Ask any realtor anywhere in the U.S. this year and they'll tell you: the housing market has been completely bonkers. Houses are selling like hotcakes and at premiums, thanks to irresistible mortgage rates and a greater consciousness of the importance of "home" as we've all been spending more time there. Improving your space for living or selling has been on everyone's minds, but so has this burning question: Is a renovation worth it?
It's been said that the best returns on your residential investment can be found in the kitchen and the bathrooms. After all, the kitchen is the heart of the home and, according to many realtors, it's the deal-maker or deal-breaker for potential buyers. Enter the draw of kitchen renovations if you're thinking of selling. But with so many bells and whistles to choose from, how do you know you're not making noise in an empty room?
For guidance, we called in the experts: realtors from two of the hottest markets in the U.S., an interior designer, and a general contractor. Here, they breakdown the upgrades to include in your kitchen renovation, and how to implement them to maximize the value of your home.
When it comes to house hunting, one of the first things we look at is the footprint of the kitchen. It only makes sense, then, to start where our feet step. Cesar Bullon, general contractor and owner of Down South Renovations in Marietta, Ga., speaks from a place of experience, having started his business as a flooring specialist: "Tile is the best for both durability and budget. You won't have to replace tile unless you begin hating it!" He also finds that many homeowners find cost of more moisture-resistant porcelain worth the upgrade from ceramic. Ariel Baverman, realtor for Keller Williams Realty First Atlanta recommends choosing "planks over 12-inch squares" to avoid dating the kitchen. "Those are very 'out,'" she cautions.
If you'd prefer something warmer underfoot, luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is a practical waterproof solution that's become more popular. Technology has made it possible for this alternate material to emulate the look and feel of hardwood without the natural material's risk of warping and damage from spills and humidity.
But even with these practical considerations, durable hardwoods like sustainable bamboo or oak remain top choice among home buyers. "Especially if it matches the rest of the flooring in an open kitchen leading into another space," says luxury realtor Lisa Graff of Houlihan Lawrence of Scarsdale in Westchester, N.Y.
Adding a Kitchen Island
There's something about an island kitchen that reads like an invitation to linger. No surprise, then, that one of Bullon's most commonly requested features is a multifunctional island. "If you're looking for more surface space or seating areas, this is the way to go," he says.
Power outlets can also be subtly hidden into island as well, beneath the counters or even within them as pop-ups, all of which add usage flexibility. "Adding storage and stools for extra seating with electrical outlets is now often a must," says Graff. "Maximizing every square inch adds value." And go counter-height: with a larger, wider surface, the opportunities for prep, serving, and gathering are just that much greater.
Taking down a wall and swapping it for an island is also a great solution to Bullon's most common request: a bigger kitchen. A reduction in hard boundaries creates the illusion of more space, expanding the impression of the actual kitchen. Graff agrees that this is one of the biggest selling points in many homes. "Open concept kitchens that flow into family zones are extremely popular," says Graff. "Especially for those who want to keep an eye on the kids as they're working; a fluid area for entertaining; or simply an in-eat kitchen that doesn't feel enclosed."
Islands are also another way to show off fabulous counters, which are another deal-maker when it comes to attracting buyers. Waterfall counters with mitered edges, for example, can add drama, even while providing a clean, minimalistic, contemporary feel. Weathered countertops are beloved by tactile folks who are happy to trade traditional gloss to texture and dimension. And swirled stones can add movement as well, while speckled ones can create depth. However, for all of the above, lighter is the look. "Darker stones tend to look more dated," says Graff. "All-white kitchens are more in demand; most people love them as they're bright and provide a sense of a spaciousness."
Luckily, this look is now easier to achieve than ever, as an extensive selection of natural and man-made materials have cropped up. The latter ranges from budget options such as laminate (Formica) and large-format tile to pricier ones like Corian, a composite product, and top-of-the-line quartz. Natural stones include granite, limestone, marble, and quartzite. No matter the category, though, granite sits at the baseline of what's considered desirable, no matter the grade or pattern.
"Consumers don't want anything less than granite anymore, so going to tile or laminate is disappointing in a renovation," says Baverman. Bullon seconds that, recommending "simple granite for a basic renovation, sealed once a year for upkeep."
Some people skip installing a backsplash or go the cheaper route of stick-on 3D effect contact paper, but from the requests Bullon gets, that percentage is fortunately trending down. "They're definitely needed in a kitchen renovation," he emphasizes, "as they make it feel more complete and convey a sense that the owner was detail-oriented and took good care of the home." This perception is worth its weight in tile, as a subconscious indicator of value.
Glass backsplashes are a newer trend Bullon has been seeing a lot of in high-end renovations in the South, but much less costly tile can create interest, especially if laid out thoughtfully. Baverman is a fan of affordable subway tiles, which Graff agrees are being used in many different styles of homes. "Glass or colored subway tiles are common picks for mid-century modern homes and white for more traditional ones."
Cabinets are one of the most expensive components of a well-done kitchen, and a critical part of its functionality and visual appeal. Seemingly minor details make a lot of difference here, like new knobs and pulls and crown molding finishing at the top of the cabinets. These mostly cosmetic accents add sophistication and value to your kitchen, all without having to mess with what's already there. Repainting them is the next level of recommitment to your cabinets, which is a costly investment but still cheaper than a tear-down start-over.
If you're willing to invest in replacing them, though, the extra few inches a 42-inch upper cabinet gives you is well worth the added expense. You'll increase storage space by 25 percent, and if that's too high to reach? "Rev-a-shelf has incredible solutions that allow people of various heights and ages to access these cabinets safely," says Lisa M. Cini, author and president/CEO of Mosaic Design Studio. "It also maximizes your shelf storage and can hide items, which allows users to transform the kitchen into a showroom."
So for the most part, cabinet innovations are often worth the cost of investment. Not worth the money anymore, though? Covering up your appliances with faux cabinets. "Although it looks nice, it's just no longer necessary to hide your appliances behind facades to match your cabinet choices," Graff says. This is especially true now that most are now designed to be showcased, as we'll get into next.
Stainless Steel Appliances
Thermador introduced the stainless look in the 1950s, but it wasn't until about 15 to 20 years ago that it became readily accessible and more affordable to average consumers. Since then, the elevation of the chef in pop culture has turned a trend into a mainstay.
"Stainless steel appliances always add value," says Graff, especially when they're name-brand or professional quality. "You can never go wrong with a chef's kitchen that features a six-burner stove!"
Appliances that look or are built in also add overall elegance to a kitchen. Slide-in ranges continue to sell and show well in the residential market—often paired with space-saving over-range microwaves—and are considered, "a great upgrade for upscale renovations," per Bullon. He says the same of built-in wine refrigerators, a feature Graff calls a bonus, "even for people who don't drink, since it can serve as a beverage chiller," freeing up precious refrigerator space for food, as Baverman points out.
Accessibility and storage are key to any kitchen, which is why lazy susans and blind corner cabinets are also always in demand. "Lazy susan corner shelves are wonderful for elderly people," says Bullon, allowing them to get to the "back" of their cabinets easily. Blind corner pull-outs do the same and use the space even more efficiently. Although the latter is less common in New York, where Graff serves, she and Baverman are all for either—"Anything that gives additional storage adds value!" they chorus.
A seemingly small detail that can make a world of difference and add incremental value to your home are soft-close hinges and drawers. "These are essential," says Graff—a mother of two young boys who inevitably slam both. Although they can break, as Baverman cautions, that risk is worth the reward of adding to the lifetime of the cabinets.
Pantries are always a good call. "However you can get more pantry space, always do it!" says Bullon. Built-in ones with pull-out drawers are a brilliant upgrade, and great for easy access, especially when a closet pantry isn't an option, according to Graff.
The functional features are worth the money if you plan to live in your space longer, but for a quick, gratifying upgrade, pull-out trash bins concealed behind cabinet doors have become exceedingly popular, addressing the unpleasant problem of having a too-small garbage tucked under your sink or an exposed freestanding one. "They're awesome for saving space and keeping the kitchen clean," says Bullon.
Neutral Paint Colors and Patterns
Any home professional will tell you: A fresh coat of the right color paint can do absolute wonders for a space. The kitchen is no exception. "It can change the atmosphere of a room drastically," says Bullon, providing an affordable facelift and instant-clean feeling to the room. As Graff points out, lighter kitchens are trending, with grays, whites, and neutrals standing as safe choices for a crowd-pleasing aesthetic that can help increase your home value.
No matter what, though, when making your selections, adhere to one golden rule of kitchen renovations: Let one thing be the star. If you spring for a flashy backsplash, go neutral on the counters and cabinets, and vice versa. They can clash or worse, your high-end investment will fade into the background amidst too many other scene-stealing accents. Meanwhile, allowing the different elements to complement the other generates harmony and balance.
Of course, how you light the space also affects color. Soft white lighting will lend a warm, golden hue to everything while daylight bulbs with their blue tones will be very bright and white. Depending on the mood of your kitchen, you can choose either for accents like pendant lights, which are often requested by Bullon's clients. Although "pendants are for style more than function in most cases," per Baverman, there's no doubt that they add another level of interest while actively highlighting a handsome upgrade like an island. "Just be sure it's high enough that it doesn't ruin the sight line and people won't hit their heads when standing!" says Graff.
Because light placement can make a big impact. For instance, under-cabinet lighting can create a sultry, modern, or cozy distant impression depending on the warmth of the color. Cini highly recommends not only adding lighting to the underside of your upper cabinets ("a huge win!"), but power strips and USB plugs as well. "Whether you're plugging in your coffee pot or air fryer, the area is easier to see with built-in lighting." Best of all, it's an easy upgrade. "Ikea and Legrand have great options that are easy to install," she says.
The Bottom Line?
Our pros prioritize stone counters, cabinets with smart storage, islands when possible, durable flooring, and anything to physically or visually expand the kitchen. Ever the pragmatist, Bullon stresses: "These all add value to a home, so these are the renovations that are most worthwhile."