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All About Kitchens

The kitchen is often called the heart of the home, and for good reason. This high-traffic zone has evolved from a utilitarian workspace, once hidden away from the rest of the house, into a place to connect with family, share informal meals and even entertain guests. It’s also one of the most complex and costly rooms in the house to renovate. Here’s what you need to know about your kitchen.

Kitchen Anthony Tieuli

Look at how your kitchen functions within your house to identify key areas for improvement. Make a list of what’s currently not working, such as an inefficient layout or not enough counter space. Think about what you hope to accomplish by renovating, whether it’s better workflow or increasing storage. Next, ask yourself if you’re renovating to serve your current needs or to increase the value of your home for resale. If you’re planning to stay in your home long-term, it might make sense to splurge to make your desired renovations. But if you’re planning to move within five years, shift your focus to your potential return on investment. For inspiration, look at images of kitchens on websites, such as Pinterest and Instagram, and in home design magazines.

Budget Concerns

Since you’ll encounter a wide range of expenditures in a kitchen remodel, setting a budget—and sticking to it—is crucial. To do that, you’ll need to determine the project scope. Are you planning a full overhaul, where you open up a wall to increase square footage and totally rework the layout?

Or a cosmetic facelift where all systems and appliances stay in place? If you’re replacing cabinets, it’s important to note that they can account for at least a third of your budget. One way to offset expenses is to go the DIY route, especially for smaller, more manageable tasks. Doing light demolition (pulling up carpet, tearing out cabinets) or painting a room will help reduce labor costs.

Financing

There are a variety of financing options available for your kitchen remodel. One is to apply for a home-equity loan, where you receive a set amount of money, typically at a fixed rate, and pay it back in monthly installments.

Another is to obtain a home-equity line of credit, which lets you borrow money on an as-needed basis using the equity of your home as collateral. Other options include refinancing your mortgage, FHA loans, personal loans, and borrowing against your 401K.

Hiring a Pro

While it’s fine to swap out a light fixture yourself, you’ll want to hire an electrician to run any new wiring. Similarly, you can change a faucet, but if you’re relocating pipes and heating, you’ll need a plumber. If you’re doing a full kitchen remodel, you can save money by doing some of the demo yourself, but you’ll want to consider hiring a general contractor or a kitchen designer.

They’ll create a realistic timetable and coordinate each stage of the project making sure materials arrive on time and subcontractors stick to the schedule. Check that your contractor is licensed, bonded, insured and pulls the necessary building permits. You don’t want to find out that a permit is still open when you’re getting ready to put your house on the market.

Kitchen Basics

It pays to invest in the items that are hard to change later, such as flooring, cabinetry, and recessed lighting—you can always upgrade countertops, backsplash, hardware and decorative light fixtures down the road. Here are the main components to consider.

Appliances

When choosing appliances, take into account features and performance, though other factors, such as cooking style, budget and resale, should play into your decision. Also consider ease of operation and energy efficiency. Look appliances with the Energy star rating—they’re an eco-friendly choice and you’ll save on monthly operating costs.

At the basic level, you’ll need a stove or wall oven/cooktop combo, refrigerator and dishwasher. Freestanding ranges are space-saving and easier to install than a cooktop/wall oven combo. Available in gas, electric, induction, or dual-fuel configurations, they are also more economical—unless you opt for a luxury range. Also consider BTUs (burner heat output). Most serious home cooks prefer gas, though induction burners offer speed and precision. Wall ovens, which come in a single or double-oven configuration, tend to be easier on your back since you’re not bending over to lift heavy pots.

When choosing a refrigerator, consider the size of your family—if you’ve got teenage boys in the house, you may want to upgrade to more cubic feet. Refrigerators are available as side-by-side, top-and-bottom, and built-in units. Panel-ready refrigerators and dishwashers are a great way to coordinate the look of your kitchen.

If your existing appliances are in good condition, you may want to incorporate them into your remodel to save money. How far you can move appliances from where they are currently located will depend on the location of your water and gas lines and electrical outlets. Generally, you can’t relocate appliances that need water, such as dishwashers, more than a few inches without installing new lines.

Backsplash and Walls

While the backsplash should protect kitchen walls from stains and splatter, it’s also a place to make a big style statement. Consider how the backsplash will coordinate with your countertops. Among the most popular choices are tile, natural stone, and engineered stone.

Tile is the broadest category, including ceramic, porcelain, glass and cement. In fact, subway tile, the perennial choice for kitchen backsplashes, comes in ceramic, porcelain, glass, marble and stone versions. Ceramic tile boasts a wide range of colors and styles and is durable and DIY-friendly to install. Porcelain offers the same benefits as ceramic, but it’s fired at a higher temperature, making it less porous. Glass tile is colorful and easy-to-clean, but its transparency makes it tricky to install since you can see any imperfection in the thinset—using tile adhesive by the sheet helps. Boldly patterned cement tiles, also known as Cuban or encaustic varieties, tend to weigh more than other tiles and are prone to etching, so they should be sealed on installation.

For a more streamlined backsplash look, consider continuing the counter material up the wall. Most natural stone, such as marble, granite, soapstone and quartzite, will need to be sealed to protect its surface, whereas engineered stone is scratch and stain-resistant, and can approximate the texture and movement of natural stone.

Cabinetry

Cabinets are the backbone of the kitchen, providing necessary storage and a grounding visual element throughout your cookspace. These built-in units should maximize square footage and offer organizational solutions for cooking equipment and pantry items. Cabinetry will likely be the single most expensive item in your remodel, eating up 30 to 50% of the budget. Stock cabinets are the most affordable and are available in standard sizes but have a limited range of materials and styles. Semi-custom cabinets also come in standard sizes and have a wider variety of finish options. The most expensive cabinets will be custom, which are constructed to exact specifications for your kitchen and offer the broadest selection of styles and finishes. Don’t skimp on quality—especially if you plan to be in the house for several years. Look for solid frames, doors and drawer fronts. Doors should close quietly, and drawers should glide smoothly.

Countertops

The prep surface for cooking and a major feature of your kitchen, countertops should be both durable and attractive. Keep in mind how many linear feet you’ll need, so you can roughly estimate cost as you browse different materials since you’ll encounter a wide range of prices.

Natural stone, such as marble, granite, soapstone and quartzite, is beautiful but tends to be expensive and porous; it must be sealed and maintained. For a classic look, you can’t beat marble, but it’s softer than granite and can easily be etched, stained, or damaged. Natural stone is also heavy, so you’ll need sturdy, well-constructed lower cabinet boxes to support the weight.

Man-made solid surface countertops, such as Corian, come in a wide range of colors and are easy to maintain. Engineered quartz, which is a mixture of ground quartz and resin, can be made to resemble higher-end marbles and it’s virtually indestructible.

Butcher block lends warmth and cottage style to any kitchen but needs to be oiled regularly and shouldn’t be installed near wet areas.

Concrete countertops have become increasingly popular for their durability, but they are porous and need to be sealed on installation. Even when sealed, they can show oil, coffee or wine spills.

Laminate is one of the most affordable options. Made of pressed wood or plywood covered in veneer, it’s lightweight and can be made to look like other materials, such as marble or granite, but it’s prone to burns, scratches and peeling when exposed to moisture.

Electrical

The kitchen requires more electrical power than any other room in the house. A remodel is a chance to add CFGI outlets to your older home and bring your electrical system up to code. At a minimum, you’ll need a circuit to power ceiling fixtures, recessed cans and task lights; dedicated circuits for the range, microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher and garbage disposal; and two additional circuits for the toaster, coffee maker and other countertop appliances.

Faucets

Faucets are another place in the kitchen here you could spend a little or a lot; prices range from $40 for a basic model to several thousand for luxury brands. Your faucet takes a beating, so you’ll want quality valves and internal parts, but once you go over $500, you’re likely paying a premium for the style and finish.

If you’re retrofitting a new faucet to an existing sink, measure the faucet hole spread; it will help you zero in on models that will work and eliminate those that won’t fit. Also take into account the type of spout—for instance, a high arc will make filling a pasta pot easier, but it’s likely to splash more than a straight spout.

Flooring Options

Your kitchen will see a significant amount of foot traffic, not to mention spills. The flooring should be durable, water- and stain-resistant, and fairly easy on your joints since you’re standing for extended periods of time. Some popular types of kitchen flooring are wood, tile, vinyl, cork and linoleum.

  • Cork: This sustainable flooring comes in both tiles and planks. Cork is waterproof and easy on your feet, so it’s ideal for cooks who spend a good deal of time standing in the kitchen.
  • Linoleum: Perfect for high-traffic areas, linoleum is resilient and moisture-resistant. It’s also eco-friendly and has no harmful VOCs.
  • Tile: Ceramic or stone tile makes for an attractive, durable floor that’s easy to clean. Tile floors are heavy, though, so be sure the subfloor is structurally sound, level, and can handle the weight. Tile can feel cold underfoot, so you may want to consider building in a radiant heating system.
  • Vinyl: DIY-friendly vinyl flooring holds up to stains and water damage. It’s also generally the most affordable of floor options, unless you opt for luxury vinyl planks which convincingly mimic hardwood, snap together easily, and are virtually impervious to damage.
  • Wood: Great for high-traffic areas, hardwood floors are ideal for a seamless transition from one room to another, especially if you have an open plan. It’s more expensive than some other flooring options, but worth it because it will never go out of style. Engineered wood is a lower-priced alternative to hardwood that’s easier to install. Because it’s not solid (it has a veneer), you won’t be able to sand and refinish it as much as hardwood.

Lighting: An effective kitchen lighting plan starts with ambient lighting. Recessed or can lights provide an even layer of consistent light for overall illumination. Since the kitchen is a workspace, you’ll also need targeted task lighting, often in the form of undercabinet lights or downlit pendants, so you can see what’s on your cutting board. Accent lights, often placed over the island or a sink, offer the opportunity to bring in a more decorative element.

Plumbing: Most kitchens have a fairly simple plumbing setup that includes hot and cold-water supply lines to the faucets, a waste line for the sink, and a gas supply pipe (if you’ve got a gas range). The water supply hookup for the dishwasher is usually tied into the sink plumbing, which is why they are often next to each other.

Sink: Your kitchen sink sees a lot of use—it’s where you prep food and cleanup after a meal. Sinks come in a variety of materials, including stainless steel, copper, cast-iron, fireclay and porcelain, though the most popular choice is lightweight, affordable stainless steel. Styles include undermount, apron-front, and drop-in. An undermount is installed underneath the countertop; there’s no lip resting over the counter, so it’s easier to sweep crumbs into the sink. Apron-front sinks offer farmhouse style but require modifications to the cabinet base to fit their deep front facades. Drop-in models, which sit directly on the countertop, are the easiest to install, but they have a lip that can collect crumbs and dirt.

Ventilation

A kitchen requires adequate ventilation to handle whatever you’re cooking. Incorporating a wall-mounted or island hood or downdraft ventilation system not only removes steam, heat and odors from your kitchen, but also reduces grime and grease on nearby cabinets and appliances. Make sure your fan’s capability to move air, which is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM), can handle your stove’s energy output, or BTUs. For a high-powered range, add up the BTUs of all burners, then divide by 100 to find the minimum CFM for a fan.

Home Improvements to Consider

Owning an old house inevitably involves keeping a wish list of home improvements, and kitchen projects are often at the top. An updated kitchen will boost the value of your home, offering one of the biggest returns on investment of any home remodeling project.

A major overhaul could involve moving walls and rearranging the layout to improve functionality. Look at your current floor plan to determine the best use of space—are you working with a galley layout where every inch count, or will a U-shaped or L-shaped configuration work? You might add an island, new cabinets, energy-efficient appliances and new flooring.

If a major remodel isn’t in the cards, consider a minor facelift, where you keep much of the existing kitchen, leaving the electrical and plumbing in place, so you’re not gutting it, changing the layout or moving walls. Instead, you might replace cabinet fronts (but keep cabinet boxes) and add new hardware, upgrade your countertops, repaint, or put in new flooring. And don’t forget systems: proper ventilation is key to a well-functioning kitchen. If you have a high BTU stove, make sure your fan’s ability to move air, measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM), can handle your stove’s energy output.

Remodeling your kitchen is also a great time to upgrade electrical—make sure you’ve got enough dedicated circuits to handle all of the appliances and consider adding CFGI outlets, so you don’t have extension cords running across your counters. Also think about heating: If you’re moving radiators, you may want to take the opportunity to install undercabinet toe-kick heaters. Similarly, if you’re installing a new floor, you may want to consider putting in radiant heat.

Remember smaller projects can deliver results, too. Changing a backsplash, swapping outdated light fixtures for more current styles, and installing a pot filler or garbage disposal are low-lift ways to improve your space when a full remodel may not be in the budget.

Repairs and DIY Projects

There’s more to maintaining your kitchen than wiping down the counters. Occasionally, you’ll have to unclog a drain or fix a leaky faucet. Other routine tasks, such as cleaning your garbage disposal regularly, degreasing your range hood filter, and descaling appliances will keep your kitchen running smoothly.

Spend any amount of time in a kitchen, and your eye will eventually find something that needs to be replaced. Many upgrades, such as adding open shelving or painting cabinets, are easy to tackle with the right prep work. Swapping out a light fixture or replacing a faucet are equally straightforward.

Other projects, like pouring concrete countertops or building your own cabinetry, are more ambitious. Before you begin any DIY project, do your homework to make an informed decision about whether to proceed.

Recommended Tools and Equipment

From swapping out hardware to hanging shelves, you’ll need a few basic tools for most kitchen projects. Among them are a standard level, tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, and cordless drill with driver and bits, with a few add-ons for bigger projects. For instance, a palm sander can make quick work of refinishing cabinets, and an air compressor and brad nailer set is indispensable when installing a new hardwood floor.