When you're looking at kitchens in model houses it's easy to be seduced by a look--beautiful cabinets, gorgeous floor tiles, eye-catching granite. It's a lot harder to pay attention to the practical details.
Function will matter much more than looks. If the kitchen in your new house isn't well planned and there's not enough counter space or cabinets, you will hate it every day you live there.
The first step in getting the right kitchen is to make a detailed evaluation of the kitchen you use now. The more you can articulate what you like and hate about it, the more you will know what to include or omit in your new one.
For example, do you have enough counter space? Is your food preparation area by the sink too small? Are you constantly crisscrossing your kitchen while preparing a meal or loading and unloading your dishwasher? Have you outgrown your kitchen's storage capacity? Be honest in your assessment.
With list in hand, make the same practical evaluations of the kitchens in model houses. When you focus on function, you'll find the kitchens have pluses and minuses, just like yours. Because most builders are unwilling to modify a kitchen for a particular buyer, you'll have to decide which minuses you can live with.
The first thing to check is the counter surface area. Is the food-preparation space adequate? If more than one person will be cooking at the same time, is there enough room for two to work together comfortably? Is there room on the counter for a dish rack?
The best way to answer these questions is to act out how you will use the space. If you and your spouse pretend to prepare a meal and find that you keep bumping into each other, the kitchen is clearly too small.
As you field-test the kitchen, make sure your imagined meal preparation includes all the appliances. A kitchen that is awkwardly arranged can be just as irritating as one that's too small. The stove, sink, refrigerator and adjacent work areas should be in reasonable proximity to one another so you don't crisscross the room to get a meal together.
A wall oven can be off to one side because you won't spend much time at it, but a microwave should be convenient to the work area because the cook may be heating, defrosting or using it for preparing the meal. The dishwasher should be close to the cabinet where dishes and glasses are kept, which should be close to the daily eating area. The refrigerator should be close to the food-prep area and the cabinet where dishes and glasses are kept. Because of its size, the refrigerator is frequently put in a far corner, which can cause unnecessary trips across the kitchen.
Storage needs vary with lifestyle, but this will be another sore point if there isn't enough storage space. From the study of your current kitchen you should have an idea of how much space you need. If the base cabinet storage in the model kitchen appears to be inadequate, can you hang some pots and pans on the wall? If there isn't enough wall cabinet storage, can you keep dishes in the dining room?
Adequate food storage depends on your shopping and eating habits. Do you go food shopping once a week or every few days? Are your food preferences simple or do you prepare meals with many pantry ingredients? If the kitchen has a pantry closet, the shelves must be at least 12 inches deep and 12 inches high to accommodate cereal boxes, but a 24-inch depth will be more useful.
Kitchen lighting is often overlooked because most buyers visit the model during broad daylight, when windows can flood the room with light. At night, however, you still need to see what you're doing. Even if there is adequate general lighting, the counter areas can be dark and hard to work in. Under-cabinet lighting will eliminate this problem. If the builder doesn't install these (and very few do), ask if he will install the wiring so you can add the lights yourself after you move in. A "slim line" type of fixture that fits under the cabinet box is more expensive but it might make the added cost worth it.
There are many types of counter arrangements, but most kitchen designers consider the galley-type to be the most efficient. With a single aisle and counters to either side, you only have to turn around to go from sink to range.
In small houses, the galley kitchen has given way to the L-shaped counter. In this configuration, the appliance arrangement may be satisfactory. But make sure that the counter area is adequate for food preparation. Packing a sink, dishwasher, stove and refrigerator into one L-shaped counter may compromise cabinet storage.
In larger houses, kitchens frequently have island counters. For an island to add function as well as style, it should be no more than 42 inches from the main counters. If the island is too far away it becomes awkward to reach, especially if the island has a cook top. Buyers who want an island cook top should make sure that the island is at least 60 inches long. With this length, you can get a 15-inch counter on each side of a standard 30-inch range and have space for pot handles to overhang as well as a place to put bowls and utensils.
Of course practicality is not the only thing you will care about in your new kitchen. Once you get the basics down, you can obsess about colors, cabinet styles, counter-top materials and flooring.
Katherine Salant is a syndicated columnist who writes about newly built homes. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.