Today's kitchens are the command center of the home, a place where families and friends gather to share more than just meals. For this reason, spending money on kitchens is still a good idea. Kitchen improvements continue to yield the best return on investment in a home.

Whether you are building a new home or renovating an older one, a large chunk of your budget will go to the kitchen, and for good reason. Appliances, cabinets and countertops are among the most costly features in a home.

A kitchen remodeling study released last month by Houzz, the online interior design site that is a favorite for homeowners, found more than 40 percent of the 7,800 surveyed were either updating or completely redoing an existing kitchen.

Most were aiming for a traditional or contemporary look with top-of-the-line cooking appliances — more than a third wanted a chef's stove — and soft, neutral colors.

While the choices are endless for appliances and cabinets, the prevailing countertop material continues to be granite. Houzz found that 94 percent of respondents planned to change their countertops and 50 percent favored granite, followed by quartz at 36 percent.

"I think that for lots of people, it's an equal concern about the aesthetic, how it fits into the color scheme and the durability," says Liz Dickson, an interior designer at Millbrook Circle Interior Design in Baltimore. "Kitchens are such an expensive renovation project, so you don't want to put in materials that you have to replace in five years."

While stone still reigns king, many are looking to unique alternatives that will help set their kitchen, or bathroom, apart.

Wood

Cost: $45-$200 per square foot

For a nostalgic look, many people are looking to wood as material for kitchen islands and sections of countertops. Dickson says wood countertops can be quite beautiful, "especially if you're using an interesting wood."

People often look to stunning pieces of reclaimed wood, but there are also intricate pieces of laser-manufactured blocks transformed into a striped or checkerboard pattern. Wood countertops range widely in cost, largely depending on the type of wood being used.

Michael Owings, president of Owings Brothers Contracting in Eldersburg, says he has had many customers inquire about wood, though interest is often stymied by the upkeep and worries about the porous material holding salmonella and other bacteria.

"The custom wood tops are lacquered, but even on those, it's still a product that needs maintenance," he says. "You're not going to want to put hot pots on them, and you need to be careful cutting on it. It's more for show than it is functional."

Dickson agrees, adding, "If you don't use cutting boards, you're going to wreck your wood countertops."

Concrete

Cost: $80-$150 per square foot

Concrete countertops come in many forms and can be transformed to look retro or ultra-modern. The cost can range from budget-friendly to very expensive, depending on the concrete, sealant and mode of installation.

George Brown, president of Greenleaf Construction in Lutherville, says he's worked with concrete mixes that include sustainable materials, including recycled glass, which gives the surface an almost glittery look.

Concrete is also quite versatile and can be stained to a number of hues. Dickson says concrete can be installed in two ways: The countertops are either poured on location, or they are made in a shop and transported, pieced together like granite would be, and finished with a stain. The second option allows for more versatility, as manufacturers can then create custom edges.

While concrete is quite durable — it rarely cracks — there is some maintenance required, as it must be sealed.