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Renovation: Investing in Your Kitchen

Designers, real estate brokers and other experts share sound remodeling strategies.

With the stock market so unstable, it seems that more and more people are putting money into their homes instead. Trendy kitchen improvements are taking a backseat to renovations that, major or minor, have a larger purpose: a financial and emotional investment. With this in mind, F&W turned to the experts—designers, real estate brokers, architects—to find out what to do to make a kitchen more satisfying to cook in and, eventually, a house easier to sell. "When people are looking to buy a home, they don't want to start renovating the kitchen," says Leighton Candler, a real estate broker at Manhattan's Corcoran Group. "People should be satisfied with the bedrooms and the living room, but it's the kitchen that makes them fall in love."

Appliances

"When a real estate ad lists Rolls-Royce kitchen appliances—Sub-Zero, Wolf, Viking—it makes you think that the rest of the home will be of the same quality," Candler says. But the cachet of a label isn't the only thing to remember. To get the most value from new appliances:

Be practical. Instead of spending a fortune on commercial appliances that are both out of scale and unsuitable, buy appliances that look like commercial ones but are made for home use.

Eliminate noise. Invest in the quietest dishwasher you can afford.

Be smart about space. For a big kitchen, consider a cooktop and separate double ovens. For one with less space, a microwave-hood combo might be a logical option.

Countertops

Our advisers were almost unanimous in their enthusiasm for granite, a material that appears to be growing in popularity across the United States. "It continues to drop in price, and on top of that, it's hands-down the most indestructible material out there," says Mary Jo Peterson, a Connecticut-based kitchen designer who works closely with the National Association of Home Builders and the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

Investigate Zodiaq and Corian, which are other popular countertop alternatives. They come in a range of colors, and often they cost about the same as granite.

Be wary of troweled concrete and porous materials like marble and limestone. Stains in limestone last forever.

Style

Most of our experts strongly encourage their clients to keep the look of their kitchen simple and to avoid overstyling—or risk turning away potential buyers. As the Corcoran Group's Candler says, "One man's French Country details are another man's too-cutesy details." The best rule of thumb is the plainer the better, and so:

Avoid loud colors and busy patterns. Solid, neutral tones are far more universally appealing.

Stay away from custom detailing and fake moldings. "Don't try to make a small apartment kitchen look like Versailles," advises Rick Garofalo, president of Repertoire designer-furniture stores in Manhattan and Boston.

Be consistent. Keep your kitchen in line with the look of the rest of your home—don't stray too far from the general color scheme or style. (This turns out to be a particularly American bias. "In Italy, no one thinks it's strange to put an extremely contemporary kitchen in a home that was built hundreds of years ago," observes Lois O'Malley, a designer at the Los Angeles office of Snaidero Kitchens & Design. If a client isn't necessarily interested in trying to sell, O'Malley thinks it can be fine to mix modern and antique pieces.)

An exception: "Texas is big on moldings and faux finishes on walls," says Tauna Lamb, a designer at the Kitchen Source in Dallas and Fort Worth. (For more on the Texan point of view, see the box on this page.)

Cabinetry

Since cabinets are the biggest renovation cost, it's best to choose high-quality ones that will last.

Invest in well-made cabinets that can withstand the daily wear and tear of most households.

Add glass panels to cabinet doors to allow you to see where everything is, to make the room seem bigger and brighter and to add rustic charm.

Use real wood. Maple and cherry are good choices, but avoid oak—"Most people consider it old-fashioned," says Lamar Ireland, a designer at The Kitchen Store in Culver City, California. Steer clear of faux-wood veneers.

Stick with natural finishes. Those treated with a moisture-impervious sealer are the most durable.

Consider replacing cabinet fronts instead of buying new cabinets. If the boxes are sturdy, the less expensive option may provide the aesthetic boost you're after.

Storage

Always keep in mind how important it is to have enough—and the right kinds of—storage space. Be imaginative: The best solutions may not be the most obvious ones. "Experiment with hardware systems that go beyond shelves," advises Eric Oh, a designer at Hanssem Intelligent Kitchens in New York City.

Be good to your garbage. Don't underestimate the need for the right places to throw trash and recyclables. Consider installing concealed pullouts with lids, and make sure the receptacle isn't too big, so you don't accumulate too much garbage before it goes out.

Make shelves and drawers more accessible and practical by incorporating such devices as lazy Susans, pullout and rollout shelving, and deep drawers.

Maximize your drawers, adding custom-made dividers, for example, for sharp knives. Build in vertical storage for cumbersome flat items such as trays and cookie sheets.

Bring your kitchenware into the open. Install wall-mounted storage systems that use the otherwise unutilized space for pots, pans and utensils.

Tables and Seating

Buy good furniture. Cabinets on wheels and tables can leave the house with you when you move, but they'll also make your kitchen more attractive to a potential buyer.

Realize that islands aren't always the answer. They don't suit the size and shape of every kitchen. If you do build in an island, make it a place for the family to gather together, with chairs or stools around it. Tauna Lamb of the Kitchen Source in Dallas and Fort Worth notes that among her customers, Tuscan farm tables have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional islands.

Look into installing banquettes. They're an excellent option for big families with large kitchens.

Personality

Half the satisfaction of having a kitchen is making it reflect who you are. "Even if you're keeping resale value in mind, make sure that you're meeting your own needs," advises Kermit Baker, the director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Play around with the backsplash. It's probably the safest place to experiment. If you absolutely have to have aubergine- and tangerine-colored tiles, do it here.

Spotlight your collectibles. "When the rest of your kitchen is neutral in color, you can show off a beautiful china or pottery collection without feeling like there's too much going on," notes kitchen designer Mary Sandy of Wellington's Kitchen Galleries in Bloomington, Illinois.

Be creative with knobs and handles. Your choices can subtly reflect your taste—and you can change them on a whim.

Published November 2002
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