8 Kitchen Update Ideas That Cost Less and Make You More

According to Zillow, major and mid-range kitchen remodels only return 50 cents for every dollar you spend. The 2015 National Association of Realtors Remodeling Impact Report listed a cost recovery of only 67% after a complete kitchen remodel.

The NAR report also ranked a kitchen upgrade as the most attractive to buyers and the project most likely to increase property value.

Let’s get this straight. Buyers want a kitchen worthy of a spread in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, but you won’t get back the money you sink into the upgrade? That doesn’t sound right. There’s got to be a way to make kitchen updates work, so we went hunting for ideas.

After we dug through the internet, found kitchen update success stories, talked to a few of the best real estate agents in the country, and interviewed a professional stager we found 8 kitchen update ideas that are low cost, do it yourself solutions that transform your kitchen and actually get you a return on your investment.

kitchen updates that are worth it
Source: (Sarah Jane / Pexels)

1. Before You Update ANYTHING: Clean Like There’s No Tomorrow

Before you tackle a major kitchen renovation, break out the Barkeepers Friend and the Swiffer mop. 87% of the top realtors we surveyed for the HomeLight Top Agent Insights Survey said cleaning was their number one priority for homes. After a thorough scrub you can see the main problem areas. Best case scenario? The major scrub fixes the issues you were worried about. No further renovations required.

Roxanne McCaslin, a top 1% real estate agent in Sacramento, helped us with the must-do cleaning list for your kitchen:


A clean kitchen means a clean pantry, and there’s a solution to the excess pasta boxes and canned corn from 1985. Move for Hunger, a nonprofit organization, picks up all of your pantry goods and donates them to food banks. You’ll donate to a worthy cause and make a huge difference in showing off major pantry storage space.


Take Murphy Oil Soap and hot water and use it to scrub the outside and inside of your cabinets. The clean should remove all dust and residue that has built up over the years. McCaslin also recommends a small brush (a toothbrush will do!) to get inside crevices.


If you have tile counters and/or floors, clean the grout and tiles with hot water and a product like all purpose Soft Scrub.


Wipe down the sink and make sure the hardware shines.


Take off the stove top grates and clean in between, making sure to clear any burnt on stains or grease splatter.

McCaslin shared that a clean house could get you $10,000 to $20,000 more than a dirty house would. You should also clean your kitchen because it might be the only fix you need if the cabinets, appliances, and counters are in good condition. As McCaslin says, “The sparkling will always guarantee you more money in the end.”

kitchen stove updates
Source: (John-Mark Smith / Unsplash)

2. Update the Kitchen Walls with a Fresh Coat of Paint

In HomeLight’s Top Agent Insights survey, 62% of the nation’s top real estate agents said that painting the interior of a house is the most essential upgrade before selling. We also spoke with Karen Parziale, professional stager and owner of The Real Estate Staging Studio in New Jersey. Parziale says that you should remove any outdated wallpaper and paint walls a warm white to give the space a clean look and make the room feel larger.

Paint is an affordable and easy fix that brightens up the entire space. Just look at the before and after shots of the $800 renovation above. The red paint makes that kitchen look dated and dark despite the natural light coming in. The warm white of the updated space is clean and bright.

Lisa Drapkin, a top real estate agent who ranks in the top 1% of agents in Boston, agrees that “Paint can make just an amazing, amazing difference in a house…I would say that’s the single cheapest improvement that you get the most bang for the buck.”

As with cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom, this step makes such a difference that it could be, besides a good scrub, the only update you need.

kitchen white wooden cupboard paint
Source: (Jose Soriano / Unsplash)

3. Make the Space Bright with New Light Fixtures and Bulbs

Dim yellow light will illuminate the grease stains on the wall behind your stove. Thick, velvet curtains that hang in front of the window above your sink will darken the room and depress the mood. Compare that against the bright, light kitchens on HGTV these days. Light makes a room inviting, highlights details, brings warmth and creates a good energy that makes a space feel like home.

Look at the kitchen above, for example. The wall color is too dark, but otherwise the cabinets are a fresh white, the detail on the kitchen island is intricate and unique. What’s missing, though, is the light. No matter how lovely this kitchen is, no buyer wants to walk into a kitchen this beautiful but this dark. Upgrading the lighting can require an electrician to install new pendants, but the cash is worth it to make those subway tiles shine.

Not sure what lights to add? You can’t go wrong with a simple modern pendant light with a bulb that emits warm tones. Just make sure the light fixtures’ hardware matches the metal of the faucet and cabinet knobs.

pendant light for kitchen updates
Source: (Pepe Nero / Unsplash)

Try not to spend more than $200 on lighting. Here are the main points to keep in mind as you head out to the nearest Home Depot:

This is how a light, bright kitchen should look
Source: (felth / flickr / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

4. Switch Out Cabinet Hardware for Modern, Matching Pieces

Update your kitchen’s cabinet hardware for just a few dollars and you can change the look of outdated cabinets. Here’s how to get this cheap kitchen update done:

kitchen updates
Source: (Nancy Hugo / flickr / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)

5. Save By Bringing Old Cabinets Back to Life

Your cabinets are not as bad as you think unless they’ve completely rotted apart. The wood or formica of the past can be sanded and painted white for clean cabinets that create a neutral backdrop and contribute to the light of the space. As Lisa Drapkin points out, white cabinets are what buyers expect to see in an upscale, modern kitchen.

Drapkin sees “a lot of white cabinets more than natural wood” and says that “We’re trending to lighter colors these days in the same way that stainless steel appliances have been in for a while and are continuing to keep the interest of the public. I think we’re moving from darker colored cabinets to a lighter color.”

Drapkin agrees that houses with dark cabinets and gross tile counters sell for less than houses with beautiful, updated kitchens.

Painting cabinets is a ton of work for you and about a $1,500 project if you hire a professional, so Roxanne McCaslin suggests rehabbing cabinets that are in good shape instead of a full paint job.

white cabinets for kitchen updates
Source: (Paintzen / flickr / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

McCaslin shared her secrets for the ultimate cabinet rehab:

  1. Use hot water and Murphy Oil Soap to scrub down every nook and cranny. Grab a toothbrush to get any dirt or dust out of crevices.
  2. Polish up the cabinets and really make them shine with Howard Feed-In-Wax
  3. Tighten all hinges

Your cabinets should be in top shape after this thorough polish and clean. If they still don’t look like new or you have the resources to paint, McCaslin recommends a coat of white.

Benjamin Moore makes a primer and several levels of gloss for cabinet re-vamps. We recommend white in the satin finish. The satin gives the white a clean, polished look without being as shiny as your face after a workout class. Satin is a durable finish that stands up to consistent sponge cleans after the inevitable jar of marinara explodes.

White cabinets create the illusion of a light space and white also, as Karen Parziale pointed out above, makes the room look larger.

One blogger took her dated wood cabinets and gave them a white facelift. Erica from On Bliss Street updated her kitchen for $800 and redid her cabinets herself. The cabinets only cost $220 to refresh. Look how big of a difference the white cabinets make in her kitchen–the entire space looks bright, clean, and welcoming.

6. New Countertops Make the Kitchen Fresh

Another kitchen update idea: get new granite countertops
Source: (Bill Wilson / flickr / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Clean countertops suggest a clean, fresh house. Dirty tile with gray grout makes buyers see your property as an old fixer-upper that needs work.

Drapkin points out, “People are just much more interested in other things than putting sweat equity into houses and renovating things themselves or hiring contractors to renovate because I think they want to have a house be turnkey and ready to move into.” You don’t want grimy kitchen counters to be the reason someone walks away from your house.

If you’ve cleaned and cleaned and your counters still look old, McCaslin says you have several options. One option is to have a handyman put an epoxy paint to create a seal over old tile counters. The cost is only about $400 (as opposed to having a company do it for $1,400). McCaslin says, “All you have to do is put a new countertop on or resurface the countertop. And it’ll look new!”

If you have an extra thousand in the budget, you could go for granite counters instead. Granite is affordable and looks clean and modern. If you do have white cabinets, McCaslin suggests gray for the counters.

You also need to replace the sink if yours has grime that Murphy Oil Soap and Soft Scrub can’t remove. An updated faucet for the sink is a must. Match the finish to your cabinet pulls and light fixture for a streamlined, modern and cohesive look.

Amy, another DIY blogger, shared her $650 kitchen renovation and the work she did on her faucet, countertops, and cabinets. The stain Amy put on her counters and the chrome farmhouse style faucet create a modern and homey focal point for the entire space. The simple changes she made to her counters and faucet make the kitchen look rich and brand new–and the house is 175 years old!

7. Stage the Kitchen with Focal Points That Make The Space Feel Like Home

When asked which areas of the house they are most likely to recommend for staging in our Top Agent Insights Survey, 65% of real estate agents said the kitchen. McCaslin says you should limit any items on the counter to four or five. Each piece should have a “homey” feel. Any more than four items can look like clutter and makes the counter prep space look small.

stage kitchen to make it look homey
Source: (Al Kawasa / Unsplash)

Karen Parziale loves glass jars for the counters because they look clean and you can fill them with a pop of color like oranges or lemons or a batch of cookies.

Not planning on replacing the fridge, oven, or dishwasher? Create focal points with your jars, cutting boards, or cookbooks that draw the eyes away from any outdated appliances.

Stage the kitchen to keep lines clean and to give it a homey vibe
Source: (Remodel Works / Wikimedia Commons / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

8. Refresh Appliances to Add Value and Appeal to More Buyers

According to Lisa Drapkin, switching out appliances is a great way to get a return on your investment and sell for over asking.

Drapkin told us she, “Had a condo in Arlington where..the kitchen was about 17 years old and they had white appliances. But they were maple cabinets and they had granite countertops so just by replacing the appliances the seller paid 3 or 4 thousand dollars between appliances and plumbing and they ended up getting like 15 percent over their asking price, and people really thought the kitchen was terrific.”

Drapkin, Parziale, and McCaslin suggest updating appliances to stainless steel. McCaslin points out that the new appliances don’t have to be top of the line. They just have to match and have a clean, cohesive look. Buyers hunt for stainless steel because it looks modern and updated.

Updating appliances are last on our list because it is the most expensive option. If you don’t have the cash, the first seven updates will seriously transform your space. If you do have the cash, consider this option. Especially in a slow market, an updated refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove could make a big difference. The numbers support the upgrade as well: 15% over asking is a pretty big deal.

Update the kitchen appliances
Source: (Sarah Hugo / flickr / license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)

Kitchen Update Ideas Don’t Break the Bank

The main reason to use our kitchen update ideas in your home? As McCaslin argues,

“People want to come into a clean, nicely staged home. If you do that, you’ll get maximum dollar…If there are noticeable repairs, you will get significantly less because they will look at it as a fixer. And people want big discounts on fixers.”

These affordable kitchen update ideas create a space that looks like a new kitchen without the $8,000-$30,000 price tag. So, how do you increase the value of your home without spending thousands on the kitchen that you will never get back?

  • Clean the kitchen from top to bottom
  • Rehab or paint cabinets
  • Epoxy or replace countertops
  • Make sure the lighting is warm, modern, and welcoming
  • Install a new sink

If you have the cash or your appliances look like they are in bad shape, spend the extra dollars to upgrade to stainless steel.

When you’re all done, make sure to snap us the before and after shots!

Your kitchen updates are complete!
Source: (Jeremy Levine / flickr / license:: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)