This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in August 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.
Gone are the giddy days of a red-hot real estate market and free-flowing credit that made six-figure renovations sound almost sensible. We say good riddance. Instead of chasing bright shiny objects—the 42-inch professional range or an $800 faucet with an oil-rubbed bronze finish—homeowners are rediscovering their own definitions of beauty and value.
While remodeling activity is down, it's not out—especially in the kitchen and bathroom. When we asked 724 American homeowners which room they'd renovate first, the kitchen and bathroom easily led. And in a separate survey of 4,171 readers who remodeled their bathroom in the last five years, 42 percent of those projects were completed in 2008 or 2009.
Whether you're managing pros or doing some or all of the work yourself, our kitchen and bath guide will tell you which products live up to today's standards of style, performance, and price. It starts with seven essential tips to navigating today's remodeling marketplace, followed by Ratings and expert advice on the best appliances, countertops, fixtures, flooring, and more, including where to find the best deals.
Home remodeling might have returned to reality, but you can still have the kitchen and bathroom of your dreams.
Bump outs and gut renovations used to be common. Not anymore. Remodeling that emphasizes quality over quantity is the new standard. People want to make their kitchens more livable without having to add on, according to Tom Giaquinto, president of Regal Home Improvement in Holtsville, N.Y. Borrowing from a nearby pantry or closet and removing all or part of a wall to open up sight lines into an adjacent space are two common strategies. Architect Sarah Susanka champions "double-duty dining," where a single eating area serves both formal and informal functions, allowing the square footage of the dining room to be absorbed into the kitchen.
Homeowners are also looking outdoors, using decks and patios as extensions of their kitchen and entertaining spaces and as outdoor kitchens in warmer months. In our remodeling poll, those exterior spaces were high on homeowners' wish lists of rooms to renovate, trailing only the kitchen and bath. "We're getting a lot more calls about decking this year, probably a dozen in the last few weeks alone," Giaquinto confirms.
Two-thirds of homeowners say they've changed their remodeling plans because of the economy. Professional-style appliances, whirlpool bathtubs, and triple sinks won't just add to your project's bottom line—they could also give your kitchen and bath a dated look now that those former status symbols are seen as needless extravagances.
Our latest tests confirm that sensible and stylish needn't be mutually exclusive. Many of the top-performing ranges from our tests have the stainless-steel finish that consumers still covet. In flooring, you'll find bamboo that beats oak for less money and plastic laminates that simulate the look of stone for a fraction of the cost. Instead of a whirlpool tub, make a conventional tub or shower stall more luxurious with a handheld body spray that has powerful jets and pulsating massage settings. As for sinks and faucets, our past tests revealed few performance differences between high-end and economy models.
Spend on products you interact with every day, starting with the appliances. Our reports include brand repair histories, so that you can skip brands that have been repair-prone in the past. Beyond the appliances, think about the features you regularly touch, use, and feel. Subscribers who scrimped on cabinets, countertops, and showers told us they wished they had spent more. But little things can make a difference too. "There's a subtle tactile quality to a well-made doorknob or cabinet pull that makes an impression over time," says Bruce Irving, a home renovation consultant from Cambridge, Mass.
Conversely, consider saving on your flooring and lighting fixtures. In our bathroom survey, almost 60 percent of readers opted for ceramic tile over pricier stone. Provided you have enough sources of task and ambient light, you can opt for a simple, well-made fixture over one that's high-concept with the price tag to match.
Almost two-thirds of homeowners told us they're doing or planning at least some of the work themselves. Painting is the most common do-it-yourself project, with design, flooring, tiling, and demolition work also on the list. "A client who does the demo might save anywhere from $800 to $2,000," says Darius Baker, a kitchen and bath remodeling contractor in Sacramento, Calif. Painting can rein in an additional $1,000 to $2,500. Those types of savings were supported by our bathroom survey, where 60 percent of DIYers spent less than $2,500 on their remodel, compared with just 15 percent who spent that much with hired help.
But even an experienced DIYer should think twice about tackling electrical and plumbing work. If you intend to design the project, think about working with a design/build firm rather than a contractor who only swings a hammer. If you're knocking down walls or rearranging fixtures and appliances, remember that local building codes will probably require an architect's or engineer's sign-off.
Phasing, like resizing, has entered the remodeling lexicon. More than a third of all homeowners in our poll said the recession is forcing a piecemeal approach to their remodeling project. For example, they're refinishing the cabinets now and installing new counters and appliances later.
Phasing can spread out the financial burden of a major project, but it can lead to additional stress and expense if it's not managed smartly. If you're remodeling a single room in phases, do any behind-the-walls work first so that you're not plastering and painting twice. It's also best to start from the top down, saving the floors for last. Using a contractor for your kitchen or bath? Take advantage of their off-season—usually after the winter holidays.
Consumers aren't remodeling just to make their homes greener. Energy and water efficiency are part of the decision-making process. Some 84 percent of subscribers chose energy-efficient appliances, 43 percent picked water-efficient appliances, and 38 percent chose fluorescent lighting for their kitchens. Water-saving toilets and low-flow showerheads were installed in 62 percent of bath remodels.
Paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gaining traction as well, with almost 17 percent of bathroom remodelers choosing them over traditional, higher-VOC products. But you can skip special kitchen or bath paint. The three products we tested weren't any better at resisting stains or holding up to scrubbing than our CR Best Buys, which include several low-VOC paints, though they did resist mildew slightly better.
Searching salvage yards and reuse stores for gently used countertops, flooring, and cabinetry is another way to green your kitchen or bath project.
Universal design makes kitchens and baths easier for everyone to use. But it doesn't have to give a room an institutional look. "When universal design is done correctly, you don't even know it's there," says Armand Christopher, president of Senior Living Realty in Dallas, Texas. "But it can be a huge selling point for a house." In fact, almost 10 percent of our readers who remodeled their bathrooms did so to make them more accessible.
In the bathroom, consider a "comfort height" toilet, like most models we tested, which at 17 to 19 inches high is easy on the knees and back. Choose flooring with a non-slip texture and ensure that the vanity countertop and one or more kitchen countertops are low enough for people to use from a seated position. Also install lever-style faucets (the hands-free kitchen faucet by Danze performed well in our tests) and handheld showerheads. During major renovations and new construction, put in grab bars (or at least the framing necessary for later installation) and create full-access doorways and zero-thresholds, which make entry easier for individuals using crutches, a wheelchair, or a walker. For more information and to find a Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist, contact the National Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.org).