Norma Molina Lopez

Sure, upgrades cost money—and if you’re not thinking about how to incorporate them, you risk losing the attention of an increasingly discerning buyer. “Builders tend to see it in terms of the bottom line,” says Nick Lehnert, who spent decades as a builder and runs KTGY’s R+D Studio and Idea Lab in Irvine, Calif. Yet “buyers look for special touches that personalize the house, and they’ll pay for them,” he adds.  Custom touches don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. “We’ve figured out a kitchen that looks like a $30,000 Italian job for $8,000,” says John Torti, principal of Torti Gallas and Partners in Silver Spring, Md. (One of his secrets is a Swedish big-box store you’re well aware of, and when he took his first client there, the developer’s reaction was unfit for print in a business magazine.) In open layouts, says Torti, “the kitchen has to be first-class. It becomes furniture, not just a place to fry an egg.” He notes that builders are starting to realize the importance of spending money on design expertise, but “there certainly isn’t much budget to go around.” Designers, he says, need to recognize that it’s on them to know how to make great design cost-effective. 

“It comes down to first understanding what it would look like if it were high-end,” says builder Tony Crasi, owner of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio–based The Crasi Co., who says that the makings for off-the-shelf upgrades are better than ever before. Use stock cabinetry in varied heights and add crown molding, corbels, or light rails. Install vinyl flooring that resembles cast concrete. Change the finish on a kitchen island—instead of standard-issue oak, try distressed paint. Upgrade the hardware, or add bun feet. Use laminate countertops with a bullnose finish, which offer the rolled-edge look of granite at a fraction of the cost, says Crasi, as he rattles off the wealth of options on the market. “It’s an ideal time to be doing this, because the manufacturers have figured it out.” 

Click through the pages of this story for design tips and tricks that offer the look of luxury for less.