Custom Kitchen

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Selling an Uber-Personalized Kitchen

Almost every homeowner wants to put their mark on their house, especially in the kitchen. But design taste is far from universal, so when it’s time to sell agents should consider creative marketing techniques for this very personal challenge.

June 6, 2018

An updated, stylish kitchen is said to improve a home’s value and its odds for quick resale. At the same time, it’s helpful if a listing is something of a blank slate. “It’s critical that a prospective buyer see themselves in the space—or at least be able to see the possibility of that,” says John Nations, construction manager for New Pointe Communities, a custom residential developer in San Diego.

But design trends change regularly, making what’s considered fashionable today possibly passé tomorrow. Some of us can remember when backsplashes were routinely decorated with tiles depicting fruit-filled cornucopias, but few buyers can see themselves prepping dinners or entertaining within such a space today. Same goes for dark wood kitchens with beams dangling with rustic baskets: Once cozy and romantic, they’re now looked upon as outdated and claustrophobic.

Until recently, design shows and magazines have suggested using vibrant colors, graphic patterns, and layers of texture solely in home accessories and other areas than can be easily and affordably changed. But now the more permanent, pricier parts of a kitchen are going bold and idiosyncratic. Appliance fronts and entire ranges sport red, blue, and yellow hues rather than neutral stainless steel, white, or black. Big Chill Appliances in Boulder, Colo., says its most popular custom colors are beach blue, cherry red, and buttercup yellow. Backsplashes display graphic patterns in large, colorful tiles instead of spa-calming solid white, gray, and pale blue in diminutive subway tiles. And even countertops are getting in on the act with swirling, exotic designs from Formica and other manufacturers.

The trends being seen in cabinetry—often the most visible and costly part of a kitchen remodel—include deep blues, greens, and even red paint choices, a stark contrast to the former safer bets of white or pale wood. Textured, highly decorative wallpaper has returned too, after years of being banished. And everywhere, black—or navy—is the new gray, according to Chicago designer Rebecca Pogonitz, owner of GoGo Design Group.

Why such a dramatic change? Experts cite many reasons. Some think sellers came to terms with the difficulty of appealing to the next buyer since nobody can predict who that will be or what design trends may be hot when it’s time to sell. Others suspect boredom as the culprit. Pogonitz’s clients often tell her: “I don’t want a white kitchen anymore. I need something more energetic and happier,” she says. Among those balking the loudest are millennials who are eager to add their own imprint, says Jill Biggs, whose eponymous team is part of a Coldwell Banker brokerage in Hoboken, N.J. In the affluent, traditional suburb of Short Hills, N.J., Coldwell Banker real estate salesperson Stephanie Mallios says the fact that many of her clients are planning on staying put for awhile makes them more willing to take a chance on a style they love. “Those with means believe they can afford to buy what they’ll enjoy since they’re not moving soon,” she says. Pogonitz thinks yet another reason may be the country’s on-edge mood: “When it sometimes feels like the world is coming to an end, I think more are looking to their home as a place to escape, experience joy, and wrap themselves in a big hug.”

So what are the best ways to market the increasing number of uber-personalized kitchens when they’re ready to list? Here are a few ideas.

Know your market’s tastes. Understand what appeals to buyers by learning which kitchen features have helped area listings sell. And if they’re present in your listing, make sure you play them up in marketing and photographs. “You’re helping to sell a lifestyle,” says Nashville-based stager and designer Kristie Barnett. Differences exist, between cities and even within them. Chicago designer Alisa Bloom, who used to flip houses, says that while the stainless steel and brass range she purchased for her home might scare off some heartland buyers, it could be a major selling point in New York or Paris. Yet for Pogonitz’s on-trend Chicago clients, wild backsplashes have become a status symbol. In hipster-centric Hoboken and Brooklyn, a large cohort were drawn to the bright green kitchen countertops in a recent Jill Biggs Group listing. In New York, there’s wide variation. What appeals about a downtown Manhattan loft, such as its openness and industrial vibe from edgy, rough materials, may be very different from what’s considered chic in a proper, polished, and conservatively furnished uptown Park Avenue apartment, says broker Ian Katz, founder of the Ian K. Katz Group in New York.

Highlighting quality always helps. A design done well—whether it’s a fresh aesthetic, harmonious colors, layout with good circulation, or perfect installation—is likely to impress, even if it’s not in the buyer’s taste. “If you do anything really well and make consistent choices throughout a home, you can usually get away with them and appeal to a wide circle,” says New York-based designer Carolyn DiCarlo. Pogonitz agrees, noting a common reaction to the excellent execution of a wild design is “I can live with this for a while.” In one kitchen she updated eight years ago, Cheryl Kees Clendenon, owner of In Detail in Pensacola, Fla., made novel but quality choices not widely used then (though increasingly common now). “I painted upper and lower cabinets different shades and installed a glass countertop on an island. Some real estate salespeople seemed nervous, but the savvy listing agent played up that it was a custom design. It sold right away,” she says.

Point out top brands. It pays to learn what’s considered the industry’s crème de la crème by studying websites, reading design magazines, and visiting top kitchen showrooms. “Then, drop names in marketing materials and with buyers,” says Mallios. A few products that regularly rate five-star cachet for bold creativity or artisanal craftsmanship include Bertozzi and Smeg ranges, Waterworks and Ann Sachs tiles, Flavor Paper wallpaper, Farrow & Ball and Benjamin Moore paint palettes, and Elegance in Hardware pulls and knobs. “Even if some buyers don’t recognize the name, citing them gives the impression, ‘Oh, this must be special. I should Google and check it out,’” Barnett says.

Double down on the bold. Designers and stagers have a grab bag of tricks to tone down bold choices and attract a wider buyer pool tailored for specific situations and features. But here’s one you might not have considered: Instead of trying to make a colorful range disappear, Pogonitz repeats its hue on walls or in artwork. “Any color becomes a neutral when used elsewhere in a room rather than remaining the focal point that pops,” she says. If the boldness is in a floor pattern, she takes one of its colors and repeats it in a solid on walls or counters for a unifying effect.

Zoom in on what’s extra-special. Good photography always helps a listing shine, but uber-personalized choices call for more than overall room shots, Katz says. He advises making certain features look aspirational—like they’re part of a curated Instagram feed. Pogonitz also sees social media as an inspiration for listing materials. “This is how millennials communicate, build interest, and gain followers,” she says, recommending agents use close-ups and short videos to relay a story about features that showcase personal style. However, if there’s anything in the room that may not appeal, Kim Cantine with Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty in Rhinebeck, N.Y., suggests not highlighting it. “Buyers will see it in person, but you don’t have to play it up,” she says.

Develop a concept board. You can help your sellers widen the pool of buyers by making it easier for possible future owners to see past an orange range, blue refrigerator, or countertop with exotic swirls. If they really don’t want to change a thing, suggest to your sellers that they hire a designer to develop a concept board with samples of more tame choices and a rendering of new design options. “That way you take away the unknown, which to some can be overwhelming” for buyers, says Jennifer Ames, a real-estate salesperson with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Chicago. “The boards become a road map and you could help more by asking a contractor to estimate replacement costs.” How much might a board cost? Pogonitz hasn’t yet designed one, but she estimates she’d charge $350 to pull together two with different options. The price may vary by region, but the bottom line is that it’s not that expensive to present a clearer vision of what’s possible.

Decide to switch out or credit. Sellers—understandably—want to limit the amount of money they spend on toning down an ultra-personalized kitchen before selling. There are some affordable options for expanding the buyer pool, though of course, this is highly subjective based on the client’s budget and home’s listing price. Big Chill Appliances, which is becoming well known for its 200 color options, charges $525 for a new panel on its $1,995 dishwashers. Homeowners looking to make a splash but also resell in the near future might want to consider appliances that offer this kind of flexibility. New countertops and backsplashes can be pricier—sometimes several thousand dollars, depending on the material and installation charges. Repainting cabinet fronts runs a wide range, depending on what the color was and will be, the finish selected, number of cabinets, and who does the work. Contractors at George Apap Painting Inc. quoted $5,000 to remove fronts and spray paint them in its factory for a small kitchen in upstate New York. Sellers willing to repaint themselves can save a lot on materials and achieve great results if they take the time to prime and paint properly. Switches like simpler hardware or faucets may be easier and less costly—a few hundred dollars, says Peter Albanese, vice president of Bellari Design in Branchburg, N.J. Designer Erica Islas of EMI Interior Design in Los Angeles suggests offering a credit to buyers in the negotiation process, so they can make their own choices. “Interior design shouldn’t be a quick fix to sell, but a very personal, thought-out process,” she says. Biggs agrees. “The seller will never get their money back on most big changes. The truth is the next person probably will renovate and blow off the back of the house anyway,” she says.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).

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