasons, I don’t think it’s worth updating their look. I would rather replace them.

#4 – Appliances

Appliances – their size and location in your kitchen – are a major determinant for deciding whether to remodel or refresh. In a kitchen remodel, you have the opportunity to relocate appliances, whereas they remain in place during a refresh.

Depending on the new layout, you might be able to increase the size of your appliances and add different appliances. If you’re working with a decades old kitchen as I am, the options for appliances are much more vast than when the kitchen was designed.

In our current kitchen, we have a 30″ slide-in electric range, a microwave over the range, a dishwasher, and a 36″ counter-depth refrigerator. When we remodel, we will upgrade to a 36″ induction range, replace the microwave with an Advantium oven over a wall oven, and add an actual hood that vents to the exterior. The new refrigerator will be the same width but 84″ tall instead of 70″. These improvements aren’t possible if we keep our existing cabinetry.

#5 – Flooring & Countertops

Flooring is a lesser decision in deciding whether to refresh or remodel but it still bears some weight. Flooring can be updated without changing your cabinet layout; however, this is a decision that should be weighed carefully.

Once your new flooring butts up to your existing cabinetry, it can be challenging to patch in and repair that brand new flooring should you decide to update your cabinetry in the future. If you refinish your wood flooring, a future layout change may mean you need to refinish all of your wood floors again. This is happening to a client of mine right now.

Replacing a major element like flooring or countertops while keeping existing cabinetry can leave a client feeling like they made a mistake. One client installed brand new granite on 40 year old oak cabinets (before calling me). The new stone emphasized how tired and dated the cabinetry was. They ended up doing a full remodel and couldn’t reuse the granite, which had cost them thousands of dollars.

#6 – Values Based Decision Making

At Morris Lare, we always ask new clients about their personal values as they pertain to how they want to design and decorate their home. Personal values can include everything from how you want to gather, cook, and entertain to your position on using animal products to how you spend money to certain material origins due to how they are manufactured or sourced.

One personal value that can feature heavily in deciding on a kitchen remodel vs. kitchen refresh is concern and care for the environment. A remodel generates more waste than a refresh. In our own home, we have solid red oak floors that are a strong candidate for refinishing. There are other floor styles I prefer, but I can’t bring myself to rip out perfectly good floors and throw them in a landfill because I like a different style. It is a compromise I was willing to make because I knew other parts of our project were not sustainable.

If you do go the remodeling route, please know that you can sell many of the items you’ll be removing – cabinets, countertops, appliances, light fixtures – on Facebook marketplace or Craig’s List. You can also donate to Habitat for Humanity.

Kitchen Refresh Project in Des Moines, Iowa

Zenith Design Build Kitchen Refresh Des Moines Iowa
Zenith Design Build Kitchen Refresh Des Moines Iowa
Zenith Design Build Kitchen Refresh Des Moines Iowa

We recently consulted on a Zenith Design Build project that included a kitchen refresh. The family had just purchased a new home and loved the layout of the kitchen but not the dark cabinetry, countertops, and hood. They painted the cabinets, installed a new custom-built hood, and updated the hardware and countertops. The kitchen looks completely fresh, new and pretty, and it reflects their style and personality.

I hope this post helped you determine whether a kitchen remodel or kitchen refresh is right for you. If you need more help or advice, schedule a complementary discovery call to learn more about how we can help with your kitchen project.

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Olivia Smart

Wednesday 20th of April 2022

Thank you for explaining that depending on the layout, the size of your appliances could be different from what they are currently. I've been wondering if I should choose our new appliances based off of the things we have now. I'll be sure to consider our layout to help with determining the right size appliances for our new space.


Thursday 31st of March 2022

Great info! Thanks for sharing this in-depth post!

Logan Paul

Monday 7th of March 2022

Great differentiate thanks for sharing with us.

Rick Jones

Thursday 11th of November 2021

I like how a renovation means that everything put back into the kitchen will be new. That sounds completely worth it. I'd love to get a renovation done in my kitchen.

Max Jones

Thursday 14th of October 2021

Thanks for the info about kitchen renovations. I need to renovate my home, which I plan to do next year. I'll look for a contractor who can help me with renovating my kitchen.

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