For every house on the market, be it a resale or a home builder’s furnished model, the kitchen is the first stop for most prospective buyers and often the reason they choose one house over another.
As they look and linger, what questions should they be asking themselves? These are my recommendations:
l How easily can I prepare a meal in this kitchen?
The gorgeous cabinetry and exotic, natural stone countertops may look fabulous, but if you can’t cook with ease, you won’t be happy for long.
The best way to know if a given kitchen will work for you is to pantomime how you would fix a meal in it. If you and a partner frequently fix meals together, do the pantomime together. You will feel slightly ridiculous, but the information gained will be invaluable. For example, you may discover that the food preparation area is minuscule, or it’s too small for two people to work at the same time, or that you’ll need roller skates to get a meal ready because the kitchen is so big the sink and stove are 15 feet apart. For most people, these are big negatives. After you’ve gone through this routine in several kitchens, you’ll be able to size up most of them without going through the pantomime routine.
l Is the counter arrangement optimal?
The pantomime routine may tell you that a kitchen is acceptable, but the layout is not great. The most efficient counter layout and the one preferred by professional chefs is a galley arrangement with one aisle and the sink and stove opposite each other. That way, you only have to turn around to go from one to the other. In newer kitchens, especially those in home builders’ furnished models, you’re more likely to have an island cooktop that is opposite the sink because most people think an island kitchen is “upscale and up-to-date.” This has almost the same advantages as the true galley, and it makes a kitchen feel more open. Just make sure that you have at least 15 inches of counter space on both sides of the cooktop. This will give you ample room for pot handles to overhang and enough space to put bowls, utensils, condiments and all the other things you typically use when you work at the stove.
To create an eating area with space for a table and chairs, the kitchen in a smaller house will have fewer cabinets and smaller counters, and this can make it harder to use.
l Is this countertop material acceptable?
The suitability of a countertop material depends on the individual. If you are conscientious, wipe up spills right away and clean up after every meal, even when a dinner party runs really late, and you pull out a cutting board every time you are slicing and dicing, you will be happy with any material, even ones that stain and scratch easily.
But, if your M.O. in the kitchen runs towards the slapdash, you will be happier with something that is nearly foolproof — it won’t stain, and it’s nearly impossible to scratch. An engineered stone product such as Silestone, Zodiaq or Caesarstone, all of which look remarkably close to granite, is a sensible choice. Real granite can be very porous and stain easily. To reduce the porosity and increase stain resistance, granite must be sealed about once a year.
If the kitchen has plastic laminate, don’t automatically assume that it must be replaced. Plastic laminate is often regarded as the “low rent” option, but if reasonable care is taken — that is, using a cutting board every time instead of cutting directly on the counter, and wiping up spills right away — it can last for 20 years or more, as I can personally attest. The plastic laminate counters in my house are nearly 22 years old.
l What is the storage capacity of the cabinetry?
Most people fixate on the cabinet doors because when they look at a kitchen, that’s what they see first. But the storage capacity in the cabinet boxes behind the doors is much more important and that’s what bears a closer look.
First check the cabinet size. Wall cabinets that extend to the ceiling will have more storage than shorter ones that have an open space above (a great place for grease and dust to collect) or an enclosed soffit between the top of the cabinet and the ceiling. (This is more common in older kitchens).
When the wall cabinets extend to the ceiling, the top shelf won’t be easily accessible, but it’s a great place for keeping the dishes that you only bring out for special occasions.
Base cabinets will be much more useful if they have pullout trays instead of less-costly fixed shelves. With the pullout shelving you can easily access items at the back without having to take everything out. With the pullout shelving, you also get the full depth of the cabinet for each shelf, and you can store more things. With fixed shelves, the upper one is only half the depth of the cabinet. In older houses, the shelving in the base cabinets will be fixed, unless the kitchen has been recently remodeled.
l Is the exhaust fan noisy?
This may seem like a nitpicky detail, but an exhaust fan serves two purposes. First, if you have a gas stove, the exhaust fan is necessary to remove the combustion fumes that are a by-product of any natural gas appliance. Second, the exhaust fan will remove cooking-related moisture that can make the paint peel in the stove area and cooking smells that can spread through your entire house.
When an exhaust fan is too noisy, most people do not use them. In every kitchen that you see, turn the exhaust fan onto the low and medium settings and listen.
The best exhaust fans have a motor that’s big enough to exhaust the smells of cooking disasters in short order (when it does this you will hear the motor, but it won’t be on for long) and operates quietly on lower speeds. An exhaust fan with a 550 cfm capacity (cfm means cubic feet per minute) works for most households. It will be inaudible for regular use at low speed, audible at medium speed when you’re cooking a garlic-laden meat sauce and want to confine the smell to the stove area, and loud only at high speed when you want the acrid smell of burnt souffle to be gone immediately.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and lives in Michigan.