In more than 20 years of doing This Old House, we've worked on a whole range of kitchens, from small ones in which space and budget were tight, to grand dream kitchens. In each project we've tried to learn new things about materials, products, installation and building procedures, layouts and aesthetic considerations. In working with a succession of homeowners, each with his or her own agendas and goals, we've learned to have a flexible attitude toward this most important room of the house.

There is No Perfect Kitchen

The biggest challenge we've faced is finding the solution that fits the house, the budget and the homeowners' way of living. There is no one best counter material, no best flooring, no one best kind of cabinetry or appliance. The diverse way in which we all use our kitchens, and the amount of space and money we can allocate to them, make it impossible to cast a set of rules for creating the ultimate kitchen. What's best is the kitchen that works for you. In remodeling an old kitchen or designing a new one, you have an opportunity to accommodate your family's way of doing things.

My first word of advice is: Step back from the warm images of your future kitchen now swirling in your head and be coldly realistic about what you want your renovation to achieve. The first question to ask yourself is how long you plan to stay in your house. Answer realistically, because it is your first major decision. If your answer is three years or less, do the minimum in your kitchen. While a poor kitchen is often the biggest negative to prospective homebuyers, you can only realistically hope to recover 80 to 90 percent of the cost of a full renovation. So defer that dream kitchen until you're settled somewhere else, and make do for the time being with new paint or wallpaper, lighting, a refinished floor or new appliances-small changes that can have a big impact.

Take Time for Design

The design phase of a successful kitchen takes at least as long as the construction phase. This adds to the cost, but paying a design professional to help you develop and build the right design for your house and family is far cheaper than building the wrong kitchen. Paper and pencils are cheap; cabinets, plaster and plumbing are dear. However, there are three exercises that I do even before I call an architect or designer. The first is simply critiquing your existing kitchen. Try to identify what bothers you about the room and what, if anything, you could do to change it. Often I have found that what bothers me is not one major flaw, but many small things that cumulatively ruin the feeling or the function of the room. You might wonder why you should bother with this exercise if you're already sure you will renovate the kitchen. But you can only know if your new design will work if you can pinpoint why your current design doesn't.
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