Cookin' in the Kitchen
Renovations here cost the most, but they can return the most value for your money

(MONEY Magazine) – Maybe it's our primal awareness that sustenance is essential to human survival. Or maybe it's that a gleaming granite countertop surrounded by a neat cuff of maple cabinetry and a few sleek shards of stainless steel is about as sexy as a house can get. Whatever the reason, kitchen renovations supersede all others. The appraisers and realtors we spoke with said a new kitchen adds more value to a home than any other project, and Americans spend more on renovating their kitchens than they do on any other room in the house--an average of $42,660 at last count. You don't have to spend that much (although you could easily drop a lot more, as the owners of this kitchen did). A renovation that includes new countertops, refurbished cabinets, an island, a walk-in pantry and the latest appliances can be done for less than $15,000. Really.

OPEN WIDE To achieve that nucleus-of-the-home feel that's the mark of any great kitchen, the room must be a hub, not an isolated warren that people visit only at feeding time. Consider removing walls between the kitchen and dining room or den and installing French doors to facilitate flow. Or cut a window into the wall to foster interaction between rooms.

TRIANGULATE Every chef knows the secret to a good kitchen is creating a triangle between the key workstations--refrigerator, stove and sink--so you can bounce efficiently from point to point. Ideally, the legs of the triangle shouldn't be longer than nine feet or shorter than four, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

USE YOUR ISLAND Everyone knows islands are practically standard in today's kitchens. But only by adding a cooktop or small sink, barstools for informal dining and shelves and drawers can you make the most of it. Don't have room for a permanent island? Try a mobile wood or metal cart.

COUNT ON COUNTERS It's not exactly news that granite countertops are hot. Their durability and sleek look make them the most popular choice even in modestly priced homes. But there are an increasing number of less costly options that will retain their beauty long after you sell your home: stainless steel, concrete (the polished kind that mimics stone) and what the trade calls solid surface (example: Corian).

LIGHTEN UP Lighting plays a dual role in the kitchen: It should illuminate the carrots you're dicing but it should also set a warm mood for the room. Replace harsh overheads by hanging pendant lights above work areas. Consider under-cabinet lights to brighten countertops.

BUILD A PANTRY It seems kitchens can never be big enough for either homeowners or home buyers, so finding square footage where once there was none is a neat trick. Turn a nearby closet into a walk-in pantry, which home builders say is one of the most highly desired features in kitchens today.