Wednesday, March 17, 2010

7 Smart Strategies for Kitchen Remodeling

When planning a kitchen remodel, keep the same footprint, add storage, and design adequate lighting so you preserve value and keep costs on track.

Value Added High $16,100 - $43,000
Effort High 6-12 mos (including planning)
Investment High $21,400 - $57,200

If you’re contemplating a kitchen remodel, you’re also weighing a considerable investment. But a significant portion of the upfront costs may be recovered by the value the project brings to your home. Kitchen remodels in the $50,000 range recouped 76% of the initial project cost at the home’s resale, according to recent data from Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report. To make sure you maximize your return, consider these seven smart kitchen remodeling strategies.

1. Establish your priorities
Simple enough? Not so fast. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommends spending at least six months planning before beginning the work. That way, you can thoroughly evaluate your priorities and won’t be tempted to change your mind during construction. Contractors often have clauses in their contracts that specify additional costs for amendments to original plans. Planning points to consider include:

•Avoid traffic jams. A walkway through the kitchen should be at least 36 inches wide, according to the NKBA. Work aisles for one cook should be a minimum of 42 inches wide and at least 48 inches wide for households with multiple cooks.
•Consider children. Avoid sharp, square corners on countertops, and make sure microwave ovens are installed at the heights recommended by the NKBA—3 inches below the shoulder of the principle user but not more than 54 inches from the floor.
•Access to the outside. If you want to easily reach entertaining areas, such as a deck or a patio, factor a new exterior door into your plans.
Because planning a kitchen is complex, consider hiring a professional designer. A pro can help make style decisions and foresee potential problems, so you can avoid costly mistakes. In addition, a pro makes sure contractors and installers are sequenced properly so that workflow is cost-effective. Expect fees around $50 to $150 per hour, or 5% to 15% of the total cost of the project.

2. Keep the same footprint
No matter the size and scope of your planned kitchen, you can save major expense by not rearranging walls, and by locating any new plumbing fixtures near existing plumbing pipes. Not only will you save on demolition and reconstruction, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of dust and debris your project generates.

3. Match appliances to your skill level
A six-burner commercial-grade range and luxury-brand refrigerator might make eye-catching centerpieces, but be sure they fit your lifestyle, says Molly Erin McCabe, owner of A Kitchen That Works design firm in Bainbridge Island, Wash. “It’s probably the part of a kitchen project where people tend to overspend the most.”

The high price is only worth the investment if you’re an exceptional cook. Otherwise, save thousands with trusted brands that receive high marks at consumer review websites, like and, and resources such as Consumer Reports.

4. Create a well-designed lighting scheme
Some guidelines:

• Install task lighting, such as recessed or track lights, over sinks and food prep areas; assign at least two fixtures per task to eliminate shadows. Under-cabinet lights illuminate clean-up and are great for reading cookbooks. Pendant lights over counters bring the light source close to work surfaces.

• Ambient lighting includes flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, and track lights. Consider dimmer switches with ambient lighting to control intensity and mood.

5. Focus on durability
“People are putting more emphasis on functionality and durability in the kitchen,” says McCabe. That may mean resisting bargain prices and focusing on products that combine low-maintenance with long warranty periods. “Solid-surface countertops [Corian, Silestone] are a perfect example,” adds McCabe. “They may cost a little more, but they’re going to look as good in 10 years as they did the day they were installed.”

If you’re not planning to stay in your house that long, products with substantial warranties can become a selling point. “Individual upgrades don’t necessarily give you a 100% return,” says Frank Gregoire, a real estate appraiser in St. Petersburg, Fla. “But they can give you an edge when it comes time to market your home for sale” if other for-sale homes have similar features.

6. Add storage, not space
To add storage without bumping out walls:

• Specify upper cabinets that reach the ceiling. They may cost a bit more, but you’ll gain valuable storage space. In addition, you won’t have to worry about dusting the tops.

• Hang it up. Install small shelving units on unused wall areas, and add narrow spice racks and shelves on the insides of cabinet doors. Use a ceiling-mounted pot rack to keep bulkier pots and pans from cluttering cabinets. Add hooks to the backs of closet doors for aprons, brooms, and mops.

7. Communicate effectively—and often
Having a good rapport with your project manager or construction team is essential for staying on budget. “Poor communication is a leading cause of kitchen projects going sour,” says McCabe. To keep the sweetness in your project:

•Drop by the project during work hours as often as possible. Your presence assures subcontractors and other workers of your commitment to getting good results.
•Establish a communication routine. Hang a message board on-site where you and the project manager can leave each other daily communiques. Give your email address and cell phone number to subs and team leaders.
•Set house rules. Be clear about smoking, boom box noise levels, which bathroom is available, and where workers should park their vehicles.
Consumers spend more money on kitchen remodeling than any other home improvement project, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute, and with good reason. They’re the hub of home life, and a source of pride. With a little strategizing, you can ensure your new kitchen gives you years of satisfaction.

John Riha has written six books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He’s been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. His standard 1968 suburban house has been an ongoing source of maintenance experience.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Best Affordable Suburbs in America 2010

Life with children is expensive, but in some places a dollar goes a lot further. Bloomberg BusinessWeek evaluated information provided by community data company OnBoard Informatics to determine the best affordable suburb in each state.While many of the places on this year's list are near amenities such as country clubs and golf courses, the focus is not luxury, but rather communities where families can live well for less and enjoy good schools, low crime, and reasonable commutes. The selected suburbs were limited to towns within 25 miles of the most populated city in the state, with populations of 5,000 to 60,000, median family incomes of $51,000 to $120,000, and lower-than-average crime rates. We weighted a variety of factors including livability (short commutes, low pollution, green space), education (well-educated residents, high test scores), crime (low personal and property crime), economy (high job growth, low unemployment rate, high family income), and affordability (median household income, cost of expenditures). Affordability was most heavily weighted in our calculations. We penalized places with bad weather, a lack of racial diversity, high divorce rates, and few children.
The results range from established high-income neighborhoods to growing middle-income communities. For example, the smallest town on the list, Cave Creek, Ariz., has a population of about 5,000 and a median family income of $108,546, while Moore, Okla., one of the largest, has more than 51,000 residents and a median income of $63,309, according to OnBoard's estimates. Despite their differences, all these places offer young families an attractive location to raise children and remain close to employment opportunities

10. Clark, N.J.
Nearest major city: Newark
Population: 13,862
Median family income: $97,668
Median home price: $380,500
Unemployment rate: 9.7%
Violent crime index: 4

Formerly a farm community, Clark has grown into a popular suburb at nearly full capacity of occupied land, according to the town Web site. Its school district has a preschool, two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. Clark is near several medical centers in neighboring communities. Amenities include a golf complex, community pool, tennis courts, and parks. A new ranking by Monmouth University's Polling Institute named Clark one of the state's best places to live, according to a report on