There is no doubt about it, a kitchen can turn into a black hole, sucking out all your money and demanding more. It is particularly hard for me, because I love to cook and practically live in my kitchen. I assume many people are the same as me and must fight the urge to outfit kitchens with the things I would want. I think that a lot of flippers get into trouble with the same type of problem.
You can update a kitchen without breaking the budget, however. Increasing the size and the natural light are probably the two best strategies if they are possible. Knocking out walls between the kitchen, laundry room, and formal dining room can transform a house. Do not expand the actual kitchen area into the new space, leave it open, to be used in whatever way the new homeowner wants. The extra area could accommodate a family table for meals, homework, and projects. It could be a family room for comfortable seating and a television. It could be a hobby area. The point is to provide open space where families and friends can easily gather, and then let people use their own imaginations.
Natural light also helps. If possible, install a large window that looks out onto a pleasing landscape. Sometimes the house design works against you, though, and the only view is the side of the neighbor’s house. In that case, use glass block or some other medium that lets in light, but not the ability to see what is outside. Avoid skylights. They are tricky to install, and I have never had one that did not eventually leak.
If you ripped out a laundry room, create a new one in a laundry closet hidden by louvered bi-fold doors. All you need is enough space for the washer and dryer, with a shelf above for supplies. Sorting and folding can be done in the kitchen itself. I remodeled a farmhouse once, and put a stacked washer and dryer in a former linen closet next to the powder room. When I described what I wanted to do, all my friends were skeptical. Once they saw the setup, everyone agreed it made perfect sense.
Cabinets can be updated easily by replacing only the doors and the drawer fronts and possibly the hinges. Paint everything, install new knobs and pulls, and you are in business. If the shelves and drawer bottoms are unattractive particle board, cover them with shelf liner in a pretty color and pattern.
Put down good quality sheet vinyl flooring in a light color to enhance the open and airy feeling you want. Use laminated countertops in a neutral color, preferably with some sort of a small pattern. Right now, a multicolored tweed sort of look is very popular. I do not like to use laminates that pretend to be something else, like granite or walnut. It just reminds me that the counter is a fake. There is nothing wrong with good, honest laminate. It lasts a long time, is inexpensive to replace if you want to redecorate, and it cleans up easily. That is more than I can say for ceramic tile, wood, or granite.
Keep appliance costs down by shopping the scratch and dent sales or buying refurbished appliances. If you can find a refrigerator at a terrific price, it is always a good investment. Not all homes come with one. It could tip the scales for a potential buyer to purchase your home and not have to worry about immediately shopping for a refrigerator.
If you want decorator touches, do it with lighting. Light fixtures are amazingly inexpensive and come in a wide variety of styles and colors. The right fixtures can really punch up an otherwise bland room.
Finally, I like to install a closed circuit television monitor in the kitchen. The four-camera wireless packages are under $500. One camera could show the backyard, one could show the front door, and the two extras could be used where needed, perhaps as a baby-cam or for viewing wildlife. This feature adds a lot of punch, and helps reinforce the kitchen as the command center of the house.