NORTH BERGEN, N.J.
An intriguing trend has emerged from the wreckage of the real estate market: The brave souls taking the plunge into homeownership are increasingly turning to studio apartments and smaller homes.
Their logic is rooted in efficiency. They really want to own a home -- and afford one at the same time -- and are willing to sacrifice space to accomplish that goal.
But there's one problem: Studio apartments aren't always livable upon moving in. Space is exceptionally tight, your bathtub might be in the middle of your living room, your kitchen area is so small that you might as well keep the local Chinese restaurant on speed dial.
A little work can get you cooking again, though.
You will be surprised how even a tight budget can go a long way toward transforming your cramped space into a cozy, enjoyable pad that will make your neighbors and friends with their bigger apartments (and even bigger mortgage payments) envious.
They may resent you even more when it comes time to sell your apartment; the value you can add to your home by renovating a kitchen can be truly enormous. This is especially true in a studio, simply because the kitchen makes up such a disproportionate amount of the space when compared with larger homes.
I own a studio in New Jersey that measures about 500 square feet -- the penthouse at the Plaza this is not. After putting in a new bathroom last year, I turned to the kitchen this summer in an attempt to truly revitalize the apartment.
First, let me explain what I was up against. The white-covered particleboard cabinets were ugly, at least 20 years old, and barely better than a cardboard box. They weren't that good when ''Thriller'' records were flying off the shelves, and they most certainly weren't any good in 2008.
The existing kitchen space was tiny -- 7 feet, 6 inches in all, including a 20-inch range, a sink, and about 2 feet of useable countertop. Such limited space makes any cooking endeavor challenging at best.
The cabinets had to go, the counter had to go, and so did the appliances.
I'm not the only one doing more with less. The real estate boom produced a surge in studio buyers in places like the New York City area, according to Jonathan Miller of the Miller Samuel real estate appraisal firm. They were primarily first-time buyers who had rented for many years and wanted to take advantage of the hot market, but couldn't afford one-bedroom apartments.
And with owning comes remodeling. Some might react to my daunting kitchen by calling a contractor and opening up the checkbook. Not me -- I drove to the local home improvement store.
The situation required a top-to-bottom renovation: new cabinets, new countertop, new dishwasher, new range, new refrigerator, new plumbing, along with adding an entirely new set of cabinets on the other side of the room that would expand the kitchen area into a real kitchen area.
The total cost: about $3,500. (This includes tools and basic supplies that you may already have on hand, so the price cost could have been considerably less.) But for those of you baffled at how to pull off such an ambitious project for such a relatively low price, here are some pointers:
n Free Labor. My parents came to visit for a long weekend in the New York area, so we teamed up for four days of bonding-while-remodeling. Call it a reno-vacation, if you will. (For the record, the parents were not forced to renovate against their will; this was a fun, family affair, and there was still enough time to see two Broadway shows and take in some fabulous restaurants.)
n Keep it simple with your cabinets. Your local home improvement store will have a great selection of in-stock cabinets that are very affordable and attractive. There's really no need to spend thousands of dollars on custom cabinets when such quality products are available at lower costs. I found a great style at the local Home Depot -- Glendale Champagne Oak -- that matched the rest of my apartment, and I paid about $1,200. The cabinets were fully assembled -- no staining, no varnishing, no stinking up your apartment -- although they do not come with hardware. Still, you can buy attractive handles for less than $3 apiece.
n Countertops. There is no need to cough up $50 or $100 per square foot for marble or granite countertops when technological advances have so drastically improved the quality of laminates. For about $75, you can get 8 feet of a high-quality laminate countertop whose looks run the gamut from marble to granite. We opted for a granite style for my renovation, and from a distance, it looks like the real thing.
n Delicate flourishes. Sometimes the subtle touches in a home improvement projects really make the difference. Take the issue of backsplash, for example. Sure, you can spend thousands of dollars on ornate ceramic tiles and exotic murals for your backsplash, but again, they make some really alluring alternatives these days.
Many home improvement stores sell plastic 18-by-24-inch backsplash panels that cost less than $20 and provide an authentic, rustic look. The parents and I were able to pull this off for under $100, covering the wall with copper panels that replicate an elegant, turn-of-the-century Victorian look.
n Appliances. The dishwasher is a necessity in my book, but many owners of small apartments consider it an impossible amenity given the lack of space. Under-the-sink dishwashers allow you to enjoy this luxury. The dishwasher tucks nicely below your sink in space that normally would be cluttered with cleaning supplies and rags. One warning: This requires a shallow sink to make the dishwasher fit.
So for all the studio apartment owners out there in the world, do not despair -- you can improve your bleak situation with very little work.