I'm much more of a get-'er-dunner than I am a craftsman. I design projects to fit my skill set and budget rather than the other way around. So when it came to remodeling my brother's kitchen a few years ago, I figured out several ways to save him loads of money while making sure the work was doable for one guy (me) in a garage with basic power tools. If you're comfortable with a circular saw and a router, you probably can do everything I did by yourself. And even if you're not the DIY type, my experience might help you get the most bang for your buck.
The "Test Kitchen"
My brother lives in a townhouse with a standard, medium-size, U-shaped kitchen. It has 12 cabinets and all of the usual full-size appliances. As with most kitchen remodels, the biggest savings potential was in the cabinets and countertops. There's no point in quoting the actual amounts in my project, because everyone's kitchen is different, but I saved about 50% on the cabinets and over 80% on the countertop, compared to comparable prefab products. We made no changes to the kitchen's layout, but every surface was redone or replaced.
Flat Pack Cabinets
Following the advice a friend who does a lot of kitchen design work, I ordered flat-pack cabinet boxes from CabParts. These are well-made particleboard cabinets with quality melamine face veneers and edges that can be color-matched to your solid-wood doors and drawer fronts. The cabinet parts are shipped on a pallet, and you assemble the boxes yourself, using special sheet-good screws, such as Confirmat fasteners. If you've ever assembled IKEA furniture, you can build these cabinet boxes.
Because the doors and drawer fronts are what make a cabinet special, I ordered unfinished doors and fronts in solid red alder and finished them myself with wipe-on polyurethane. Keep in mind that you have to order a matching wood end panel for any exposed side of the cabinet boxes, and these are commonly available through door suppliers. Installing cabinet doors and hardware takes care and patience, but it's not difficult.
Custom Laminate Countertop
I'm a big fan of laminate for countertops. It's cheap, it comes in a huge range of colors, it's maintenance-free, and it has a nice hygienic finish that's easy to clean. It's also the only countertop that you can fabricate without highly specialized tools and experience. While a factory-made post-form laminate top can be pricey, a homemade top with square edges and a custom tile backsplash is dirt-cheap, and it performs just as well as post-form and looks a lot better, in my opinion.
The basic process is to build the countertop's substrate with two layers of industrial-grade particleboard, then cover the top and all exposed edges with plastic laminate, which you buy in 60-wide rolls of almost any length. You rough-cut the laminate by hand or with a circular saw and glue it down with contact adhesive. Then, you trim the edges flush to the substrate with a router and laminate bit. The last step is to hand-file the edges with a slight bevel to create a smooth finish and eliminate the razor sharpness of cut laminate. Once the countertop is screwed to the cabinets from below, you finish along the walls with one or more rows of tile.
Other Ways to Save Time and Money
Everyone seems to have strong opinions about flooring (especially on Hometalk.com), so I'd never try to convince someone of using one good material over another. But for low cost, durability, and ease of installation, it's hard to beat a floating laminate floor in the kitchen. That's what we used in my brother's kitchen. (In my own house, I might consider real linoleum, which is quieter than laminate and feels better underfoot.)
The last item—lighting—is arguably the single best way to improve a kitchen cheaply and easily. Most kitchens need better lighting, especially task lighting. I recommend adding a basic T-5 tube fluorescent undercabinet fixture under each wall cabinet in the work areas. Don't use halogen fixtures because they're inefficient and run way too hot. For accent and bar lighting, simple pendants are easy to install and can be very affordable. And for overhead lighting, use ceiling-mount fixtures that allow light to shine onto the ceiling rather than recessed fixtures. Recessed lights cast hard shadows in kitchens and do a poor job with ambient illumination, so you need many fixtures for a bright space.