5 Things Real Estate Pros Won’t Tell You About Painting Kitchen Cabinets

published May 10, 2023
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Stylish interior of modern kitchen
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When it comes to investing in upgrades prior to listing your home for sale, experts almost always suggest focusing on the kitchen and bathroom. Renovating these two areas can make a huge impact, potentially even netting you a higher-than-expected purchase offer. 

Updating your cabinets with a fresh coat of paint has become a popular way for many homeowners to give their kitchens a facelift without shelling out thousands of extra dollars, but some real estate agents believe sellers may be painting themselves into a corner instead. Here’s what they won’t tell you about painting kitchen cabinets.

Not every type of cabinet is suitable for painting.

According to Pablo Vadillo, regional director at United Home Group, only cabinets made with certain materials can be painted. “Different woods can react differently to paints and dyes, so it’s important to understand which type you’re dealing with,” he explains. 

Make sure you’re painting (or refinishing) a cabinet in its best light.

“For example, the most common cabinet woods include alder, cherry, oak, maple, hickory, and birch,” he says. “Each has its own characteristics and pros and cons — alder is excellent for varnishing, cherry is hard and durable, maple has a close grain pattern that makes it ideal for painting or staining, birch is great if you’re on a budget, while hickory is extremely strong yet requires expert-level experience as it’s challenging to work with.”

Many people skimp on the prep work.

In addition to ensuring your cabinets can be updated, Vadillo says many people forget to get them accurately prepared for a fresh coat of paint, pointing out that many laminate cabinets require a thorough cleaning before work can get started. 

“Additionally, [homeowners need to] check if there are existing layers of stain, paint or glaze on the cabinets — many mid-century modern homes have glazed cabinets which means more sanding or stripping with hazardous chemicals may be necessary.” 

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

You may be unconsciously telling prospective buyers that you skimp on upgrades.

Kitchen updates are expensive and can be financially out of reach for many homeowners. This is especially true for sellers trying to make multiple updates to get their home ready to sell, which is why DIY paint jobs have become so popular. But David Rosen, head of The Rosen Team at Douglas Elliman, says that giving your cabinetry a glow-up on your own can sometimes send a message to buyers about just how much money you’ve actually invested in your property. “The problem with quick fixes, like painting cabinets, is that it’s easy to spot,” he says.

The average homeowner just doesn’t have the skills to pull it off.

When it comes to tackling bigger projects around the home, Jennifer Baptisa, a licensed real estate agent in Massachusetts, has strong feelings. “I believe that painting anything in the house, like real estate, should be left to the pros,” she says. “Especially when you are using light colors to paint a kitchen, it’s very, very easy for issues to arise, and for the cabinets to go from looking polished to poorly executed.”

That can mean everything from forgetting to prep, like Vadillo pointed out, to using an unforgiving paint color that could highlight any imperfections. 

There’s no way to know what future buyers want.

Baptisa also says sellers should steer clear of cabinet makeovers prior to listing their home, because there’s just no way they can possibly know what paint color will win a buyer over. “Some people are very picky about the stain or paint they choose for their kitchen,” she says.

You may choose a neutral shade with the hopes that it would appeal to a wide range of buyers, unintentionally losing someone who was looking for a kitchen with a traditional stain finish like those currently coming back into favor.