How to renovate a kitchen without breaking the bank | Kitchen DIY | Life and style

Splashbacks, soft-close drawers, integrated appliances, breakfast bars … If you’re grappling with a kitchen renovation on a tight budget, these are all features that have the capacity to induce panic and/or total apathy. What’s more, most high-street suppliers will charge upwards of £8,000 for a fitted kitchen (which may or may not include removal of your existing set-up). Forget about bespoke, shaker-chic units: realistically, yours is a bland choice of laminated worksurfaces and lacklustre fitted units that swallow up space and encourage stockpiling.

But I think I might have found an alternative. When my partner and I moved into our Victorian terrace, we decided to approach our kitchen as we would any other room in the house and fill it with used furniture. Having lived with it for two years now, we know it is possible for a free-standing, secondhand kitchen to perform the same functions as a fitted kitchen, for a fraction of the price. Here is how we did it …

Think about layout

Get all the boring-but-vital stuff figured out first. Decide where the sink must go, the boiler, the oven and the fridge. Once you have space allocated for the essentials, you’ll know what you have left for storage, surfaces and seating.

We inherited a pokey, L-shaped kitchen fitted with MDF units, a built-in oven, and a mock-granite worksurface. It only made use of one end of the room. The space was dissected by a chimney breast fitted with a gas stove. This seemed like an obvious place to start, so we opened the chimney breast to create room for a free-standing oven (our biggest investment). By placing the oven in the centre of the action, we could bring the opposing ends of the room together.

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A freestanding oven with spanish tile splashback, some steel shelves and old school locker cupboards.



By placing the oven in the centre of the action, the opposing ends of an L-shaped room were brought together. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Limit your options

Once you’ve decided against a fitted kitchen, you will have a much broader choice of the material, colour, shape and size of your cupboards and surfaces. If you’re in a hurry to get cooking, this can seem daunting, so limit your options. Pinterest can help, as can interior magazines and online resources (remodelista.com is definitely worth bookmarking). Spend a couple of evenings (really, no more) selecting images that appeal and you’ll quickly find they have a common theme. We gravitated towards stainless steel. It’s easy to clean, heat and water resistant and it sat comfortably with the furniture we already had, meaning we could mix and match pieces from our old house – an old oak table, a set of school lockers – with our “new” (ex-kebab house) kitchen.

As luck would have it

A visit to a storage yard unearthed this steel surface with a couple of drawers at each end, a shelf below for pots and pans.



A visit to a storage yard unearthed this steel surface with a couple of drawers at each end, a shelf below for pots and pans. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Once you’ve narrowed down your search you can scour eBay/auctions/antique markets for items that match your aesthetic and – importantly – your measurements. International Antiques and Collectors Fairs (iacf.co.uk) hold 39 fairs in seven locations throughout the year. If early mornings and brazen haggling isn’t for you, then you could try a live online auction, such as Criterion (criterionauctioneers.com), which enables you to bid for lots remotely. The stock changes weekly, so it’s rich pickings.

Keep your search broad, but your measurements precise: linen cupboards, reclaimed science lab worksurfaces, retro kitchen pantries can all work. (In our previous kitchen, we found an old oak door for £50 that served as a worksurface for many a year. Our open shelving was a beautiful narrow shutter that was held up by porcelain brackets that once supported a Victorian cistern.)

There is always a certain amount of serendipity at play when buying secondhand. We found an eBay seller specialising in used stainless steel units. He was selling a sink unit we liked for £340. A visit to his storage yard unearthed a second piece that fitted precisely into the space on the other side of the chimney – a two-metre long surface with a couple of drawers at each end, a shelf below for pots and pans, and a half-shelf above for easy-to-reach cutlery, spices and such like. It was ours for £200. In one afternoon, we’d found exactly what we needed for £540, a cost slightly increased by an hour or two with a plumber to hook it all up.

Similarly, on a day trip to Sunbury antiques market (sunburyantiques.com) I found a box of old Spanish tiles for a tenner. I didn’t know it at the time, but they fitted precisely in the space behind the freestanding oven. Splashback sorted.

A coffee pot on top of the hob with a spanish tile splashback in the background



The Spanish tiles were found for £10 in an antiques market. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

‘Where are your beans?’

The kitchen we have doesn’t have vast amounts of storage. There are no cavernous corner cupboards or overhead units stacked with teacups and Tupperware. We have one giant floor-to-ceiling linen cupboard we bought for £200 at Sunbury antiques market. It houses all of our dried, jarred goods, plates and bowls. (We removed the back of it so it also hides the boiler.) Our cutlery sits on an open shelf, our teacups and glassware fill a simple £70 glass cabinet. When a friend visited for the first time, he said, “But where do you keep your baked beans? Where’s your cereal?” I opened the secondhand school lockers and showed him how perfectly a big box of bran flakes slotted into the fifth door along. Serendipity, again.

cupboards storing cereal and books



These second-hand school lockers were just the right size to hold boxes of cereals. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

The faff factor

For all the money you save on eschewing a shop-bought fitted kitchen (our reclaimed units and surfaces cost round £1,000 in total), you need to be prepared to spend a little (OK, quite a lot) more time on seeing it through to completion. There’s research, hunting and transporting to be done – and a lot of heavy lifting. We soon found out that, although our shiny wide sink unit worked perfectly in the space we had assigned it, it didn’t fit through our narrow kitchen door. We spent an afternoon removing a just-painted bay window sash in order to post the sink in through the side of the house. Ouch.

Our freestanding kitchen does force us to live with less. It has actually fostered a well-honed orderliness: we eat and use everything, all the time. We fit our kitchen and our kitchen fits us. Just about.

  • Nell Card is a freelance food and interiors writer based in London; @nellcard

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