Kitchens are now by far the most expensive room in the home, worth an average of £4,000, according to a new report from home insurer Liverpool Victoria. In fact, the average spend on a kitchen – now the central space in modern homes – has increased by 45 per cent alone since 2005. But while the general rule is to never buy a kitchen on the spot from a company that visits your home, there are plenty of other ways to ease the selection process.
Cabinets are the workhorse of your kitchen, so always push your budget as far as possible, advises Berkshire-based kitchen designer Barry Open, whose list of "highly recommended" includes a tall pull-out larder unit and corner unit.
Aim for soft closing hinges, rigidly manufactured units and robust steel drawer runners, especially for larger drawers. Avoid anything with lots of moving parts (more to go wrong) and when it comes to storage, don't forget your recipe books, tea towels, refuse and recycling. Open recommends Franke for sorter bins.
Think practically as well as aesthetically when it comes to the finish (highly polished dark colours show fingerprints easily, for example) and despite purple being this season's hottest kitchen colour, remember neutrals stand the test of time more than bold colours which, incidentally, rarely work in small kitchens.
You can always apply brighter colours to the walls or splash-backs (glass is effective). Other alternatives for colour enthusiasts include a few braver-toned cabinets in larger kitchens or even buying cabinets that are painted on-site. "It means you can get a very individual look that can be changed later," says Open.
Don't neglect handles – they can make or break a kitchen. Hettich and Hefale have a good selection with timeless clean lines and if you're feeling flush, Valli & Valli have handles to die for. Small handles generally don't work, but chrome is effective and never dates. Or you could go handle-less.
Avoid wood near sinks or you'll become a slave to re-oiling, and be warned, glass worktops quickly look tired and scratched. Consider ALNO's twin-edged worktops that look like glass, but are laminate. In fact, consider laminates anyway. Formica and Duropal have reinvented them with some great look-alike exotic woods and metals at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. The only downside is resistance to heat.
"If you're on a budget, it's far better to buy quality units with laminate worktops than cheap units and put granite or other expensive worktops in. With the latter, the worktops will last and the units will look jaded very quickly whereas quality units and worktops will look as good as new for years," says Manchester-based kitchen designer Diane Berry.
Corian is good for the seamless look. Designers say there's nothing they can't do with it – sinks of the same material, coved upstands and so on. Granite remains the top worktop choice. Get yourself down to the importers, though, as there are so many more materials at similar prices to the ubiquitous black. Take a look at Quartz, such as Compaq or Zodiaq, as alternatives that don't stain and are antibacterial.
"For sinks, stainless steel is best," believes Open. "See Franke and Blanco for a good range of both main sinks and smaller ones for food preparation. If you want a less utilitarian look, Jacob Delfon do some great matt black and high-gloss ceramic sinks. Meanwhile, for the Belfast country look, the Shaws Ribchester is best."
For taps, the tri-flow system provides filtered water. "Perin & Rowe are the best priced with ceramic cartridges," says Open. He recommends Quooker for taps that give you boiling water, ZIP taps if money is no object.
For cheaper ways to get the wow factor, mix and match your worktops – for example, quartz and stainless steel – or vary the depth of work surfaces.
"Daring colours are now more fashionable than ever with sleek surfaces and streamline designs," says Rona Witczak, appliance specialist at Appliances Online. "Don't hide them away – make them the focal point of your kitchen, opting for super-modern or retro style."
Wine coolers have come down in price hugely and there are many sizes available. Built-in coffee machines are another great touch, although get a descaling system and a cold water connection so you don't have to flap about filling the water jug. American fridge/freezers are still in. Whatever size fridge you want, opt for a frost-free model that's A+ energy rated. The new Neff CoolDeluxe range even has VitaFresh drawers that can extend the life of food by three times.
With dishwashers, look out for super-efficient models with no-noise levels and if you have a big family, consider extra-large capacity. If you need to have your washing and drying machines in your kitchen look into low-noise programmes. "Remember that built-in appliances create the illusion of more space in a small kitchen, whereas if you have space in abundance a freestanding appliance can make a real impact," points out Ian Johnstone, senior design manager for New World Appliances.
Check out customer reviews and reports by Which? Prices vary enormously, as do delivery costs. For a small fee, some companies such as Appliances Online install, test and recycle your old appliance.
"Virtually every customer wants a gas hob – instant and easily regulated heat," says Paul Giles, owner of In-toto Kitchens, Portsmouth. "But induction hobs have changed this and the moment people discover the technology, they change their mind. The temperature control is as responsive as gas but far more energy efficient and easier to clean. It's safer too as no heat is generated by the appliance itself."
With both hobs and ovens, think about size, says George Bond, National Director for the Society of British Interior Designers. "If you only bake the odd jacket potato, do you really need that Aga or five-burner range?" Companies ranging from Smeg to Neff now do stylish slimline hobs, he says, including a wok burner and teppanyaki plate.
Steam cooking is the latest innovation. Miele's new multifunction steam oven offers fan heat in conjunction with steam. You can cook vegetables, meat, fish and poultry, as well as defrost and reheat food. The downside is the price – £2,200.
You first priority should be "the working triangle". This kitchen lingo exists for a reason – if you space your fridge, cooker and sink too far apart, you'll clock up miles; conversely, if they're too close, you'll feel cramped. No obstructions – islands, breakfast bar, peninsula etc – should block the triangle, but that's not to say you shouldn't consider them generally, especially if you lack space for a table or if you want a barrier between the cooking area and the children. But always leave a metre around an island.
Use a kitchen designer but make sure he/she is not just a salesman with a computer program. "You are far more likely to find highly trained and imaginative designers at independent dealers of reputable manufacturers than one of the DIY sheds," says Graeme Wilson, MD of LWK Kitchens, London. "But even so, make sure they earn their fee. Play with different concepts and ensure you see them in 3D. You could also recreate your floor plan in your room so you can walk around it and 'feel' the space."
If you're remodelling from scratch and have a large space, think open plan and multi-purpose – somewhere to eat, work, cook and relax. Kitchen experts John Lewis of Hungerford advise thinking hard about your lifestyle. "The vivacious party animal" needs a U-shaped kitchen with island in the middle and open ended for social gathering, for example. "The Good Life fans" prefers a big L-shaped layout with a range-style cooker, large fridge and freezer and large farmhouse table. "The London weekday bolthole" needs galley-style layout with plenty of wall storage cabinets because most of the below surface cupboards are filled with appliances and gadgets. Meanwhile the "pony club set" loves a free-standing pantry offset to a wrap-around kitchen with peninsula and, of course, an Aga.