Family rooms are fine and dandy. And there's nothing wrong with a well-planned master bath or a finished basement. The right dining room can be divine. But if you want to get the pulse of a new-home buyer racing mention this room: the kitchen.
Just ask Sandi Sacco, who is building a five-bedroom, two-story home in Lake Forest, scheduled to be finished in March. Sacco has devoted about one-fourth of her first-floor space to the kitchen, which will be equipped with top-of-the-line appliances from Wolf and Sub-Zero, along with classic white cabinetry.
Sacco, who works full time, likes to bake, but is no gourmet cook. Still, having a well-equipped kitchen was priority No. 1 for her family.
"It just seems like you spend a lot of time in the kitchen," she said, adding that her entertaining style is an hors de oeuvres buffet on the kitchen island or a turkey chili supper served up right from the stove. "I'm a casual person, so the kitchen is my spot — not the living room or dining room."
Heart of the home
Homeowners with vintage kitchens tear down walls, reconstruct cabinets and finagle space from other rooms to hammer out a more modern place to cook and entertain. But those lucky enough to build a home from scratch can design a kitchen that reflects the new standards for this central hub, a space designers are prone to calling the heart of the home.
Sacco is typical of today's homeowner, said Mick De Guilio, principal of De Guilio Kitchen Design, with locations in Chicago and Wilmette. "The kitchen is the central living space of the house," De Guilio said. "Behind it are the living, dining and family rooms."
And, as the undisputed king, the kitchen gets "the best location, best views, most space and the greatest amount of natural light," he said. His clients request kitchens where they can create and eat meals, but more importantly, where they can spend quality time or just hang out. De Guilio's own roomy kitchen features a loveseat, four easy chairs and a fireplace.
So what do new-home buyers request in their gourmet kitchens? High-end cooktops provide thermal power to sear meat and create flavorful sauces. Bakers pine after convection ovens and marble countertops for rolling out dough.
Buyers who can afford it say custom or semi-custom cabinetry is more durable than standard cabinets, resists cooking grease and residue from sticky hands, and provides a unique look. Islands continue to be popular for laying out a buffet, prepping food or keeping an eye on children as they complete homework or help with dinner.
"When I start working with people to plan their kitchen, that's when they get the most excited," said Nicole Weiland, design manager at Casa by Charleston, a design/build firm in Naperville. Her clients request luxury brands such as Viking, Wolf and Sub-Zero. Weiland said new-home buyers can easily spend $20,000 to buy a top-of-the-line range, microwave, hood, refrigerator and dishwasher.
Many of her clients consider it an investment because they feel the appliances deliver superior results and may even last longer, she said.
Kitchen designer Jennifer Rahaley's clients at DDK Kitchen Design Group, which has locations in Glenview and Wilmette, choose custom or semi-custom cabinetry. If they can't afford to buy all top-of-the-line appliances, they typically prioritize one, either the refrigerator or cooktop.
When it comes to countertops, "granite and marble aren't going anywhere," Rahaley said. But quartz, a manmade product composed of natural quartz crystals, is gaining fans, too, and is often less expensive than granite, she said.
Natural materials are also popular with clients of Levy Custom Homes in River Forest, said owner Jane Levy. White oak and stone are sought after for kitchen floors. Marble, granite and slate are the most popular countertop materials, Levy said.
While granite, stainless steel and marble evoke luxury, the phrase "gourmet kitchen" can mean different things to different buyers. For first-time buyers shopping for a town home "it can be as simple as making sure you have a nice island and stainless-steel appliances," said Cheryl Bonk, vice president of sales and marketing for M/I Homes. Roll-out drawers in cabinets and the right lighting to read favorite recipes are nice additions, too, she said.
One of the floor plans in M/I Homes' Uptown series offers a 9-by-12 breakfast room and 11-by-14 main kitchen work area in a 1,550-square-foot town home. Buyers can add an optional island and "text center," a space for working on a computer or paying bills. The design even includes a wall where many buyers place a flat-screen TV, Bonk said.
"You can seat people at the island, a kitchen table and even at the text center," she said. "We are able to give people their definition of a gourmet kitchen at the price point they are at."
A $9,400 upgrade offered at William Ryan Homes' developments includes "castled" cabinets of varying heights, crown molding, a 36-inch cooktop with five burners, double oven and microwave, said vice president Deborah Beaver. A $5,400 kitchen upgrade offers many of the same amenities, but has a 30-inch cooktop with four burners. More than 90 percent of buyers at its developments in Lindenhurst, Gurnee, Lake Villa, Elgin and Libertyville select a kitchen upgrade, Beaver said.
Islands continue to be popular, with about half of William Ryan Homes' buyers choosing one. And once-luxurious items such as granite countertops and hardwood flooring are now standard in most of its communities, she said.
"People are buying homes to live in forever," Beaver said. "And the kitchen is where most people spend their time so they want to make sure it has character."
Not just for show
But kitchen choices are more than cosmetic. Levy said luxury features such as expensive cooktops and gadgets aren't just for show, though she often encounters the perception that her well-off clients seldom use their fancy kitchens.
"There's a perception that (buyers) never cook," Levy said, "but I would say that 99 percent of them use the space to cook or entertain."
It's a trend that Andy Poticha, principal of Design Construction Concepts in Northbrook, has noticed, too. "I'm seeing more people actually using their kitchens (for gourmet cooking)," Poticha said. "It's different than five years ago when people just wanted stainless steel for the look."
Now clients are requesting cooktops with griddles, "and it's not just for pancakes," he said. "They are actually sauteing and stir-frying."
And while cooktops, ovens and refrigerators are being super-sized, the microwave is experiencing a downsizing, he said. His clients use them mostly for reheating food, because they like to cook from scratch when they have time, a trend Poticha attributes to the popularity of TV cooking shows and today's foodie culture.