Real estate agents and kitchen designers recommend a budget guideline of no more than 15 percent of a home's total value when remodeling a kitchen. Spend more than that, it's said, and you risk losing money at resale. Still, a functional, attractive kitchen offers intangible benefits, such as how much you'll enjoy cooking or whether it's suitable for entertaining. Consider how long you're likely to stay in the house, and then decide which of the following three remodeling plans fits your situation best.
PLAN A: Improve to Move
If you're upgrading just to help sell your house in the near future, the overall goal isn't to "wow" prospective buyers, but simply to reassure them that the kitchen is in good shape. House hunters want a reasonable standard of cleanliness and convenience.
-- Freshen things up with new wall paint and new knobs on the cabinets.
-- Clean up everything as much as possible and fix anything that's broken. Nothing turns off buyers faster than spotting a water leak beneath the sink or loose hinges -- they'll wonder what else is wrong.
Do Simple Updates
It's surprising how little effort it takes to rev up a backsplash with a row of tile, or to replace the garbage disposal with one that doesn't shake the house.
-- If faucets leak or are hopelessly outdated, replace them and touch up any chipped porcelain on sinks.
-- Light fixtures should work flawlessly or be replaced if they're out of date. The exception to this is if your kitchen is very old and completely original, in which case a buyer might be enthralled with its vintage charm.
Spend a Little to Make a Lot
If you're a handy do-it-yourselfer, paint and hardware upgrades probably won't cost more than $150, including paint for the cabinets (or maybe their interiors, for accent). A new faucet or light fixture might set you back $100-$150 if you install it yourself. Repair costs will vary. Still, you should be able to take care of the minor problems and install a new sink and faucet for $1,000-$1,500. Improvements such as these are very likely to bring a better price for your house -- which means you could recover your costs.
PLAN B: Take It Halfway
You want to stay in the house awhile, but you're not ready for a complete kitchen renovation. Still, it's worth some time and effort to create a kitchen you can enjoy.
-- Paint the walls a cheerful color. Replace a couple of wooden cabinet panels with clear glass.
-- Add much-needed storage with open shelving or look for secondhand cabinets to fill the gaps and paint them to match.
-- Revive marred baseboards and trim with a fresh coat of paint, and replace boring hardware or light fixtures with stylish new ones.
Update Worn Surfaces
Target time-worn surfaces (especially floors and countertops) and spring for low-cost replacements in neutral tones. Home centers sell pre-shaped laminate counters by the foot. Expect to pay about $400 if you do the work (several hundred dollars more if you hire it out). Add $300 for entry-level vinyl flooring or about $750 for a "floating laminate floor" if you handle the installation. Cabinet refacing (putting new doors and drawer fronts on existing cabinet boxes) is more affordable than new cabinets, but still represents an investment of several thousand dollars.
Invest in Appliances
Spend the most on things you will keep if you decide on a larger renovation later -- especially upgraded appliances.
-- Spring for a quieter dishwasher ($500-$750), a stainless-steel side-by-side refrigerator or pro-style range (each about $1,500), or a combination microwave/toaster oven ($150 to $300) will make life in your kitchen much more convenient.
-- Save on utilities because new models are far more efficient than older ones. If you sell the house instead of renovating, you can take many of these purchases with you.
PLAN C: The Long Haul
If you're playing for keeps, you can invest more in your kitchen and see it pay off in long-term pleasure and practicality. But spend appropriately for the neighborhood and your specific house.
-- Observe the 15 percent guideline: In a $150,000 home, budget up to $22,500. Unless you're splurging on high-end products, that figure can buy a lot of kitchen. This is the time to reconfigure the floor plan for improved function, to buy your dream appliances, or to invest in new cabinets.
Looks and Durability
Surfaces should be chosen for looks as well as practicality.
-- Ultra-durable granite or quartz-surfacing counters top many homeowners' wish lists, but solid-surfacing countertops also hold up well without losing their looks.
-- Stone or ceramic tile and hardwood planks are still flooring favorites, but laminate and resilient sheet flooring can look good for years with little upkeep.
-- A high-end faucet and sink are products you will use on a daily basis. Invest in products with style and the best quality you can afford.
-- If you must wait on a few things, keep in mind that better lighting fixtures, faucets, and backsplashes are easy to install later.
Look at Percentages
If you're in it for the long haul, go for the look that makes you happy, instead of adhering to the bland conformity that defines "easy to sell." When deciding what to spend, some simple guidelines might help keep you on track:
-- 40 percent of your overall kitchen budget for cabinetry
-- 30 percent for appliances
-- 10 percent for countertops
-- 10 percent for flooring
-- 10 percent for lighting and plumbing fixtures
Save in one category so you can splurge on something you love in another. While not an exact science, these suggested percentages typically result in consistent quality levels throughout the kitchen.