The best appliances, upgrades, and looks—and what not to buy
Ready to ditch your tired appliances, dated cabinets, and stain-splotched countertops? We can help you make every dollar count. Our testers slaved over hot stoves, loaded and unloaded dishes, and otherwise toiled away for months in our labs, evaluating the most important ingredients of a kitchen renovation. We also contacted kitchen designers to learn the latest trends. And we spoke with real-estate agents for a reality check on whether stainless-steel appliances, granite counters, and kitchen islands are still the hot ticket to selling your home.
Follow our advice and the end result will be a kitchen that looks great and works well, and is filled with products that will stand the test of time. We’ve also peppered cost-saving tips throughout this package. And because looks—and claims—can be deceiving, we’ve also assembled a kitchen full of the worst performers from our tests, so that you’ll know what products to avoid.
French-door fridges. Designers tout this configuration, which combines the streamlined form of a side-by-side with the accessibility of a bottom-freezer, for offering improved storage in a smaller footprint. “We’re moving away from large, hulking appliances in favor of modest-sized models,” says Beth Stribling, a certified kitchen designer in Fort Worth, Texas.
Two-cook kitchens. Layout permitting, there is a growing preference for wall-oven and cooktop combos. “A range makes it hard for two cooks to move around,” says April Case-Underwood, a kitchen and bath designer in Falls Church, Va. With wall ovens, you’ll do less bending over and heavy lifting, a benefit for everyone but essential for those with limited strength and mobility.
Induction cooking. This electric cooktop technology, which uses a magnetic field to generate heat in the pan rather than the cooking surface, was chosen in 2010 by 34 percent of the kitchen designers in the National Kitchen & Bath Association, according to an NKBA survey.
Saving energy. Efficiency helps sell appliances because homebuyers know they’ll benefit from lower energy bills. “Energy Star appliances are prominent in the realestate flyers,” says Kit Hale, a broker in Roanoke, Va. “And I won’t be shy about talking them up during the open house.”
New technologies. “People love to walk into a kitchen and see modern appliances with the latest conveniences,” says Greg Herb, a real-estate broker in Gilbertsville, Pa. Those include French-door refrigerators with through-the-door ice and water dispensers. Ultraquiet dishwashers are another feature that sells. “Smart buyers always ask to turn the dishwasher on,” says Jim Hamilton, a real-estate agent in Los Gatos, Calif. “They want to see that it works, and they want to hear that it won’t drown out conversation.”
The right finishes. Buyers take a complete view of the home, so they want the kitchen to match the home’s style. That can affect the choice of appliance finish. “In a Cape Cod-style home, white appliances might fit the theme better than stainless steel,” Hamilton says. Others agree. “I’m seeing more and more black appliances these days,” Hale says. “Like stainless steel, it goes with a lot of things, but it doesn’t show fingerprints as much.” Others still say there’s no end in sight for the stainless-steel trend.
Bottom line. Not every innovation is a winner. A $1,200 microwave and a $1,700 range with slow-cook options performed worse in our tests than a $60 slow cooker. But induction delivered almost flawless performance. It’s coming down in price, and it’s available on ranges as well as cooktops. When appliance shopping, don’t go by Energy Star alone. Our tests have found some significant differences in annual operating costs, as well as performance, among Energy Star-qualified models. Use our Ratings to find appliances that combine efficiency and performance with value, including many French-door refrigerators.
Stone counters. Designers unanimously favor stone countertops, but there’s some disagreement over the type. “It’s still granite, granite, granite,” says David Alderman, a designer and the NKBA president. Elsewhere, signs of granite fatigue are appearing. “I sold a lot more of it five years ago,” says Nancy Young, a certified kitchen designer in Montgomery, Ala. “More affluent customers prefer quartz because of its easier upkeep.”
Tile and wood floors. Designers also talk about a two-horse race in flooring. Tile floors are easy to clean and wear-resistant, though the grout can stain and dropped pots can crack tiles. Wood is warmer and helps integrate the kitchen with adjacent spaces, but it’s not as resistant to wear and tear.
Value. Don’t go overboard, but don’t cheap out. “I had an upscale home where the owners put in laminate counters and a linoleum floor,” Herb says. “The feedback from every buyer was ‘I really like the house, but the kitchen just won’t do.’ ”
Solid upkeep. Countertops are a focal point. They can also set the tone for a potential homebuyer’s impressions. “If I walk into the kitchen and there’s a big burn mark on the countertop and the backsplash isn’t caulked, all of a sudden I’m worried about the furnace and whether the owner has ever changed its filters,” Hale says.
Bottom line. Some materials make upkeep easier. Granite and quartz are top performers in our tests, but granite needs periodic resealing. Don’t rule out laminate. It’s much better than stone at resisting impact. Set on stone? Make it your splurge or look for remnants at the stone yard, architectural salvage shop, or reuse store for your island countertop, then do the rest of the kitchen in laminate.
Reusing materials adds to the sustainability of your kitchen. But the greenest products are those that will last. Though some bamboo floors outperformed wood, the bamboo countertops we tested aren’t ready for prime time. Reclaimed timbers were among the lowest-scoring floors.
Undermount sinks. These look good and let you wipe countertop spills into the sink. “In terms of material, I probably do 10 stainless-steel sinks for every one enamel,” Alderman says. Pull-out faucets with integrated sprayers help with the dishes. Hands-free faucets are becoming more widely used by busy cooks and those with arthritis or limited mobility.
Fit and finish. “Even in this economy, I still have clients splurging on the $400 faucet,” says Alex Stevens, a certified kitchen designer in Los Angeles. But other pros encourage restraint. Pot-filler faucets installed over the range or cooktop are an example. “In my mind, these faucets basically solve a problem most people didn’t know they had,” says Duo Dickinson, an architect in Madison, Conn.
Efficient, effective lighting. High-efficiency LED was chosen by 54 percent of NKBA kitchen designers in 2010, according to that trade group. Designers advocate a multilayered lighting plan. “Task lighting under the cabinet is optional, but it’s a great addition if there’s room in the budget,” Case-Underwood says.
Fixtures that work. Buyers emphasize function over form. “You can go absolutely crazy with faucets and spend a fortune, but you’re not going to recoup that cost,” Hamilton says. He adds that the big farmhouse sink that was widely used five years ago has fallen out of favor because people realize that it’s not as functional as a double sink.
Adequate lighting. Most open houses take place during the day, so buyers are more likely to by impressed by natural light. “Undercabinet lighting is a nice accent feature, especially in expensive homes,” Hamilton says. “But will it make or break the sale? Not necessarily.”
Bottom line. Faucets are a great place to save money because price had little to do with performance in our tests. Those that cost as little as $80 had a lifetime warranty against leaks and staining. Unless the faucet is chrome, make sure it has a PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish. When it comes to sinks, thicker and more expensive stainless-steel models performed similarly to thinner ones. But pay attention to depth, which can range from 6 to 12 inches. Deeper bowls contain splashes but require more bending for kids and shorter adults.
Unless you like preparing food in your own shadow, we think undercabinet lighting is a must. Install one fixture for every 4 feet of counter space. Those we tested with fluorescent bulbs are energy efficient, easy to find, and inexpensive. LED undercabinet fixtures tend to have discreet, low-profile housings but are more expensive and more difficult to find.
Connection to the outdoors. “A small window over the kitchen sink used to be your only connection with nature,” Dickinson says. “Now every kitchen we do has a door leading onto the deck or patio, and there’s the desire for a large window to enhance the visual connection.”
Pantries. With at least one wall lost to windows and a door, there’s less available space for cabinets. That has put a premium on pantry space. A stand-alone freezer is a valuable addition to walk-in pantries, allowing owners to keep their grocery budget in check by getting deals on bulk items.
Islands. Designers also tout islands or a peninsula countertop. Most people prefer the “public” side of the island to be raised to conceal meal prep. Auxiliary cabinet space and a prep sink increase an island’s function, but think hard about adding a cooktop. “The splatters and smells and mess it creates are off the charts,” Dickinson says. “So you really have know that going in.”
Functionality. The most beautiful kitchen in the world can’t make up for a lousy layout. “Even if a buyer has never heard of the work triangle,” Hamilton says, referring to the placement of the refrigerator, sink, and range, “they will feel it if the layout is con figured poorly.” He recalls one kitchen where the only place to fit the Sub-Zero refrigerator was on the other side of the room from the sink and range. “The homeowners sacrificed functionality for a double-wide refrigerator and lowered the marketability of their home significantly,” he says.
An open floor plan. An integrated kitchen and family living space remains a must-have feature, and there’s no end in sight to that trend. In fact, the great room is the most likely room to be included in new homes built in 2015, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders.
Bottom line. When it comes to windows and doors, it’s not just about letting light in. It’s also important to keep heated and cooled air from leaking out. Look for windows and doors with insulating features such as heat-reflecting low-E coatings and argon gas between glass panes. The island might be one of the most desired items, but if it’s not appropriate to the scale of the room, it won’t work for you or for your home’s resale value. You need at least 42 inches between the island and surrounding cabinets and appliances to maintain traffic flow, according to the NKBA. Don’t forget about ventilation, which is influenced by layout. In our tests, undercabinet and wall-chimney hoods, the type commonly used over ranges, are much better at capturing smoke and steam than the downdraft systems often put in islands.
“If there’s ever a space to spend too much money, it’s the kitchen,” says Duo Dickinson, an architect in Connecticut. “Cheap out on the appliances or cabinet hardware, and you’ll regret it every single day.” We agree. But to spend appropriately on the items that you use regularly, you’ll need to save elsewhere. Here are five ways to keep costs in line:
Plan carefully. Nothing blows a budget faster than making changes after the work is under way. When we asked our readers what went wrong on their last kitchen remodel, late changes was the most expensive answer, costing an average of $1,500. Spend several weeks to a few months perusing magazines, meeting with pros, and visiting showrooms.
Skip lowball bids. A tight market has forced contractors to lower their profit margins. But bids that sound too good to be true probably are. As a general rule, you should get at least three estimates and throw out the lowest. Also make sure the written contract includes details of every phase of the project, including product names with model numbers and a target completion date.
Cut costs by doing some of the work. You might be able to trim a few thousand bucks from your budget. Focus on the front and back ends of the project, such as ripping out the cabinets during demolition and handling the finish painting. Leave the complicated electrical and plumbing work to the pros.
Time your purchases. December is usually a good time to save on appliances large and small. But retailers often put cooking appliances and other big-ticket items on sale during the holiday weekends, including the Fourth of July. Be sure to sign up for sales alerts on store websites.
Mix and match brands. If you’re replacing all the appliances, choosing from different brands can help lower costs and get better performance. Our Ratings include CR Best Buys for most appliances.
Of course, no one sets out to design a debacle. It just sort of happens. “You take one look around and say to yourself, ‘Oh, no, what were they thinking?’ ” says Jim Hamilton, a California real-estate broker. To help ensure that your good intentions don’t go hellishly awry, we pulled together a kitchen filled with the worst performers from our latest tests.
Refrigerator. This 42-inch built-in refrigerator cost more than most, and it had dismal energy efficiency in our tests, so it will increase utility bills. And temperature performance is merely average.
Dishwasher. Even after a fairly long 125-minute wash cycle in our tough tests, dishes didn’t come out clean from this high-priced dishwasher. Miele promises a fix, so stay tuned. It’s also noisier than many less expensive models.
Range. This 30-inch gas range has a professional name, but its poor simmering score helped sink it to the bottom of our Ratings, with an overall score of 31.
Flooring. Though this new do-ityourself system is a snap to install, a single dropped pot could be enough to cause serious cracks.
Countert op. We like some bamboo flooring, but the first bamboo countertop we’ve tested is one of our lowest-scoring kitchen products, given its tendency to stain, scorch, and scratch.