Custom hardware, certain appliance brands and granite countertops make a kitchen more enjoyable for homeowners – and more attractive to potential homebuyers. Jim and Marcie Johnston’s kitchen, designed by Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock, will likely increase their home’s value. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Making Your Kitchen Stand Out

These days, selling a home can be tough, but giving your kitchen a facelift may help.

Custom hardware, certain appliance brands and granite countertops make a kitchen more enjoyable for homeowners – and more attractive to potential homebuyers. Jim and Marcie Johnston’s kitchen, designed by Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock, will likely increase their home’s value. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

By now, it’s no secret how valuable the kitchen is to the rest of your house.

“It’s the most important room,” says Dave Wegner, a kitchen and bath designer with Blue Ribbon Millwork, 1475 S. Randall Road, Woodstock. “No matter how beautiful your living room is, the kitchen makes or breaks your house. If we have people over, they’re in the kitchen. If I’m cooking or prepping, our guests are sitting at the island. The kitchen is the gathering place.”

Maureen Christiansen, a realtor for the past six years for Coldwell Banker Honig-Bell, 415 E. State St., Geneva, knows this to be true, both professionally and personally. A year ago, she fixed up a kitchen in her daughter’s Iowa home. She swapped out the countertop, added new light fixtures, replaced appliances, changed the hardware and made other cosmetic changes, with the intention of selling it. “A kitchen can make or break a sale,” Christiansen says.

Given the importance of the kitchen, it’s not surprising that many homeowners want to improve it in a way that will help them to sell their homes someday. Given the current economy, however, that’s easier said than done.

“In this very challenging market, folks are worried about selling their homes,” Christiansen says. “These days, everyone is so budget-conscious. They don’t have disposable income. People ask, ‘Will I see the return on my investment?’ I don’t have a crystal ball. But what a kitchen improvement can do is make a home memorable enough that prospective buyers might decide to make an offer. They might think, ‘We don’t have to do anything more with this kitchen. I can see myself enjoying this one.’”

Spend Wisely

According to Realtor Magazine, the average cost of a minor kitchen renovation is $21,000, and such a project can add about $15,800 to the resale value of the home, for a return on investment (ROI) of about 73 percent. The average cost of a major kitchen renovation is $58,400 and the average ROI is $40,100, or about 69 percent. In the Midwest, an average major kitchen renovation is $60,000, with a 60.3 percent ROI. A minor kitchen upgrade is $22,200, with an ROI of 63.7 percent.

Christiansen cautions that these numbers are fluid, especially in a rapidly changing market. The rule of thumb she recommends is to never spend more than 10 percent of the value of a property on kitchen improvements. “While it’s true a home that has a lovely new kitchen may sell quicker than the competition that has an original or outdated kitchen, to suggest to a homeowner that they, on average, will see a return on their investment is unfounded in this market,” she says.

For many homeowners, a kitchen renovation is the largest investment they will make, beyond the purchase of the home itself. In fact, kitchen renovations net a higher resale profit than upgrading the basement or adding a deck.

“Kitchens are still the best place you can put your money,” says Susan Soine, co-owner of Granite Edge Inc., 2404 Spring Ridge Dr., Spring Grove. The company supplies countertops and expert kitchen and bath design. “Little details can make a huge difference. If you have a plain kitchen, you can easily add decorative hardware, crown molding, under-cabinet molding and some good lighting to make a so-so kitchen look much more spectacular.”

Wood flooring, wood finishes, stainless steel appliances and new lighting make any kitchen abundantly more attractive to homebuyers. In this kitchen by Better Kitchens, in Niles, outdated cabinets, countertops, backsplashes and floors were updated. (Better Kitchens photo)
Alan Zielinski, CKD, is the president of Better Kitchens, 7640 N. Milwaukee St., Niles, and president-elect of the National Kitchen & Bath Association. “If you’re going to remodel your kitchen with the intent of selling, the wow factor is important,” he says. “The kitchen and master bedroom are the two rooms that see the highest return on investment. The investment – no matter how big or small – can be well worth it.”

But experts agree that homeowners don’t have to overspend to make a good kitchen look great. “You can put together a very good-looking kitchen – and a practical kitchen – without spending millions,” says Rosie Arnold, a kitchen and bath designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork.

Know Your Neighborhood

When a home goes on the market, buyers compare it to other homes in the desired neighborhood. Many are looking not only for a good buy, but also for a home that has modern updates to meet their demands. “It has to make financial sense,” says Sue McDowell, who, along with husband Bob, owns the remodeling company McDowell Inc., 521 W. Main St., St. Charles. “You can still do a nice kitchen without all the bells and whistles. Buyers often are willing to pay more if they’re able to get what they’re looking for in a home. A kitchen renovation adds value to the home that may be missing in other homes for sale in the neighborhood.”

McDowell emphasizes the importance of knowing what’s popular in the neighborhood where you’re selling your home. For example, don’t go modern in a traditional-looking home. “We’re less contemporary in the Midwest than in any other place,” she says. “In general, we’re into a conservative look.”

Still, the tendency to go overboard is tempting. Some owners will overspend, thinking it’s the only way to sell a home in a depressed market. “You may not get that money back, but it may be the only way to sell your house,” Soine says. “You may add $20,000 in value, but get back $10,000. At least the house sold. Still, you want to keep it relative to the market that you’re in and to the value of the house. Stay on par with other homes in the neighborhood.”

Experts also caution homeowners to make changes that appeal to a broad base of people. For example, don’t over-personalize a kitchen by painting it an odd color.

“Because kitchens sell houses, a buyer would love to have a kitchen that’s beautiful, functional and designed to work well with the space and their needs and wants,” says Christiansen. “That’s a tall order, because the seller might have had tastes that are incongruous to the buyer’s. A seller might have gone with dark cherry cabinetry and tiled floors, and the buyer was really wishing for light glazed/painted furniture-style cabinetry with hardwood floors. The expectations can be high, but when the remodel job is newer and tastefully done, I’ve watched buyers say things like, ‘It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I can live with this.’”

Christiansen adds that agents and sellers sometimes employ poetic license when describing a kitchen makeover. “Recently upgraded kitchen” could mean the owner simply put granite on old, outdated cabinetry. “It’s always a disappointment to walk into a space and realize good money was spent to say ‘kitchen has granite countertops,’ but that the cabinetry is so awful and the plan so outdated that the buyer will need to redo the space completely, and the granite countertops become instant scrap, or need to be recycled,” she says.

In most cases, when Arnold works on a kitchen renovation with a homeowner who intends to sell within a year, it’s more of a cosmetic change than a complete overhaul. “Over the years, I’ve learned that the changes you make aren’t always what the prospective homeowner is looking for,” she says. “When I run into those scenarios, we just dress the house up to look nice in order to sell the home, especially if the new buyers want to make their own changes later down the road.”

Modern kitchens are elegant spaces that offer amenities like stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and custom cabinets. Buyers look at these upgrades as improvements that will help them in their daily lives.

“In the staging and real estate industry, we’re always telling the clients to neutralize their space so it appeals to a majority of buyers,” Christiansen says. “The same would have to hold true for a kitchen. A very modern or eclectic remodel may be appropriate for an owner who will live in the home for a dozen or more years, but an avant-garde choice may be inappropriate if the home will go on the market within a year or so. I’m always telling buyers to think about the resale of the property they’re contemplating buying. Homes and kitchens that appeal to the masses would, probably, sell more easily than a highly stylized home.”

Kitchen Facelift Options

So what exactly should sellers do to renovate their kitchens?

First, talk with a reputable kitchen designer/remodeler before moving forward with a renovation. “The professional will know and understand the trends and be able to appropriately guide the seller to make smart choices that will have a return on the investment,” Christiansen says. And give yourself plenty of time. Most kitchen projects take 4 to 6 weeks.

If done well, kitchen updates like this one, by McDowell Inc., in St. Charles, can garner a 60 percent return on investment. (McDowell Inc.)
Zielinski calls the process “giving the kitchen a facelift.”

“There are a host of things you can do,” he says. “That includes improving lighting, by incorporating newer-style LED fixtures to create brighter space, along with ambient and task lighting that will change the mood of the room.”

Replace the countertop. “The quartz tops are big right now,” Zielinski says. “They’re easy to clean and offer the advantage of a fresher look without making a big investment. I can’t tell you the last time we put in a laminate countertop, but they’re better than they used to be, when it comes to design, texture and pattern.”

Choosing quartz from among several brands, including Avanza, Caesarstone and Cambria, can be tough, given all the options. “The best way to choose a brand is to choose a color and pattern you like,” says Wegner.
Granite remains quite popular, and is often expected in homes selling for $300,000 and above.

Appliances & Lighting

Another way to make a splash in a renovated kitchen is to update appliances. These days, refrigerators come with many different options: freezers on top, bottom, side-by-side, or full-sized next to full-sized refrigerators with water and ice dispensers built into the doors. Some models have roll-out bins with individually controlled shelves for meat and vegetables that make food storage easier and more convenient. G.E., Viking, Sub-Zero, Whirlpool and KitchenAid are some of the most popular manufacturers.

“Stainless steel is the look everyone wants,” says Wegner. “Colors like almond are out. If a homeowner doesn’t like the look of fingerprints on stainless steel, they’ll opt for wood panel, but that can be expensive.”

Beyond the fridge, consider upgrading the gas or electric range. There are plenty to choose from, including free-standing, double-oven, slide-in, or a drop-in range that doesn’t have a drawer under the oven.

Many homeowners are opting for a drawer dishwasher that resembles a filing cabinet, with each dishwasher having two fully independent drawers. Each allows for different wash settings. These are available under several brands, including Fisher & Paykel, G.E., Kenmore, KitchenAid and Bauknecht.

“I think it will be the wave of the future,” says Soine. “Older people or retired people don’t need an entire dishwasher. If you have a baby and wash dishes constantly, then you can run one of the drawers and you’re good to go.”

When it comes to flooring, wood is definitely in demand. After years of lighter tones, deep mahogany finishes are coming back. For high-traffic areas, ceramic, slate and limestone are still popular. Bamboo floors are the choice for environmentally friendly kitchens.

“We’re seeing a majority of wood flooring,” says Soine. “It’s softer on your feet and back, and easier to walk on.”

Good kitchen lighting, from an aesthetic and functional standpoint, incorporates both ambient and task lighting. Ambient light is the general, overall light that fills in shadows, reduces contrast and lights vertical surfaces to give the space a brighter feel. Task lighting helps to illuminate work areas like counters, sinks and tables.

“People tend to forget how important lighting is to a kitchen,” says McDowell. “It can enhance the look and give it a warmer feel, whether it’s above or under the cabinets, or over the sink. Too many kitchens have 1980s fluorescent lights or one light over the sink. Recessed lighting adds so much sophistication to the atmosphere. LEDs are the hot lights right now and can last 10 years or more. They can change the feel of the room.”

Starting from Scratch

After years of remodeling other parts of their Woodstock home, Jim and Marcie Johnston decided to gut their kitchen completely last year. Jim says the original kitchen was cold and dark. The couple hired Blue Ribbon Millwork to handle the three-month project. In addition to new windows, the kitchen has all-new stainless steel appliances, cherry cabinets and tile flooring. The Formica countertop was replaced with quartz, and a peninsula was removed in favor of an island. The new travertine subway tile backsplash looks great in the gold and brown kitchen.

The Johnstons couldn’t be happier. The new kitchen is brighter, and has more space for preparing meals and entertaining family and friends. While they have no immediate plans to sell their home, the Johnstons know the improvements they made to their kitchen have increased value significantly.

“It was well worth the effort,” says Jim. “It looks great and it’s functional. Our old kitchen was an embarrassment. Now we have something that will last a long time.”

If you can’t make wholesale changes like the Johnstons did, don’t fret. Smaller upgrades can still impact the look and feel of your kitchen. If it’s not cost-effective to do a complete overhaul on the cabinets, for example, then do a paint job. Soine suggests replacing center panels with opaque or stained glass around the upper cabinets and around the sink, or replacing the door with a stainless steel-trimmed door. “That will change the entire look and add a lot more personality to the kitchen,” she says. “It makes it much warmer.”

First, Please Yourself

Like predicting a weather forecast, selling a home is an iffy proposition, with conditions changing from neighborhood to neighborhood. Christiansen says she’s had $300,000 homes in Geneva, St. Charles and Batavia sit for more than 200 days, while a similar home in the same area received two offers in the first week.

Experts agree that if you’re contemplating an upgrade to your kitchen, you should make changes with yourself in mind first. Subtle and not-so-subtle changes to your home’s most popular room can do wonders, even if your potential sale is years away.

“If you don’t like the space, making changes can be a psychological lift,” Christiansen says. “Do it sooner than later, so you can enjoy it. I call it an ‘aha moment.’ The kitchen may be what attracted you to that home in the first place. That’s where happy times are spent. And you can convey those feelings to the next buyer when the time is right.”

McDowell agrees. She recommends that homeowners do some serious soul searching before embarking on a major kitchen renovation. First, decide how long you plan to live in your home before putting it on the market. If you decide against testing the housing market, that’s OK, too.

“You have to ask yourself whether you care if you get your money out of it, or if you’re going to enjoy it for a number of years,” she says. “You can’t forget how much you enjoy living in your home. It’s hard to put a dollar value on that.” ❚