The classic kitchen

Add style and function for less with our latest Ratings and best tips

Last reviewed: August 2010
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Think enjoyment, not resale value. Kitchen remodeling today is all about what you need, rather than some over-the-top designer's checklist that makes slabs of fine Italian marble, a butler's pantry, and gargantuan appliances seem as necessary as a refrigerator and range. "People aren't settling for less, they're just realizing that they don't need so much excess," says Laura DuCharme Conboy, an architect in La Jolla, Calif.

We call it the return of the classic kitchen—one that's welcoming, efficient, and timeless, not glitzy or supersized. In short, a room you want to spend time in for years to come.

And now is a perfect time to get started, before remodeling activity starts to heat up later this year, as Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies predicts. You'll find plum deals on countertops and flooring, the best contractors eager for work and willing to negotiate, and stylish, less-expensive appliances with premium features—such as induction on ranges and cooktops (both available to subscribers) and improved insulation on refrigerators—that boost function and efficiency. You'll also see a growing number of "green" products, such as bamboo flooring, that deliver performance and value.

How much will it all cost?

We took top-performing products from our extensive tests and created three design schemes. The first is for a $5,000, do-it-yourself makeover. The next one ups the budget to $15,000, which is roughly the average spent on a kitchen remodel this year, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. The third, for $50,000, targets a full-scale gut renovation.

Tastes vary, but the schemes will give you a sense of how far your money will go. Then use our reports for recommendations of like-priced models and materials, as well as in-depth advice for incorporating them into your design. Simply want to spruce up the kitchen you have? Check our report for small appliances and kitchen tools that cost $200 or less.

No matter how much money you plan to spend, a few simple rules apply:

Don't rush

If it's been a while since you thought about remodeling, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the wealth of innovative products that combine value, performance, and good looks. Take the time—anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the scope of your project—to meet with pros, browse the Internet, and visit showrooms and home centers. Haste can also be expensive. Changing their minds after the work got started typically added about $1,500 to the cost of a kitchen project, according to almost 3,000 readers we surveyed about the hidden costs of remodeling.

Don't get stuck on size

Bloated showpieces are out. In addition to being expensive, huge kitchens can be exhausting to work in. There should be only about 4 to 9 feet of space between the sink and the refrigerator or between the sink and the stove, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Islands should be only 3 to 4 feet deep and 3 to 10 feet wide and have a 42-inch-wide aisle between the island and surrounding cabinets. Anything bigger can be hard to use and clean.

Beware of budget busters

"While we're at it ..." are words that can break any budget. It's one thing to make unexpected structural repairs (in fact, you should leave a 10 to 15 percent cushion in your budget for such surprises), but it's another to add decorative flourishes just because a skilled carpenter happens to be in your kitchen. But don't settle for a cheap option, promising yourself that someday you'll replace it with what you really want. "In 30 years, I've never had a client actually come back and make the change," says Mark Karas, a Boston designer and president of the NKBA.

Get everything in writing

Whenever you hire a pro, the written contract should list each phase of the project; every product, including the model number; and copies of each contractor's license and workers compensation and liability insurance to confirm that they're still in effect. Call references and, if possible, visit them for a visual inspection.

Did you know?

You don't have to buy all of your appliances from the same brand. But if you decide to, Kenmore and Whirlpool have been reliable across refrigerators, ranges (available to subscribers), and dishwashers.