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How to Choose a Kitchen Design That Meets Your Needs

When you look at kitchens in model houses, you’ll find that it’s easy to get seduced by a look — great cabinets, gorgeous floor tiles, love that granite — and hard to stay on terra firma and pay attention to the practical details. In the end, though, function will matter much more than looks. If the kitchen in your new house is not well laid-out and there’s not enough counterspace or cabinets, you will hate it every day you live there, even if everything looks terrific.

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The first step in getting the right kitchen for you is to make a detailed evaluation of the kitchen you use now. The more you can articulate about what you like and hate about it, the more you will know what to include or omit in your new one. For example, do you have enough counterspace? Is your food preparation area by the sink too small? Are you constantly criss-crossing your kitchen, going from the refrigerator to the sink and back again while preparing a meal or loading and unloading your dishwasher?

Is your current kitchen overflowing with cooking equipment because you outgrew its storage capacity long ago? As you go over everything, be honest in your assessment. If you cook on the run and dispense with a cutting board half the time, your plastic laminate counters may be badly scratched -- and a scratchproof countertop material for your new kitchen should be a priority.

Now, with your what-I-love-and-hate-about-my-kitchen list in hand, make the same practicality-focused evaluations of the kitchens that you see in model houses. When you put on “aesthetic blinders” so you can zero in on function, you’ll find the model home kitchens have pluses and minuses, just like yours. Since most production builders are unwilling to modify a kitchen to suit a particular buyer, you’ll have to decide which minuses you can live with.

The first thing to check is the counter surface area. Is the food-preparation space adequate? If more than one person will be cooking at the same time, is there enough room for two people to work together comfortably? If you hand wash some items and leave them out to air dry, is there room on the counter for a dish rack? Or, will you have to put away the rack every time before you can fix a meal?

The best way to answer these questions is to act out in pantomime how you will use the space. If you and your spouse pretend to prepare a meal and find that you keep bumping into each other, the kitchen is clearly too small. Though you may feel ridiculous as you go through this Marcel Marceau routine, the hands-on information you’ll collect will be invaluable.

As you field-test the kitchen, make sure your imagined meal preparation includes all the appliances. A kitchen that is awkwardly arranged can be just as irritating as one that’s too small. The stove, sink, refrigerator, and adjacent work areas should be in reasonable proximity to one another so you don’t have to spend a lot of time criss-crossing the room to get a meal together.

A wall oven can be off to one side because you won’t spend much time at it, but a microwave should be convenient to the work area because the cook may be heating, defrosting, or otherwise using it for preparing the meal. The dishwasher should be close to the cabinet where dishes and glasses are kept, which should, in turn, be close to the daily eating area. The refrigerator should be close to both the food-prep area and the cabinet where dishes and glasses are kept. Because of its size, the refrigerator is frequently put in a far corner; causing endless unnecessary trips back and forth across the kitchen.

Storage needs vary with lifestyle, but this will be another sore point if there isn’t enough. From study of your current kitchen you should have an idea of how much you need. If the base cabinet storage in the model kitchen appears to be inadequate, can you hang some pots and pans on the wall? If there isn’t enough wall cabinet storage for dishes and plates, can you store the special occasion plates in a dining room buffet?

Adequate food storage depends on both your shopping and eating habits. Do you go food shopping once a week or every few days? Are your food preferences simple or do you prepare meals with many pantry ingredients? If the kitchen has a pantry closet the shelves must be at least 12 inches deep and 12 inches high to accommodate cereal boxes, but 24-inch depth will be more useful. If you buy cereal in bulk quantities the shelf height should be 18 inches.

Kitchen lighting is often overlooked because most buyers visit the model during broad daylight, when windows can flood the room with light. At night, however, you still need to see what you’re doing. Even if there is adequate general lighting, the counter areas can be dark and hard to work in. Under-cabinet lighting will eliminate this problem. If the builder doesn’t install these (and very few do), ask if he will install the wiring so you can add the lights yourself after you move in. A “slim line” type of fixture that fits in the recess under the cabinet box is more expensive, but it gives a kitchen a more finished look that makes the added cost worth it.

There are many different types of counter arrangements, but most kitchen designers consider the galley-type to be the most efficient. With a single aisle and counters to either side, you only have to turn around to go from sink to cooking range.

As lifestyles have evolved and become more informal, however, more and more people want a kitchen with an eat-in area. In small houses, the galley kitchen has given way to the L-shaped counter. In this configuration, the appliance arrangement may be satisfactory. But make sure that the counter area is adequate for food preparation, especially if two people will be preparing food at the same time. Packing a sink, dishwasher, stove, and refrigerator into one L-shaped counter can also compromise base cabinet storage, so check this too.

In larger houses, kitchens frequently have island counters. For an island to add function as well as style, it should be no more than 42 inches from the main counters. If the island is too far away it becomes awkward to reach, especially if the island has a cooktop. Buyers who want an island cooktop should make sure that the island is at least 60 inches long. With this length, you can get a 15-inch counter on each side of a standard 30-inch range and have space for pot handles to overhang as well as a place to put bowls and utensils.

Of course practicality is not the only thing you will care about in your new kitchen. Looks do count. Once you get the basics down, adequate food prep areas, storage, counter layouts and lighting, you can obsess about colors, cabinet door styles, countertop materials and flooring with abandon.

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