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In Renovator’s Notebook, homeowners open up about the nitty-gritty of their remodels: How long it really took; how much it actually cost; what went horribly wrong; and what went wonderfully, serendipitously, it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end right. For more tips to nail your next project, follow @reno_notebook.

Location: Atlanta

Budget: $25,000

Year built: 1957

Top priority: Sticking with the architecture of the neighborhood

Ajai Guyot’s Atlanta home was a steal all thanks to the eerie kitchen. The previous owners never got around to improving the space, which was crawling with all sorts of critters when the designer and her husband, Jonathan, bought the house one year ago, so they knocked $100,000 off the final closing price. Right away, the couple brought in professionals to address the squirrels living in the attic, the rotting floors, the faulty plumbing, and the lingering asbestos issues. “It was scary,” recalls Guyot.

Before making any updates, the couple scoped out other houses on the block. “Our neighbors were kind enough to let us walk through,” she says. A little snooping revealed most of the homes on their street were built by the same architect in the late ’50s and therefore had similar U-shaped kitchen layouts. The couple ultimately let this guide the renovation. “We didn’t want to expand the room or do too much to the point where it would exceed the appraisal of the properties around us,” explains Guyot. Spending tons of money on custom cabinets and a fancy marble island wasn’t going to help them much in terms of resale value. So without altering the general footprint of the room, they landed on a budget of $25,000 to shell out on well-worth-it upgrades, like porcelain floors and Parisian-inspired drop pendant lights. Here, Guyot reveals how they divvied up the magic number.

Save: Mixing Up the Countertops

The one thing I let my husband pick out was the quartz countertops. It was a really personal thing for him; he’d always wanted a home with white counters. They were a splurge, so we decided to save $2,000 by doing the back half in butcher block. Because the two surfaces aren’t running in a straight line, it doesn’t feel choppy. I stained and finished the wood myself. I’ve chopped food directly on it with no issues, but my husband is very particular about my using a cutting board. The kitchen is his thing—it has to be clean. 

Splurge: Load-Bearing Walls

The same contractor we brought in to check out the asbestos also helped us take down the two load-bearing walls that separated the kitchen from the living space. I wanted to have somebody there just to be safe, so everything didn’t come caving in on us. Finally, we put in two beam joists (the most costly update).

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Save: Bundle the Appliances

I have a Pro Xtra rewards account at Home Depot, so I get notifications every day about what’s on sale. I saw the store had a package of appliances, and I was able to get everything for $4,000. We recently listed this home (we’re moving to California), and the range hood was at the top of the list of items that increased the value of the space. Another swap that upped our investment was moving the washer and dryer from underneath the peninsula to a nearby closet. 

Splurge: Counter-to-Ceiling Backsplash

After looking into the appraisal process, I learned that taking the backsplash up to the ceiling would add more value to the home. After getting a few tips from my dad, who has done contracting work in the past, I tackled the backsplash myself (saving around $2,500 in labor). The trick I learned right away was to use a leveler to make sure everything is even. (Some DIYers will rely solely on their eye, and the pattern will end up so quirky and crazy in the end.) When I encountered outlets or windows, I used a tile saw and cutter to slice the edges to fit. Finishes were extra-important to me. I wanted to make sure that whomever owns this home next loves it despite the fact that it’s got a galley feeling. 

See more stories like this:  We Added 6 Rooms to Our Home, But Only Expanded the Footprint 100 Square Feet With $50K and a Forklift, We Vaulted the Garage and Made a Kitchen We Saved $3,000 on Pantry Cabinets All Thanks to This Unexpected Mistake