As Kristina Johnson and David Franke discovered while remodeling their Glassell Park kitchen, taking charge of the job -- drawing the plans, buying materials, supervising contractors for some work and doing a portion of it themselves -- can not only save money, but it can also lead to a highly personalized result.
"The kitchen is 100% us," Johnson said of the room, which features a granite-covered windowsill and backsplash to accommodate pots of orchids, a cat-feeding station notched out of a bottom cabinet, and three subtly different shades of sage green paint.
"We didn't build it with an eye for resale or with anyone else in mind."
The couple, both 39, took on the remodel in the summer of 2006 after a string of other successful upgrades, including updating the exterior, landscaping the backyard and redoing the lone bathroom.
Their overriding goal for the kitchen, as well as the adjacent service porch and dining room, was the same as it had been for the tiled bathroom: to add modern conveniences while retaining the character and craftsmanship of the 1941 home.
After months of planning, the couple got an equity loan and set a $30,000 budget. Summer was chosen because that's when David, a teacher at Eagle Rock Elementary, had time to tackle what would be the couple's biggest project so far.
Their plan: Retain some of the original cabinets and have a few more custom-made to match, replace the tile counter with granite and a section of butcher block, raise the floor of the adjacent sunken dining room, lay hardwood flooring in both rooms and reconfigure the existing laundry room to create a powder room too.
To get ready, the couple boxed up their stuff and rolled a wooden cart into the living room to set up a temporary kitchen.
It included what they considered absolutely essential: a microwave oven, a coffee maker and a wine cooler.
The heavy work
Demolition started in July with a general contractor, now retired, whom Johnson's mother had once employed. His $14,700 fee included raising the sunken floor, all the plumbing and electrical work, installing a new back door, removal and patching of a window, sink installation, tile-floor installation in the laundry and powder rooms, installing the old laundry room sink in the garage, and installation of a tankless water heater.
To find the vintage stove of her dreams, Johnson, who works in the food industry, scoured Craigslist for three months and finally located a 1950s Wedgewood double-oven, griddle-in-the-middle model for $300.
The couple drove their truck down to San Diego to pick it up.
For an additional $600, a gift from her mother, they had it cleaned and tuned up at an antique-appliance store.
Although most of the original hardwood cabinets stayed in place, one was moved 3 inches to make room for the stove.
Keeping the remodel close to budget took some aggressive deal-hunting, and Johnson rose to the challenge with perseverance and patience.
"I just wait until I find what I'm looking for, at the price I want," she said.
For the granite counters, the couple bought greenish slabs for $1,100 from a yard in Pacoima and then hired a fabricator, recommended by the granite retailer, to cut them to size for $1,650. Another $325 went to fabricating the counter for the laundry room.
They did the same with the flooring, purchasing it for $1,800 and then hiring an installer, whom they found on Craigslist, for $1,000.
A $25 length of butcher block counter, which they set in place next to the stove, was another Craigslist find that Johnson figured would have cost hundreds of dollars new.
Johnson struggled with the sink selection.
The large Kohler model she "really, really wanted" was a pricey $459, and she also had her eye on a vintage-style Moen faucet for $248 and a water filter for $169.
While considering a cheaper composite sink, she posted a query in an Internet chat room and learned from other homeowners that the surface scratched easily. The Kohler won out.
As the remodel moved forward, the couple took on more tasks themselves, including all the painting.
They also installed the baseboards, as well as a bead-board backsplash in the kitchen and bead-board wainscoting in the dining room. Franke cut the pieces, and Johnson attached them using a nail gun.
Two of their DIY projects turned out to be more work than anticipated: replacing the original cabinet hinges, which involved a lot of finagling to make them fit, and painting the cabinet doors.
Those took weeks for Franke to finish because of the long drying time for the oil-based paint, plus school was back in session by then, and he was trying to work it around his teaching schedule.
"This is something, in hindsight, we wished we'd paid someone to do," Johnson said.
Trim and arches
A few disagreements had to be worked through. Franke won the battle to retain the carved trim on the cabinets.
"Honestly, I don't like the trim," Johnson said.
"I love the trim," Franke said.