Refreshing your kitchen for a resale (© LOOK Photography/Getty Images)

© LOOK Photography/Getty Images

Q: I am fixing up my 31-year-old home for sale. It's nothing special, though it was remodeled in 1995. I want to update the kitchen but I don't want to spend more than $5,000 or $6,000. Any suggestions?

A: If you were planning to stay in your home, I'd recommend focusing on one or two things that would make a big difference in your daily life — say, a new range and a warming drawer — and then buy the best quality you can afford.

But since you are only redoing your home for resale, remember: Looks are everything.

Sure, some buyers are sophisticated enough to look for solid-wood cabinet doors and dovetail joints in drawers, and may even be able to tell the difference in quality among grades of granite countertops. But most buyers don't look past the surface — so if a kitchen seems fresh, polished and modern, they're impressed. (Bing: What's the average cost of a kitchen remodel?)

For the most impact, I suggest that you take these steps:
Buy a new countertop. A few years back, you may have been able to get away with a laminate countertop in an older or entry-level home, but I don't think that's true any longer. Sellers have realized that nothing matches the eye appeal of glossy granite in online photos, where most buyers begin to winnow their choices. Fortunately, the price for granite has dropped a great deal in recent years, especially for the cheaper grades of stone — which look just fine, in my opinion. But if granite is beyond your budget, consider Silestone or Corian. Look for deals where the installer throws in a free stainless-steel sink and pull-out faucet.

Paint the walls and ceiling in a neutral color that picks up one of the tones in the countertop.

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Change out any old appliances in dated colors like almond. Buy white replacements only if they match your cabinets; if you have natural wood, go for black or stainless. You needn't buy top-of-the-line, but shouldn't get the lowest end either. To make your kitchen stand out, consider adding one or two special appliances, such as a countertop microwave/convection oven or a wine chiller. If most of your appliances are relatively new and work well, paint any chips or dings with appliance touch-up paint and polish them with liquid automotive wax.

Update the lighting, since few items show a kitchen's age more quickly. Swap out any fluorescent fixtures for more fashionable pendant, track, spot or can lights.

Buy new cabinet hardware in brushed nickel or bronze.

Beyond that, you can make a big impact without spending much money. If your cabinets are wood, refinish them; if they are painted, give them another coat (but don't paint over wood cabinets, as most buyers prefer natural wood to painted).

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Otherwise, clean, organize and edit. Since buyers will open cabinets, throw out or store all mismatched dishes, cracked cups and ancient small appliances. Replace the shelf paper and buy drawer organizers. Face the labels of pantry items forward and put like items together, as in a grocery store.

When you have your first open house, make sure that your floors glow and your appliances sparkle inside and out. Grind a lemon peel in the garbage disposal to kill any odors. Then, put out a plate of warm cookies. Your visitors will feel a welcoming vibe.