The Most Underrated Kitchen-Reno Budget Saver: Used Cabinets
Here’s how to find some—and make them your own.
Published Jul 5, 2022 1:32 AM
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IKEA gets all the glory when it comes to sources for affordable kitchen cupboards, but there’s another route, one less traveled but just as budget-friendly: opting for used kitchen cabinets. How much of a bargain are we talking? Justin Green, executive director of the nonprofit salvage center Big Reuse, told Sweeten founder Jean Brownhill that salvaged cupboards are usually more than 50 percent off retail prices.
If that’s not a big enough draw, there’s also the added bonus of reducing construction and demo waste, which The New York Times reported makes up a whopping 20 percent of the garbage New York City’s Department of Sanitation processed in 2014. The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never rang truer.
Read on for everything you need to know about used cabinetry—plus a few ideas for how to make the pieces your own.
Where to Buy Used Kitchen Cabinets
Purveyors of old cupboards generally fall into two buckets: individual sellers and bigger operations like salvage yards, nonprofits, and antiques stores. Chicagoan India Shannon of Apartment 528 turns to the former to find the ’80s hardware-less cabinets she loves to reimagine, specifically Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. It doesn’t hurt to scroll OfferUp and eBay, too.
Brownhill, on the other hand, got in touch with Renovation Angel’s Green Demolitions outfit, which does whole house recycling. Anyone across the country doing a gut remodel can call up the organization to donate cabinets, appliances, lighting, and even architectural elements that would otherwise go in a landfill. The perfectly good pieces then go up for sale (at a discount!) on Renovation Angel. Brownhill ended up scoring an entire kitchen this way, including cabinets, drawers, a Sub-Zero fridge, and a granite countertop. Habit for Humanity’s ReStore and vintage shops offer similar finds on a local level.
How Much They’ll Cost
Deals abound—in fact you might come across listings where the cabinetry is free or close to it. Shannon bought a set of 10 wall and base units for just $60, while British creative Caroline Briggs snagged a Victorian glass storage cabinet, some drawers, and five cupboards for $1,970 at an antiques shop in her neighborhood. Brownhill’s massive haul totaled only $1,000, for what she notes probably originally cost closer to $100,000. Prices can go much higher, though, depending on quality. On Renovation Angel right now, full kitchens start at $2,399 and go all the way up to $35,999 for one from a luxury NYC apartment.
A Couple Pro Tips and Tricks
There’s no such thing as too many questions, especially when you’re shopping online for a big-ticket item. Shannon always inquires about condition (any nicks, scratches, or water damage?), as well as any specific measurements missing (don’t forget depth!) so she can triple-check everything will fit just right. Although buying used kitchen cabinets is very much a DIY effort, when you bring your purchase home, don’t hesitate to call in a professional to install them. “I got my joiner to meet me [at the store] the next morning,” Briggs told Domino, and he helped her put the puzzle together.
How to Spiff Up Your Used Kitchen Cabinets
To meld her new (old) cabinetry with the bones of her historic brownstone, Brownhill had her contractor recut the granite and trim down one unit, then they repainted all the Shaker fronts a classic creamy white. The two cupboards they couldn’t squeeze in now live in her dining room.
Shannon went the opposite direction in her home’s coffee nook, coating salvaged retro melamine storage in a bright cherry red that ties in with the pot rack above it. If you’re also the proud owner of the ubiquitous ’80s style, she recommends skipping the prep work altogether in favor of slapping the paint right on—it absorbs well from the get-go.
Even after the most careful measuring, you might end up with some gaps like Briggs did. Her savvy solution: Fill in the awkward spaces with custom drawers made out of reclaimed wood. When every element has a history, it all works together.
The pink lower cabinets in DeVol creative director Helen Parker’s Leicestershire, England, kitchen are actually a bedroom wardrobe piece she found at an antiques fair and spruced up by painting it, raising it up on bun feet, and topping it with a curvy marble work surface.
While the lower cabinets in Breeze Braunschweig and Kartik Ramachandran’s space are from Home Depot (the savvy DIYers replaced the doors with lumber from what remained of the original baseboards in the house), the upper cabinets are an antiques store score. As for the lengthy cast-iron sink in the corner? That’s a Craigslist find.
This story was originally published in April 2021. It has since been updated.