By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
Economists warn that the airplane-hangar-size mega-retailers known as "big-box" stores could eventually spell the end of the mom-and-pop business. Sociologists worry that they're killing the notion of the public square. Homeowner associations complain that they create traffic nightmares and destroy neighborhood tranquillity.
But the gleaming kitchen in Nigel Maynard's Hyattsville townhouse, renovated entirely with off-the-shelf materials bought from the big boxes, makes for a pretty compelling counterargument: These stores offer gargantuan inventories at low prices, making them indispensable resources for do-it-yourselfers.
Maynard first laid eyes on his kitchen more than a week after he'd bought the place. It was not a pretty sight. Pressed to decide which element was the most unattractive, he initially couldn't make up his mind. There were so many worthy contenders: Was it the sagging brown cabinetry? The filthy linoleum covering rotting floorboards? The leaky dishwasher? The shiny, fake butcher-block countertop? The long wall of imitation red brick?
No matter. It was, all of it, his now -- along with the adjacent living/dining area that the previous owner had seen fit to appoint with cobalt blue carpet and matching cobalt blue paint on the walls and ceiling.
Because Maynard had already bid on (and lost) a townhouse with an identical floor plan in the same complex, he thought he knew what he was getting into when he saw the "For Sale" notice on the Internet. Snowed under at work, Maynard had asked his sister if she would accompany his agent to look at the place. "I told my sister to look out for structural defects, water damage, other problems. I trusted my agent and I trusted my sister, so whatever they said, I was going to go with," he says.
His sister called him after her tour. "She said, 'It's in pretty bad shape, it needs a lot of work. But it has a nice deck, and it's in a nice location. I think you should get it.' So I told my agent to go ahead. Since I already knew the floor plan, I knew that even if I had to rip everything out, it would be manageable in terms of cost."
The 36-year-old native of St. Croix writes and edits articles for construction and home-improvement magazines. In his job, he has absorbed much of the wisdom imparted to him over the years by the countless architects, contractors, carpenters and installers he has interviewed. Accompanying that wisdom, he says, is a commitment to sustainable building practices. "I'd feel bad ripping out and throwing away perfectly good tiles or flooring, just because I didn't happen to agree exactly with someone's color choice."
Better, in his opinion, to find a house that was in dire need of an overhaul. "Something older, where I could go in and just start smashing" with a clear conscience, he says. "So I didn't really care what it looked like. I was going to start fresh."
For renovating the entire 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, circa-1975 townhouse, Maynard gave himself a budget of $15,000 -- fully one-third of which he dedicated to the kitchen. ("From working with architects and writing about products over the last eight years, I was aware that a nice kitchen is usually what sells a house.") To stay within the parameters he had established, he knew that he would have to do the labor himself. And he knew that he wouldn't be able to afford high-end materials from boutique lines and specialty stores.
And so Nigel Maynard issued himself a challenge. "My goal became to use only materials and appliances from big-box stores, and lumber from supply yards," he says. "Everything in the house is stuff you can just buy off the shelf."
Maynard spent nearly a month gutting the old kitchen and installing a new one, arriving at the house after leaving his office and working -- mostly alone -- until quite late. He often didn't realize he'd passed the midnight mark until WHUR (the Howard University radio station he credits with keeping him going) signed off for the night. "That's how I knew it was time to go to bed," he says.
Weekends were spent either in local lumberyards or in the stores where Maynard says he found almost everything he needed to bring about his vision of elegance on a budget: Lowe's, Home Depot and Ikea. By going to the big boxes, installing everything that he could on his own and keeping an eye open for deals at all times -- not just when he was hunting for a particular item -- he was able to save significant amounts of money.
Maynard is the sort of guy who once stood around for more than half an hour, waiting for a $300 solid-oak door he spied some Lowe's workers unloading to make its way to the sales floor. He snatched it up in the clearance section for $50. Such vigilance, he maintains, is absolutely key to finding the best deals.
"You have to think ahead," he says. "You have to be like the people who buy their Thanksgiving cranberry sauce in June, when it's on sale. Obviously I was going to need appliances. So every week, from the moment I began working on the house, I checked the papers, the circulars, online -- everywhere -- to see if anybody was having a sale on appliances. Eventually I found some places that were having blowout sales."
By timing his appliance purchases according to the retailer's sale schedule, rather than his own work and installation schedule, Maynard snagged his GE stainless-steel range, dishwasher and refrigerator for less than $1,300 total.
At Ikea, Maynard found "very nice, inexpensive cabinetry" that was made even better when he took the advice of the architects and designers he has written about. "They're always saying that one way to make a big impression is with hardware. So I looked for regular hardware with a high-end look." Scanning the shelves at Ikea, he found modestly priced kitchen hardware that he thought resembled the handles of Sub-Zero refrigerators; by installing them he added a note of high style that operates almost subliminally.
Compromises on materials, Maynard discovered, are easier to absorb in this era of ever-improving alternatives to the fancy stuff. Linoleum or vinyl used to be the only choices available to the budget-minded kitchen renovator who couldn't afford wood floors. Things have gotten better.
"The floor can eat up a significant portion of your budget. Originally I had plans to go with cork or rubber, but in the end I decided to go with laminate. The price was just so much better. I paid about $1.50 per square foot" for a brand of wood laminate from Lumber Liquidators, he says. "The thing about a place like that is that you have to go get it yourself and then put it in yourself. There's definitely a learning curve, but it's pretty quick: You just put down the underlayment and click it in, board by board. Once you get started it's easy."
To replace the fake butcher-block countertops, Maynard found some real ones of solid oak from Ikea that set him back less than $225. (He made the cuts himself, going through two saw blades in the process.) That still left the matter of the fake brick wall, a broad plane of blood-red plastic horror. "It wasn't going to come out without a fight, so I just demolished the whole wall and put up fresh drywall," he says, adding that it took him about three drywall sheets, at about $8 a sheet, to cover the affected area.
Then he switched hats and played tile-layer, creating a wall of white ceramic 6-by-8-inch tiles that cost him 49 cents apiece at Lowe's. Again, he says, a learning curve was involved, but Maynard says that anyone can put up tiles the way he did with a quick lesson. (Lowe's and Home Depot often give free classes on laying tile and other DIY projects.)
In the end, Maynard's kitchen cost him about $4,300 -- $700 less than he had budgeted. And lest anyone think that a budget kitchen born of big-box shopping expeditions isn't ready for prime time, here's the sweetest payoff of all: When cable network HGTV got wind of what he had done, they sent a producer and a camera crew to take a look. Later this spring, on a new show called "Kitchen Trends," the pitiable little kitchen he worked so hard to make beautiful will have its television debut.