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Get the kitchen you've always wanted

Create your dream kitchen at a down-to-earth price

Consumer Reports magazine: July 2013

Photo: Karyn R. Millet

Housing’s steady recovery has put kitchen remodels and their relatively high payback on investment and enjoyment back in the spotlight.

Skip the fads and the come-ons and focus on trends with staying power. Appliances that do more and serve you in new ways are among them, including more ranges with double ovens along with the roomiest refrigerators we’ve ever tested. And since there’s no one-size-fits-all kitchen, you’ll find specific advice for specific needs, whether you’re serving a crowd, creating a kitchen where money’s no object, or simply want a dream kitchen at a down-to-earth price.

Ever had a gripe with a contractor? You’re not alone: About 10 percent of respondents to a nationwide Consumer Reports survey said they were disappointed by their remodeler’s promptness, cost management, or ability to problem-solve. Our tips on working with pros are based on some savvy moves and common goofs gleaned from the survey of more than 5,000 readers. We also gathered a wealth of kitchen “likes” and pitfalls from our ­Facebook fans, including the story of a remodeler who saved thousands by buying gently used cherry cabinets and appliances from a home-salvage shop.

Here’s how to start planning the kitchen of your dreams. And a bonus report with before and after photos of three "Magnificient kitchen makeovers."

Photo: Karyn R. Millet

Open it up. Separate kitchens are becoming as antiquated as parlors and rumpus rooms. An open kitchen makes the home feel bigger and warmer, says David Davison, certified kitchen remodeler and owner of Realty Restoration in Austin, Texas.

But an open plan can lead to chaos if the space is poorly organized. Think about what you’ll do most in your kitchen—cooking, baking, eating, entertaining, homework, bill paying, and so on. If the room isn’t big enough for everything, strip away the nonessentials, or relocate them to an adjacent area. For instance, do you really need a kitchen desk if you pay bills online using your tablet?

Stretch your storage. Fewer walls often mean less space for cabinets. A kitchen island provides room for multiple base cabinets, plus additional seating and work surfaces. Drawers or pullout shelves make storage more accessible.

Depending on the island size, you might even add a prep sink or cooktop with dedicated range hood. Just don’t overdo the dimensions: “No matter how gorgeous, a massive island in a not-so-massive kitchen will be a problem,” says Jule Eller, Lowe’s director of trend strategy and communication. Figure on 42 inches of clearance on all sides or 48 inches if it’s a two-cook kitchen. If space is tight, consider a peninsula instead.

Pantries are also ideal for stowing bulk items from the warehouse club and small appliances, which might otherwise clutter the countertop. A walk-in pantry provides the best storage and access, though an oversize wall cabinet with rollout shelves will also do the trick.

Photo: Karyn R. Millet

Try a cleaner look. Transitional design straddles the line between the warm, detailed look of traditional style and the sparse minimalism of modernism. Its clean, uncluttered look isn’t likely to feel dated a decade down the road. Almost 70 percent of kitchen designers said they specified the new look on recent projects compared with 60 percent who chose traditional styling, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, an industry trade group.

Simple cabinetry is a hallmark of transitional design. That means ditching the arched panels, applied moldings, and furniture-like feet of traditional cabinets without going ultramodern with curved corners or high-gloss finishes. Flat-panel, European-style units, without visible door frames, are a popular middle ground. They also minimize the nooks and crannies that collect dirt and grease.

Neutral hues, such as white cabinets and sophisticated grays on the walls, are another key element of transitional style. The calm palette has driven interest to quartz countertops, whose solid colors, light tones, and subtle patterns often work better than the dark, grained granites that have dominated kitchens for decades.

Grab efficiency gains. Appliances that meet the government’s Energy Star standards are the most coveted home feature, beating out other wants like table space in the kitchen and a walk-in pantry, according to a recent survey of new-home buyers by the National Association of Home Builders. Check our dishwasher and refrigerator Ratings for models that combine top-notch energy efficiency and performance.

LED lighting is another way to save energy and money. While LEDs still cost more than other bulbs, prices are plummeting. And with their claimed life span of 20,000 to 50,000 hours, you may not have to change them for decades. If electrical work is part of your plan, consider recessed canisters, undercabinet lights, and hanging fixtures designed for LEDs, rather than incandescent fixtures that are just LED compatible. LED-specific fixtures offer improved light quality, dimmability, and adjustability, including the ability to change the color of their light output, says Terry McGowan, director of engineering and technology at the American Lighting Association.

The high-traffic kitchen

Photo: Andrew Trahan

This kitchen is your command center if you’re part of a large family or among the growing number of multigenerational households, or if you simply entertain a lot. With all those bodies in motion, good traffic flow and abundant work surfaces are essential. To keep things moving:

Organize the space. Think of the range, refrigerator, and sink as three points of a triangle, each with an adjacent counter space. This oft-quoted work triangle remains the best design principle for maintaining traffic flow in the kitchen. In busy two-cook kitchens, think outside the triangle by adding a second prep sink or choosing a cooktop/wall-oven combo instead of a single stand-alone range.

Look back to banquettes. This staple of 1950s architecture is making a comeback, says Lita Dirks, an interior designer in Denver. Essentially a built-in bench with a table, a banquette provides streamlined seating plus built-in storage for tablecloths, place mats, and other items. A cushioned bench enhances comfort and lets you add a splash of style with colorful fabric.

Match upkeep to your lifestyle. Got a dog? One solid-wood floor and several vinyl products scratched easily in our tests. And if you have small kids, you may want to consider an alternative to stainless appliances, which show fingerprints. Manufacturers have rolled out glossy white and black finishes, as well as matte grays. If your budget is generous, you can also get built-in appliances with integrated panels that coordinate with the surrounding cabinetry.

The downsized upscale kitchen

Photo: Brian Gassel

Maybe you’ve downsized from a big house to a smaller one or a condo. Or this is the year you’ll finally have the money and energy to tackle a major remodel. Even with a big budget, careful planning is key. Here’s how:

Splurge smartly. Kitchens have moved on from over-the-top trophy spaces. “Now the emphasis is on products and materials that are beautiful and also easy to maintain,” says Adam Kois of WengerKois Architecture + Design in Fanwood, N.J.

Cabinets are often the costliest component, and they set the tone in terms of style. Choosing semi-custom over custom units can save you thousands. Just don’t skimp on construction. Solid-wood or plywood doors, full-extension glides, and boxes made of half-inch to three-quarter inch plywood held up best in our tests.

Mixing countertop materials is another way to save, for example with pricey stone counters on the island and less expensive laminate for the surrounding work surfaces.

Size it right. Design your kitchen for how you’ll use it most of the time, rather than for large crowds if you rarely entertain. A smaller space means fewer square feet of pricey cabinets and countertops, freeing up your budget for materials and finishes you love.

Prepare for the future. That goes for people of all ages and abilities, though it’s especially important for aging boomers. “Consumers are raising the height of the dishwasher, choosing easy-to-access wall ovens, and putting shelving and other storage at shoulder height,” says Sarah Fishburne, Home Depot’s director for trend and design.

The budget-priced but beautiful kitchen

Photo: Trent Bell

The average kitchen remodel cost about $47,000 in 2013, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. But you don’t have to spend anywhere near that, especially if you’re a first-time homebuyer or a home seller looking for cost-effective spruce-ups. Here’s how save without sacrificing:

Refinish, don’t replace. Assuming the basic layout works, a fresher look can be as easy and inexpensive as new paint. “Consider painting the cabinets or removing upper cabinet doors and painting the back of the cabinet to introduce a fun, fresh pop of color,” says Sarah Fishburne at Home Depot. Replacing floors and countertops and adding new lighting can also have a transformative effect for a few thousand dollars.

Do some work yourself. Comfortable with a sledgehammer and a paintbrush? “You can reduce costs by doing your own demo work and the finish painting,” says Kevin Anundson, owner of Owner Assisted Remodeling, a design-build firm in Elm Grove, Wis., that specializes in client collaborations. But leave electrical and plumbing work to the pros.

Don’t write off inexpensive products. “There are some gorgeous vinyl floors out there that look just like wood, stone, and other natural materials,” Anundson says. The same goes for laminate countertops, which also include bright colors and retro geometric patterns. Even budget-friendly appliances are available in stainless steel.

   

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