Shop Smart: Expensive look, feel for kitchen is affordable

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Consumers don't need a bottomless budget to get a kitchen that looks and feels expensive, according to Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports recently rated almost 350 ranges, cooktops, wall ovens and microwaves; almost 200 dishwashers; almost 350 refrigerators; 14 countertop materials; and more than 40 flooring products to make sure every dollar in the average homeowner's $15,000 to $30,000 kitchen renovation budget goes further. Consumer Reports also polled more than 18,000 of its savvy subscribers to see which brands held up over time -- and which didn't.

CR recommends not being lured in by sleekness alone -- and recognizing the spending traps. Those to watch out for include not visiting showrooms or talking with pros before buying, skimping on labor, paying more for little-used features and choosing fragile -- and pricey -- stone countertops.

CR offers tips and advice from industry experts on how to navigate the kitchen renovation process:

Cooking appliances

CR's latest tests served up a smorgasbord of choices that outperform models from Viking, Wolf and other big names for hundreds or even thousands of dollars less. GE's JB650DTWW, a CR Best Buy at $850, blends superb heating and simmering with a large oven and a cooktop warming zone that keeps the veggies warm while the main course cooks. CR finds KitchenAid electric and gas ranges have been repair-prone, as have Jenn-Air's electric ranges, wall ovens and cooktops.

Refrigerators

High-end features, such as temperature-controlled drawers, adjustable shelves, split shelves and internal water dispensers are increasingly available on even the most affordable refrigerators. Two tested French-door refrigerators that earned CR's Best Buy rating, the Kenmore 71603, $1,600, and the Whirlpool Gold GX5FHDXVY, $1,800, come loaded with features, including pullout shelves and bins, a temperature-controlled meat/deli compartment and touch-pad controls. Among refrigerators, cabinet-depth models offer the streamlined look of built-ins for thousands less.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers built since January must use roughly 9 percent less electricity and 27 percent less water to meet the Federal Environmental Protection Agency voluntary Energy Star standard. The good news for shoppers is that many of the biggest energy misers are also easy on the wallet. Bosch's Ascenta SHX3AR75UC, $800, and Kenmore's 1328, $700, are among the recommended models.

Flooring

CR's tests found a new top pick that blends the toughness of vinyl with the natural look and feel of slate, all for a fraction of the price. Armstrong's Alterna Mesa Stone Canyon Sun, $5.50 per square foot, mimics the real stuff right down to its dappled colors and random textures, yet it delivers the wear and damage resistance that makes vinyl CR's top-rated flooring overall. For those whose hearts are set on the warmth and elegance of wood floors, consider engineered wood flooring, which has a veneer of real wood over a substrate and can be floated over the subfloor, saving on installation costs.

Countertops

CR found huge differences in types of materials, but little variation of those materials among brands. Authenticity is the current catchphrase in countertops, which means natural stone for top-tier designers. To get the look for less, shop around for affordable stone slabs. There are even bigger savings out there with granite, and laminate -- the most affordable countertop option by far -- has come a long way.

Cabinets

If cabinets are too far gone to be refinished, consumers can save 30 percent or more by choosing to replace them with semicustom units. Whether semicustom or stock, the features that held up best in CR's cabinet tests include solid-wood or plywood doors; boxes made of 1/2 - 3/4-inch plywood; solid-wood drawer sides with dovetail joints, full-extension glides and a plywood bottom; and adjustable, 1/4-inch plywood or medium-density fiberboard shelving.

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Visit www.consumerreports.org.


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