Every home builder knows that a drop-dead-gorgeous kitchen will sell a house, and the kitchens in model homes always look fabulous. But fabulous-looking kitchens can be impossible to work in.

To avoid such a distressing situation in your new house, spend some time in the kitchens that grab you and study them carefully. Pay particular attention to the sink and appliance locations, the size of the food prep area, the cabinetry and the lighting because these are the things that will make your kitchen a joy or a pain to work in.

A well-designed kitchen can be large or small; the critical element is the layout. The counters, appliances and sink should be arranged so that you can prepare a meal with a minimum of steps, especially when you are carrying anything large and heavy like a water-filled pasta pot.

The most efficient arrangement for the sink and stove, and one preferred by most professional chefs, is a galley with a single aisle. The stove and sink are opposite of each other, so that you merely turn 180 degrees from one to the other.

In most new houses you’ll likely find a modified a galley–an L-shaped counter with an island–or a U-shaped counter. In smaller townhouses, an L-shaped counter with space for a table and chair is common. Whatever configuration you encounter, the organizing principle is the same–you want the sink and stove to be separated by only a few steps.

There is no best spot for the refrigerator; it just needs to be near the stove and sink. If you observe that in this kitchen, you would have to criss-cross the kitchen 10 times from refrigerator to sink or stove and back again every time you fixed a meal, the refrigerator is not optimally located.

When there’s a cooktop and wall oven instead of a range, the oven can be to one side because you won’t spend much time at it. A microwave, however, should be convenient to the food prep area because you may be heating, defrosting, or otherwise using it as you prepare a meal.

How big is the food prep area? It needn’t be huge, especially if you tend to spread out onto whatever counterspace is available as you fix a meal. In your case, a lot of counter area can mean a cleanup that takes forever. But you do need enough room to chop vegetables for a salad or main dish, prepare a dessert that requires several mixing bowls, and stuff that holiday turkey. In larger houses the counterspace is usually more than ample. But it’s often not as generous in townhouses, and in “starter” houses the counters can be miniscule. If you tend to cook two things at once–for example, you’re mixing up a dessert while you’re also preparing the main entree, or more than one person will be working in the kitchen at the same time, you need a longer counter or two separate ones.

The way you clean your dishes and pots and pans will also affect the amount of counter space that you need. If you load most things into your dishwasher but always seem to wash a few things after every meal and air-dry them in a dish rack, you need counter space for the rack as well as for food prep. Otherwise you have to put all the air-dried items and dish rack away before you can start to fix the next dinner.

If you’re not sure the kitchen will work for you, pretend to cook a meal in it, using all the appliances and the sink. You may feel ridiculous as you go through the motions, but you’ll quickly know if this kitchen is the right one for you. If you often cook with your spouse or partner, do the pantomime routine together. If you keep bumping into each other, the kitchen is clearly too small.

The cabinet doors may have grabbed your attention, but selecting a cabinet on this basis is like choosing a book by its cover. Open the cabinets and look at the cabinet boxes behind the doors. Do the base cabinets have two pullout shelves? These make it easier to reach an item at the back because you don’t have to remove everything in front of it first.

Open a drawer to check the drawer box. If it’s made of particleboard, the sides will be covered in a melamine-type paper and the corners will be stapled. If it’s wood, which is more durable, you’ll see dovetailed joints at the corners. With wood, there is a further distinction with the drawer glides, which can be side-mounted or under-mounted. The latter adds about 1 inch to the interior width of the drawers. A further distinction in the under-mounted glides is a soft-action feature. The glide stops about 3 inches from the cabinet front and slowly shuts itself. You can’t slam it shut, and you can’t pinch your finger. Wood drawers were once a rarity in production-built houses, but some of the stock cabinetmakers that are widely used by production builders now offer them.

The wall cabinets are likely to have glass-paned doors. These always look great in the model because they are empty. If your dishes and glasses are not perfectly matched sets, and you tend to put the cups and glasses in the cabinet any old which-way, the effect produced when you put them in these display cases will not be what you expect. Before you sign off on the cabinets, stand back and count them. Unless you’re downsizing, you need at least as many as you have now.

What kind of lighting is provided in the kitchen? Since you are likely to visit the model during the day, you probably won’t even think about the lights. But you’ll certainly be using the kitchen at night, so look carefully and, if necessary, come back after dark to see if the lighting is adequate.

When you look around the kitchen, you should see both ambient and task lighting. The ambient fixtures, which provide general light, will be in the ceiling. The task fixtures, which provide brighter light over a smaller area, should be over the sink, over the stove in the range hood, and, if you’re lucky, under the cabinets to illuminate the food prep areas. Don’t give the task lighting short shrift if you’re an aging boomer–you need three times as much light in the kitchen when you’re 60 as you did when you were 20.

The optional recessed cans in the ceiling (I have never seen a model house that didn’t have these) will give more even and more pleasing lighting than the florescent fixture that is usually standard and comes with the base-priced house.

If the counter and appliance layout, the cabinets and the lighting pass muster, move onto the countertops and the floor. These will certainly enhance the look of your kitchen, but their impact on you ability to fix a meal easily is minimal.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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