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The Rehab Diaries: Kitchens


Article by Marilisa Vergottini

Photography by Eric Dennon

The pandemic has had two marked effects on the real estate industry across the Greater Seattle Area—the desire to upgrade into a bigger, better, more accommodating —or conversely, the desire to enhance existing spaces in order to better fit ever-changing household needs, without actually having to move. But if you are tackling a remodel, which items yield the biggest return?

In a new series, inspired by the number of clients and friends who approach me for remodeling advice, I will be creating a short series of features on which areas of a home will give you the biggest return on your investments, and why.

First in the series, kitchens.

First golden rule of remodeling with the idea of improving your home and yielding a solid return on investment is - spend in proportion to the rest of your home and in direct correlation to your location.

For example, if you live in a 4,000-square-foot home and your kitchen is from the '70s and very petite, you will want to design a kitchen that complements the proportions of your existing property. This means you cannot simply switch up hardware and re-paint 1970s cabinetry to add significant value - and you’re probably going to have to increase the footprint, which may well involve some structural changes. You’ll be parting with a bit more cash as a result, but you will see a strong return on your investments.

However, if you live in a more “modest” 2,000-square-foot cottage from the 1920s, like ours, you won’t be adding a $100,000 kitchen. I mean, you can, but you won’t see the return on all of that money—at best, you’ll see a 50-70% return on investment, unless you live in a particularly desirable location that attracts a certain type of buyer, in which case you may re-coup the money. I would rather err on the side of caution.

According to Cost/Value, an annual report focusing on remodel returns on investments for different items, in 2020 a large-scale remodel with mid-range finishes yielded a 70% return on investment. Meanwhile a minor remodel, costing an average of $26,000, yielded an almost 90% return.

But that $33,000 is effectively a $100,000 uplift on the value of our lake view home. That is a 300% return on investment.

What I don’t like about these statistics is that you have no idea what the rest of the home looked like, where it was situated and what the money was actually spent on.

As a real estate agent, touring hundreds of homes and representing so many different buyers from all walks of life, I have gained a very grounded grasp of which elements yield the greatest return, across the entire home.

Jumping right in using our major kitchen remodel as an example, I want to first level set with you on pricing. In 2018 we gutted our entire kitchen and opened up one wall. We spent under $14,000 on custom cabinetry from Bellmont Cabinet Co., (including a large center island with storage), $11,000 on Pental quartz counters and $3,300 on labor. The kitchen design was complimentary with Bellevue’s Stile & Rail, a supplier for Bellmont Cabinet Co. We also spent $4,800 on a four burner Wolf range that we purchased off the shop floor with a discount at Arnold's Appliance. We kept our existing dishwasher and refrigerator because those were newer.

That’s a rough total of $33,000 on a brand-new, slightly larger, 100% more functional, more beautiful and open kitchen.

We also spent $1,000 on a ceramic farmhouse sink and $3,000 on a bricked archway leading to the kitchen. Will we see a return on those two features specifically? No. Those were just for us.

But that $33,000 is effectively a $100,000 uplift on the value of our lake view home. That is a 300% return on investment. [Before and early after pictures are below.]

So, what should you tackle when planning your kitchen remodel?

Open kitchens are still very much a must. While there is speculation that the pandemic has called for a renewed love of separate spaces, this is not true for kitchens. The majority of home owners want to see their kids playing in the great room while they cook, or chat to guests when they entertain. As such, an open concept kitchen is highly desirable. It’s also the heart of a home and all other main living rooms gravitate around it.

If you need to open up or remove a wall, it’s not nearly as expensive as you think. That includes adding a beam for support; it’s easy and fairly economical - it’s the permit and structural engineer’s report that will set you back a little more if you are affecting a load bearing wall. But it’s absolutely worth it for the return.

It’s important to spend on high quality here, because countertops can make, or break, a kitchen.

Cabinetry is the backbone of a kitchen.

Do you have to spend an arm and a leg on top of the line solid wood cabinets in order to see a return? Absolutely not. On the other hand, should you go for a thin veneer on top of MDF that will chip away at the slightest knock? Also, no. There are plenty of choices in between that will not cripple you financially. The sweet spot is to spend a conservative amount on mid range cabinetry that holds up to the test of time and looks like a million dollars too.

The biggest consideration for cabinetry outside of style, is function. Storage can be maximized in a small kitchen with pull outs, and custom slide inserts. Especially when there is no room for a walk in pantry.

Meanwhile, your island should be as spacious as you can humanly fit in the space. Nothing disappoints buyers more in a kitchen than a tiny island. Conversely, if you choose to build a lavish two islands, as is fashionable in high end, large new construction projects, you will not see a worthwhile return on that investment.

Slab counters are your kitchen's crown jewel.

Granite lost favor a few years ago and quartz products reign supreme. Ultra hard wearing and available in a plethora of color tones and patterns, this manufactured stone also comes at a variety of price points. It’s important to spend on high quality here, because countertops can make, or break, a kitchen.

Pay attention to slab thickness too; standard is either 2cm or 3cm - the latter is usually preferred. I would not recommend the slim 1.2cm thickness; it’s not as hard wearing and it looks cheap. The difference in cost is also nominal, in the grand scheme of your remodel.

Meanwhile, waterfall design slab on islands are so chic, but will you see a return on that additional spend? You won’t - however if personally love the visual aesthetic, that can make it all worth it.

While we're on the subject of islands, my mantra is always go big or go home. Of course, the island needs to be proportionate to the area you are placing it in, but the moral of this story is, install the largest island you can without compromising on walkable space. On that note, the rule of thumb is that there should be at least three feet (or 36 inches) of space between the edge of the island and your counters/appliances. The island is the center piece of your kitchen and you do not want to scrimp on this real estate. Adding deep drawers and storage to an island is ideal for maximum functionality.

Knobs, pulls and lighting are the icing on the cake.

Know that for resale (and for maximum return), it’s not worth going overboard here. And trust me, you can go overboard, (Restoration Hardware addict, anyone?). No one will know how much you spent on these items, so as long as it looks the part, your return is on the upside. Home Depot stocks a good range of knobs and pulls that will not break the bank and locally, Seattle Lighting in Bellevue has a huge range of fixtures that you can see in person as opposed to relying on an image from a website.

In terms of lighting, while it may feel like a minor embellishment, in the same way that hardware is key to bringing cabinetry to life, the right light fixtures can take your kitchen from lovely to stand out.

Avoid old school track lighting - I still see it in a lot of homes and it very much dates a kitchen. Recessed lighting is always a clean look and don't forget fixtures over your island. There are so many pendant styles to choose from that will elevate the aesthetic in any kitchen and really define the style you are going for. I recommend following Hudson Valley Lighting on Instagram for inspiration.

You have a variety of choices at multiple price points, that convey a high end, luxury look to your kitchen.

Hardwoods or other?

I am a huge proponent of seamless flooring running from the entryway and across the entire main floor of a home, including the kitchen. The primary reason being that this creates a sense of openness and flow to the home. 

There are some caveats to this; for example, when running hardwoods through a kitchen, should you have the slightest leak from an appliance, it will warp and damage the flooring beneath, which will then require replacing and re-finishing to match. So be aware of that. 

Engineered hardwoods are a great option throughout your home. We invested in engineered wide plank rustic hardwoods that were priced at around $13 per square foot including a contractor's discount of 15%. These oak engineered floors have lots of detail through them, as well as natural grooving so that they appear to be solid oak planks. The benefit of engineered wood (which is essentially a layer of solid wood on the top and then compact layering of other materials beneath), is that these are a lot more durable than hardwood planks and less subject to warping from water damage. Ours are also very pet resistant, which we are grateful for.

Luxury vinyl plank is another great alternative. The newer versions are green, non toxic and very hard wearing. They layer great on concrete basement floors too and are warm underfoot due to the layer of insulation they provide (the underside is often cork). They are also generally completely waterproof. The look is very similar to wood but the planks are easier to install and cost a fraction of the price. We used wide plank luxury vinyl in our basement from Evoke, at roughly $5 per square foot.

If you would rather break up the space, I suggest using tile that complements the rest of the flooring in the home. I have seen some beautiful ceramic tiles in homes lately that look heavenly and define a kitchen space without disturbing the overall flow, especially when said kitchen is open plan.

You have a variety of choices at multiple price points, that convey a high end, luxury look to your kitchen. so go forth, and conquer!