WHAT YOU NEED IN A KITCHEN

kitchen

We're cooking less than the generations that came before us did, yet today's kitchens are all about utility. Just look at the latest trends in gadgets and appliances: warming drawers that keep the family dinner at just the right temperature until the second parent comes through the door. A faucet behind the stove so you can fill the spaghetti pot without sloshing water between the sink and the burner. Small waist-high beverage doors that Junior can open to pour his own juice. And appliance garages so that you can hide everything from your coffeemaker to your Cuisinart.

​It does make sense to want to pour your heart--and your discretionary dollars--into your kitchen. "The kitchen is where we live," says Hillary Messer, who runs Sunrise Building & Remodeling with her husband Eric. A major kitchen renovation runs, on average, about $40,000--and that's for new cabinets, not custom ones, laminate countertops instead of granite or Corian, and mid-price sinks, appliances and flooring. The kitchen of your dreams might cost substantially more.

​That's what Polly Wingfield discovered when she began renovating her kitchen in March 2000. She purchased her mid-1950s ranch house in 1977. Twenty-two years later all of the original appliances were still in place. Falling interest rates gave her the excuse she needed to refinance (at 7.75%) and start the job.

​Her original renovation goals for the kitchen were simple. She wanted a working gas stove and more access to the outside. She didn't feel pressure to rush. "I really went into this without a whole lot of confidence," she says. "So I just took things one at a time. And that enabled me to make smart decisions."

​For example: the backsplash. Wingfield wanted to keep it simple. She found a mid-price tumbled marble tile that picked up the rose tone in her granite countertops. But border tiles were exorbitantly expensive, not to mention way too fussy for her taste. While she and her tile guy were nosing around a local stone yard, he saw some big slate tiles in a closeout pile and offered to cut strips to border the backsplash. The result of this maneuver and others like it: She exceeded her original $60,000 kitchen budget by only about $2,000.

​Successful kitchen renovations come down to this: The accessories and gadgets du jour are fun to have, but they come after the essentials. Flooring, cabinets, countertops, appliances--shop well for those and you'll be able to spring for some extras. Here's a look at where the smart money is being spent today:

Cabinets can eat up more than 40% of your budget--and the more spice racks, knife blocks and lazy Susans you incorporate, the more expensive they'll be. Cabinets come in three price ranges: stock (literally off the shelf), semicustom (prefabricated with the possibility of customization) and custom (built to suit).

​For a comparable project using the same wood, stock will usually cost 20% to 30% less than semicustom, which in turn runs at least 40% less than true custom. Custom cabinets, of course, allow you the most options because they're designed specifically for the configuration of your kitchen. But many of today's semicustom lines offer a wide variety of measurements and options. "The trick," says Hillary Messer, "is to start by pricing out your dream kitchen, then lower the price into range" by sacrificing some of the most expensive elements, like decorative moldings.

​Here's how to proceed. Go with a manufacturer that offers both custom and semicustom lines, such as Omega, so you can incorporate both. Then look for boxes and shelves made of three-quarter-inch-thick plywood rather than particleboard. (The exception: MDF is a high-density nonwood material that's well-made.)

​Opt for dovetailed joints that fit together like a puzzle rather than pieces that are just butted and glued together; full-extension glides that allow shelves and drawers to pull out all the way and are constructed with ball bearings, not flimsy wheels; glass doors with "true divided light" (small panes rather than one big pane with a false mullion); and a lifetime warranty on finish and construction.

Solid-surface countertop. These days upscale countertops can be just about anything but Formica, but generally the choice comes down to Corian, a solid-surface manufactured material that's easy to clean and care for, or granite--which, as Boston contractor Tru Davis notes, doesn't rot and doesn't peel but will stain if you don't seal it every year or so. Mid-range granite runs $80 to $100 a square foot installed; mid-range Corian, slightly more. You can bring the cost of both down by keeping your edging simple.

Non-vinyl flooring. The choices are, again, endless. In a Connecticut showroom, Jan Raymond, a Darien, Conn. homeowner, fell in love with a sunset-hued limestone floor that would have run her $30 a square foot and eaten up half her budget. She opted instead for a $14-per-square-foot Italian terra cotta that's the same russet color.

Large, quiet appliances. Focus on function, not brand names. You need a quiet dishwasher, but it doesn't have to be a $1,200 Bosch. Likewise, your refrigerator should be large, at least 21 cubic feet, but it doesn't need to be a Sub-Zero. The microwave should be built in, so it doesn't eat up counter space. The range should have a grate that allows you to slide pots and pans across the stove and, if you're a serious cook, six burners rather than four. It doesn't need to be professional in either look or performance--in fact, a restaurant stove and refrigerator may require upgrading your electrical service, says Ossining, N.Y. electrician Jack Fanning, at a cost of $1,300 to $1,800.

Sinks. The trend is to mount the sink just below the counters so that you can brush everything from breadcrumbs to carrot peelings right into it. Whether you choose stainless steel or farmhouse ceramic, the sink should be large and deep enough to accommodate your biggest pot. A double sink is optional. A sink and a half, which has a small separate disposal area, is a popular compromise. The faucet should have a pull-out handle that makes cleaning the sink easy. Wingfield also went for an instant hot water and filtration system, which cost her $536. She says the expense was worth it: "I used to spend $50 a month on bottled water. Now I spend $90 twice a year to change the filter."

Island. Guests no longer congregate on plush couches in formal living rooms; they lean lazily on your island and watch you chop. You can make your island serve many functions by adding warming drawers, a pizza oven, a sink or a beverage cooler. But one thing it shouldn't do is precisely match the rest of your kitchen. That's like wearing clothes only by a single designer. One solution: Install Corian on the countertop under the cabinets and granite on the island. Or use different woods for the cabinetry in the two areas.

​Now that Wingfield's kitchen is done, she couldn't be more pleased. "I still come home every day," she says, "and go, 'Wow, I live here.'"

1. THE OWNER. Polly Wingfield admits she was a remodeling novice. "They could have sold me the Brooklyn Bridge," she says of her Northern California contractor, Dave Semenero, and architect Michael Carilli. "But they explained every detail to me in a way that wasn't condescending at all." After spending the last half-decade with a semifunctional kitchen, she was happy to splurge on $15,000 custom cherry cabinets. But mindful of her $60,000 budget for the kitchen, she saved a few grand by incorporating new (but old-looking) red oak floor boards into her existing floor. Total cost of the renovation: $62,000

2. KEEPING DINNER WARM. One of the most sought-after luxury accessories in today's kitchen is the warming drawer. Wingfield's KitchenAid model is great for leftovers and dinner parties. "It warms bread but it doesn't dry it out," she says. $839

3. HIGH-END PERFORMANCE. With nearly all the same features as the Sub-Zero 642 and a much lower price tag, this KitchenAid Architect side-by-side built-in is more than a knock-off. Features include adjustable glass shelves, controlled crisper, dairy locker and wine rack plus 15.9 cubic feet of refrigerator space and 9.1 cubic feet of freezer storage (compared with the Sub-Zero's 8.2 ). $5,459

4. EASY TO HANDLE. Wingfield fell for handcrafted stainless-steel cabinet hardware with a black indentation--until she saw that they were $10 apiece. Instead she bought inexpensive pieces with an indentation and filled in the black line herself with a Sharpie. "No one can tell," she raves. $2 apiece

5. GOOD HOOD. You could easily spend thousands on a hood, says Wingfield's contractor, Dave Semenero. But this chimney-style stainless-steel Dacor model was big enough for the whole cooking surface, hid the flue and matched the clean look of the other appliances. $300

​WHAT'S WORTH DOING?

​Whether your home is worth $150,000 or $500,000--generally considered the starting price for a luxury home, according to the National Association of Realtors--the question is less whether you'll get your remodeling expenses back when you go to sell than whether you'll be penalized for not meeting buyers' expectations. Here's what contractors around the country say the market demands in both categories.

​KITCHEN

​UPSCALE HOME

​Island -- Non-Formica countertops (solid surface or granite) -- Cabinets that roll out -- Separate pantry -- Non-vinyl flooring -- Deep sink with pull-out faucet -- Disposal -- Instant hot water -- Large refrigerator (21 cubic feet or larger) -- Quiet dishwasher -- Built-in microwave

​LUXURY HOME

​All of the above, plus: -- Island with sink -- Granite or other high-end countertop -- Cork, wood or tile floor -- Large refrigerator with ice maker and beverage door -- Double oven -- Six-burner stove -- Appliance garages

​MASTER BATH

​UPSCALE HOME

​Tub with Jacuzzi -- Stall shower -- Double sink/vanities -- Ceramic tile -- Toilet in separate room -- Linen closet -- Exhaust fan

​LUXURY HOME

​All of the above, plus: -- Oversize Jacuzzi -- Steam shower -- Skylight -- His-and-hers walk-in closets