How Can I Update My Kitchen Without Replacing the Cabinets?

… Or How to Update Your NYC Kitchen Without Mortgaging Your Firstborn Child to Pay For It.


A specialty we’ve developed over the years at Paint Works is updating Kitchens without replacing them.  A kitchen update (or facelift) typically entails some combination of semi-cosmetic work including painting cabinets, replacing counters, replacing lighting, installing shelves, putting in a backsplash or maybe replacing the floor.  A kitchen facelift (as we define it at Paint Works) is NOT a full kitchen renovation where all appliances, cabinetry and fixtures get replaced.  We leave that gut-wrenching and often bank-account-assassinating  experience to the general contractors.  

We’re going to use this post to give you an overview of what some of your options are for doing a small NYC kitchen update and what it might look like in terms of pricing, timing and the scope of work.  In subsequent posts we’ll give you before and after shots, video and also tips/tricks that we’ve learned over the years doing these types of kitchen remodels.

At Paint Works our mission is to help you do more with what you have, and we hope these posts help take you down that path with your Kitchen update.  As always, if you have any specific questions you’d like to ask us, feel free to shoot us a message through our contact form here.


The Kitchen Update Levels

If you’ve found this post and you’re still reading, we realize that as opposed to having an unlimited budget for your kitchen renovation that will allow you to get that new dishwasher with the auto foot massage option, you need to balance aesthetics with cost.  We’ve broken down the various types of cosmetic kitchen updates into different levels based on complexity and cost.  To assists you in figuring out which level of kitchen makeover is right for you, we’ve included the following information for each level outlined below:

Cost: this one is pretty simple … how much money will it take to do this type of update?  The typical range for a cosmetic kitchen update falls in the $2-20k range.  You’ll see how these prices lay out below based on the scope of work you choose.  We do kitchen facelifts that can go into the $20k+ range where the client decides to start replacing appliances and do other types of updates (and we’ll show you a post of one of these), but our specialty is sub $20k kitchen updates.

Duration:   This is often a topic that makes homeowners break into a cold sweat when thinking about a renovation project, but these cosmetic kitchen updates are easier to keep on track as there typically isn’t a lot of involved carpentry, wall opening or other unforeseen obstacles that can trip up a project.  

Scope: what will you get for your money?  We’ve included the basics below (painting, knobs/pulls replacement, counters, etc) but there are a host of fun things you can do with kitchens like installing creative storage solutions or using whiteboard paint on cabinets.  The options are endless.  We’ve tried to give a high level view of some of the more common options below.

Great for This is who we find tends to have this level of work done.  Of course, there is overlap between these levels, but this section will hopefully give you some ideas on what might be right for you.

Our Process : A quick overview of how we’d approach the project.


A QUICK DISCLAIMER: The prices we’ve outlined below are approximate costs only!!!  Also, these are New York City prices.  We’ll be putting up a post on the logistics of contracting a project like this in Manhattan that might help shed some light on why prices are higher in NYC.


Level 1: Just Doors and Cabinets

This is  the cosmetic kitchen update that’s going to give you the most mileage from your budget and also our most popular one.  Most of the time the cabinets take up the majority of the space visually in the Kitchen so changing the color can make a kitchen look completely different.  The knob and pull changes are usually nice extra that complement the color change.  You can check out a post on the most popular questions we get about kitchen cabinet painting here

COST: typically $1,500-$7,500

DURATION: 2-4 days depending on kitchen size

SCOPE: painting the cabinets, possibly replacing the knobs/handles


  • first time homeowners on a budget that need a quick refresh before moving in.
  • A residence going on the market that needs something to make a dated kitchen present better
  • When you look at your wood cabinets and cringe because it reminds you of the wood built-ins in Misery that you see in the background during the scene where Kathy Bates goes to town on Roy Scheider’s legs so he can’t escape.  Am I the only person that painted their cabinets for this reason?
  • People moving into a cookie-cutter new construction building THAT have a great Kitchen with all the trimmings but don’t like the color of it.
  • Renters that plan on being in the same place for a few years and want to spruce up old cabinets.  We only recommend this for very small kitchens and we’d pummel you mercilessly with punishing blows if you put more than $2k into this … you’re basically flushing money down the toilet as it’s a rental and one of us has to be the responsible person in this relationship 😉

OUR PROCESS:  We’d start by preparing the location, furniture and surfaces not being painted.  Cabinet doors would get removed, labelled and all the mounting hardware as well as knobs/handles get taken off.  Next, all the frames and doors being painted would get deglossed to promote adhesion of the primer and paint that will be applied.  After wiping the surfaces clean, we’d prime with a high adhesion primer, let the doors dry and then start applying the paint.  Our most popular application method is rolling with a microfiber roller and brushing edges as necessary, but we’ve taken doors out to spray them for a smoother finish on certain occasions.


Level 2: Backsplash or Floor + Level 1

COST: $8,000-$14,000

DURATION: 1-2 weeks depending on complexity of floor/backsplash install

SCOPE: everything from Level 1 and replacement of the floor or backsplash.


  • A quick refresh when on a tight timeline.
  • Doing an update while away on vacation or before moving into a new apartment.
  • Adding some extra protection to the two of the locations in the kitchen that are exposed to the most splatters and liquid damage, aside from the counters.

OUR PROCESS: For this level, we still produce all of the work in-house and can turn kitchens like this over fairly quickly without having to wait for counters to be fabricated or electricians and plumbers to make time in their schedule for other updates in Level 3.  Depending on the type of floor installation and quantity of sub-floor work necessary, a Level 2 update might run over the 2 week mark.


Level 3: Counters or Lighting + Level 2

COST: $10,000-$20,000

DURATION: ~2-3 weeks

SCOPE: Everything from Level 2 as well as a replacing the counters, new lighting and a new sink (or even insinkerator) are popular at this level.  Swapping out existing recessed lights for LEDs is also a nice update here, but we’d be very supportive of a small disco ball or strobe light if you’re looking to spice things up a bit 😉


  • Upgrading an existing a kitchen in a residence you’re looking to stay in
  • Brightening up a dark space that never quite got enough light
  • A possible appliance update as you’ll have an electrician and plumber onsite at some point; they could pull an ice line to a new refrigerator or hook up the water for a new dishwasher.  The pricing above does not  include supplying appliances.

OUR PROCESS:  For levels 1 and 2, Paint Works performs all of the work in-house with it’s employees.  At this point we need to start bringing in licensed subcontractors to take care of the additional scope involved.  A plumber comes in for the sink/appliance disconnections so that the stone company can template for the new counter and so that our workers can remove the original one.  The electrician also typically needs to break holes in parts of the wall and ceiling: these holes get closed up by our team and the entire surface often gets painted.


Level 4: Custom floors, appliance replacements, removing walls, etc.  + Level 3

COST: $20,000+

DURATION: 3-4 weeks

SCOPE: This is the most comprehensive of the levels and some of our previous remodels of this type have included creating pass-throughs in existing walls, installing new outlets, relocating electrical panels to make more space in the kitchen, putting stone on windowsills and adjusting cabinets to accommodate a farm sink.


  • Avoiding the expense of replacing kitchen cabinets but otherwise doing something similar to a full gut remodel of the kitchen.

OUR PROCESS: At this level you’d basically be doing just short of a full gut remodel of the kitchen and we typically only do this when no one is living in the apartment and there’s work taking place elsewhere in the residence prior to a move-in.  There’s no set process we typically follow for this type of project as they’re often very custom, but some of the more involved ones have involved removing and reinstalling the kitchen cabinets so that the pre-war wood floor under them could e reconstructed.  In New York City, this level might require permits to be pulled as well as well as extended approval process from the managing agent.   Sometimes coordinating water shutdowns might be necessary at this level.