Kitchen confidential

The Baltimore Sun

Kathy Delauney's kitchen has granite counters, to-the-ceiling cabinets, stainless-steel appliances and recessed lighting. But none of those features is what makes it a great kitchen.

The best part? It can handle a crowd.

"It's built for entertaining," says Delauney, who bought the half-gutted two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath rowhouse in Federal Hill last year and renovated it. "It's not crowded. You don't feel like you have to shoo anyone out."

The space was moved from the back to the middle of the first floor and opens to the living room. One of the counters juts out into a peninsula with stools on one side and pendant-style lights above. From the kitchen, you can see the TV in the living room and the front door.

"You can be part of everything," says Delauney.

That quality is one of the most important things about a kitchen, designers and real estate agents say. Even if you just use the cabinets to store sweaters, the kitchen is probably going to be the place where people congregate during parties.

"The general rule of thumb is everybody ends up in the kitchen," says Jen Gately, a designer at Canton Kitchens.

If you've just spent your final Thanksgiving in a cramped kitchen, real estate agents and designers recommend that you carefully consider the layout of the kitchen when buying a new home or remodeling the one you have. An ideal kitchen gathering space includes both room for the cook and guests. It should be open to allow the cook to talk with guests or relatives and feel a part of the party or family activity, but also have enough separate space that guests aren't interfering with the cooking preparation.

"You can have a gorgeous kitchen that's an absolute nightmare to cook in," says Warren Frederick, a senior designer at Columbia Kitchens of Maryland.

The design should take into account the way your family wants to use the space, such as whether the kids will do their homework there or whether a spouse needs space for a laptop, Frederick and other experts say.

For families who shop at warehouse stores or tend to stock up on staples, pantry space will be a priority. For couples who don't cook much, pantry cabinets will likely be less important, Frederick says.

In general, though, real estate agents, remodelers and designers agree: The more space for hanging out and for storage, the better.

You don't want to be forced to store pots and pans under your bed. And, says Gately, "You don't want to be tripping over each other."

The sink-stove-refrigerator "triangle" is still the basis for many kitchen designs, experts say. But some designers say they plan multiple triangles.

"Because of the way people use the space, it's almost as if there's a cooking triangle, a prep triangle and a clean-up triangle," Gately says.

Brand-new homes and recently remodeled homes are also changing the placement of kitchens to be more centrally located and open. In some models, kitchens face family rooms or informal dining areas or incorporate kitchens into "great room" designs.

"That way you can talk to everyone from the kitchen," says Frederick, who got his start as a designer by rehabbing Canton rowhouses, where he would frequently move the kitchen to the center of the first floor.

Many new and remodeled kitchens in the area are starting to incorporate green - or environmentally sensitive - materials, according to local real estate agents, designers and remodelers.

Green features range from bamboo flooring to nontoxic paint. Other options include energy-efficient appliances, engineered-wood cabinets and recycled glass counters.

Best of all, Gately says, "These things are becoming more affordable." Some energy-efficient appliances may also provide tax credits.

But, says Anita Carrington, president of The Dovian Group, a Laurel-based real estate staging company, "be aware of how the materials are constructed."

If the bamboo flooring has to be replaced in a few years, for example, Carrington says, "it may not be as sustainable as you were hoping."

In general, the quality of the newer materials has improved in recent years. Some of the main cabinet and countertop manufacturers, for example, are offering green lines. Experts say it may make sense to incorporate one or two environmentally sensitive elements, rather than a total "green" overhaul.

If you're selling a house or aren't in a position to begin a major renovation, there are other simple updates you can make.

A portable kitchen island provides storage and additional work space at a fraction of the cost of a custom, built-in island. Just be sure there's enough room for the piece, because crowding furniture into a small kitchen will negate any of the positives, Carrington says.

Replacing an older, laminate countertop with a newer laminate that resembles granite or another stone is another inexpensive project that can have impressive results.

Granite remains a popular choice, but quartz is another beautiful and extremely durable option, Frederick says. (But he warns that hot items placed on quartz counters can cool down quickly. One of his colleagues had to microwave a Thanksgiving dinner because she set hot dishes on her quartz counters.)

"Countertops are the first thing people see when they walk into a kitchen," says Frederick. "Then they look at cabinets and floors."

If you can't replace the entire cabinet, you can shave about 70 percent off the cost by replacing the cabinet doors and hardware, such as knobs and pulls, according to contractors and designers.

A good cleaning and polishing can also make a noticeable difference on cabinets, says Frederick, who has seen Scott's Liquid Gold Wood Cleaner & Preservative "work miracles."

If you do nothing else, painting the kitchen will help freshen the look, says Carrington, who helps owners prepare their houses for sale by arranging or providing furniture and accessories.

Carrington favors a creamy, buttery yellow for the kitchen. "It reflects light, which you want in the kitchen," she says.

In general, if you're selling your house or condo - or plan to in the next few years - you're better off staying neutral with colors and patterns in the kitchen.

"You may love those butterfly tiles," says Mary Lynne Mullican, a real estate agent with Hill & Company Realtors and a former interior decorator, "but chances are a potential buyer won't."

A few simple updates in the kitchen of a Cross Keys condo distinguished it from the others being considered by Noelle DiBiase, an associate creative director at a small advertising firm, who bought the condo in November.

"So many of the others had the original linoleum," says DiBiase, whose new condo has updated appliances, Spanish terra-cotta colored tiles and lighting beneath her cabinets.

The kitchen also has plenty of counter and cabinet space, which was among the main selling points for DiBiase.

"Anytime you have a party or friends over, where does everyone gather?" DiBiase says. "The kitchen."

Laura Barnhardt is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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