2007-09-26 / News

Building a better kitchen

For you and the next owner of your home, the priciest amenities aren't always the best
By Barbara Ballinger CTW Features

Conventional wisdom dictates that you'll be able to recoup a major chunk of the costs to redo an upscale kitchen, which now averages around $108,000 nationally, according to the 2006 "Cost vs. Value" annual report from Remodeling magazine.

Remodeled kitchens have historically been one of the prime amenities to sell a home. It's what buyers look for after they get past the location and number of bedrooms, says Haley Hwang, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Glenview, Ill.

"Educated buyers know how costly it is to redo a kitchen, so I think they feel that they've made a good purchase if the house or condo they're buying already has a renovated gourmet kitchen," she says. "With a glut of new developments in my market, builders offer all kinds of upgrades to sell their units. As a result, all the bells and whistles are almost expected by buyers. It doesn't matter if the buyers even know how to cook - they've come to learn that they have to have a commercialgrade stove and oven and everything stainless or they don't feel they've made a good buy." Chicago-area kitchen designer Jean Stoffer concurs: "Our experience has seen that a newly remodeled, well-done kitchen can be the determining factor in a home sale. Since a kitchen remodel can be a daunting task to a prospective buyer, the homes with that task completed well are the first to sell," she says.

In addition, she advises homeowners to be sure they have an efficient layout - one that's warm and inviting. "This feeling can be achieved with color and lighting. The finishing touches are also critical so the kitchen 'sings.' Backsplash tile and cabinetry hardware can make the difference between a nice kitchen and one that's irresistible. Interesting things can be done with backsplashes that don't break the bank. Basic tile can be used in different shapes and laid in interesting patterns," she says.

At the same time, consumer advocates advise home owners who want to redo their kitchen not to rush in blindly and think they have to buy everything that sizzles or is the latest, especially as the housing market has slowed and the stock market moves up and down like a roller coaster.

So, how's a slightly confused potential buyer to weigh the allure of a stainless-steel, eight-burner professional range versus the fact that they rarely cook or that their kitchen budget is far under the national average?

Do what makes sense for your personal enjoyment and financial well being, but also factor in the price of your home and its neighborhood, how long you plan to stay and whether your choices deliver good value for the prices you'll pay.

Picking appliances can be particularly difficult since what grabs lots of attention these days are those items with recognizable brand names, such as Sub-Zero, and those with extra features like flatpanel TVs. Stoffer, for instance, favors high-end refrigerator/ freezer combos because they can be built in and has a unique systems for superior food preservation.

In other cases, the higher prices may not be warranted, warns Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy editor of Consumer Reports magazine. "The most loudly hawked products are often the most expensive," she says.

"The pro-style ranges, which start at $4,000 and go up to $8,000, get an enormous amount of advertising and exposure because they donate to … cooking programs or are seen in shelter magazines," she says. "You want to believe that something that costs so much must be much, much better. But our testing shows that that's not the case. We tested many products and found they delivered less than they promised," she says. Moreover, several were beaten by the old standbys that cost far less, Lehrman says.

A few examples of the magazine's findings:

•Ranges

Consumer Reports found in tests that expensive pro-style ranges perform no better than less-expensive conventional models. Some even require high repair rates. A smarter option is a faux-pro-style range from a well-known manufacturer that combines stainless steel, performance and reliability. The performance of the speed cookers was shown to be spotty. Better to consider an oven or range with a convection feature, Lerhman says. Some steam ovens were found not to help eliminate fat, a prime reason for purchasing one. They also cost more. "I think steaming is healthy but you don't need a steam oven to do it," Lehrman says.

• Multimedia refrigerators

None of the tested models out-cooled the best conventional refrigerators - the real way to judge this piece of equipment, Lerhman says. It also can be cheaper to buy the integrated features separately.

• Appliance drawers

Refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher and microwave drawers have become more popular because they "disappear" with cabinet matching panels. But they don't always deliver efficient capacity for the money spent, Lehrman says. She recommends buying a French-door-style fridge for accessible storage and running the rinse-only cycle on a regular dishwasher for small loads.

If you're in that elite category that's wowed by newness and want a particular item, go ahead. But do your research and know the pitfalls, Lehrman says. You may not get the payback on the dollars spent when you sell. A chef's kitchen may not appeal to a future buyer whose gourmet tastes are of the takeout variety.

Lehrman also recommends heading to showrooms to see items in person and possibly demonstrated. She also suggests talking to a seasoned kitchen designer or contractor who can guide you based on your budget, cooking and entertaining needs, space constraints and the reliability of the products. "You want everything to look beautiful, but you also want it to wear well over time," she says.

Bottom line: Factor in big doses of practicality and price with sizzle and chic appeal, and you'll enjoy your kitchen now and make it appealing to the next owners, too.

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