Kitchens have long since become the center of gravity for most homeowners. And for most new home buyers, the two ingredients that have the greatest power in pulling the room together, say design center veterans, continue to be cabinets and countertops. Not surprisingly, those two categories also continue to be among the most important to builders in driving upgrade sales.

“We've seen repeatedly that our home buyers want to build their home around their kitchen, and their kitchen around their lifestyle,” says Richmond American's Karen Mackay, regional vice president of Design Centers West, in Denver. “Many of our customers make cabinets and counter-tops their first priority,” she says. In its Denver market, for example, where homes range in price from $150,000 to $600,000, most of Richmond American's buyers upgrade from flat-panel oak cabinets to maple and cherry, and from laminate countertops to tile, solid surfaces, and natural stone.

Cabinetry, in particular, offers builders the ability to respond to buyer demand for style and detailed good looks with a wide range of options where price is a secondary concern. That was confirmed in a soon-to-be released Big Builder survey exploring what drives builders' product purchase decisions. The survey of more than 400 home building executives and purchasing directors ranked design and style as a top concern when specifying cabinetry, followed by price and perceived value to the home buyer.

Builders find that cabinets not only are a critical lure in trading buyers up, but a key contributor to increasing sales and margin dollars.

Going Dark: Builders report buyers favor richer hardwoods such as maple.

Eye Candy In order to lure those increasingly discriminating buyers, builders in hot real-estate markets are specing standard features that have high-end appeal, and some are offering the same a la carte upgrades for buyers across the price spectrum. At Shea Homes in southern California, entry-level homes, which start at $400,000, are outfitted with birch cabinets with a country pine finish and Corian countertops. Jennifer McLaughlin, design center manager, says granite counter-tops account for a huge number of upgrades among first-time buyers. Granite comes standard on some of the builder's $600,000 move-up homes, and buyers can swap other colors at minimal cost.

At Beazer Homes' Orlando division in Altamonte Springs, Fla., buyers of $200,000 homes with Wilsonart countertops can customize a little or a lot, choosing features from simple beveled edges to pricey materials such as DuPont's Zodiac, albeit by special request. “I call it the Burger King approach—have it your way,” says design studio manager Nancy VanBenschoten. That personalized approach works especially well with the plethora of Timberlake cabinetry options the builder offers. Buyers can spend money where it matters to them, choosing, say, a less expensive finish to get accessories such as glass doors or crown moldings. In 2003, 93 percent of the buyers who came through the design center there gussied up their cabinetry in one way or another. And at Shea, which also offers an extensive option program for every buyer, McLaughlin notes that upgrades can add $15,000 to $21,000 to the price of a house.

Cabinetry on Cue What's hot varies by region and price range. On the starter and move-up homes of Holiday Builders, in Melbourne, Fla., 60 percent of buyers in 2003 exchanged the standard mica cabinets for white foil raised panel (first upgrade), flat-panel wood (second upgrade), or raised panel wood (third upgrade). “Historically, white foil has been hot and is selling in most markets, but the trend is definitely toward raised panel maple cabinets with 42-inch uppers when our customers can afford them,” says Binki Kaiser, vice president of sales.

Beazer's Nancy VanBenschoten says white foil cabinets are popular especially among lower-end buyers because they make small homes look bigger and brighter. By contrast, upper-end buyers are looking for distinctive woods and finishes. That's also true of Shea Homes' well-heeled customers, who are dressing up cabinets with distressed Victorian cream finishes and an array of stains varying from light to very dark.

Timberlake Cabinets, of Winchester, Va., has locked step with the mainstream passion for patinas. “Natural maple didn't stick around as long as I expected,” says Connie Edwards, director of design. “We're selling a lot of spice maple, which is darker, richer, and warmer.” Matt Alexander, a channel marketing manager for Timber-lake, agrees. “Builders are interested in glazed finishes as an upgrade,” he says. “The darker finish meets the expectations of owners for an attractive, enviable kitchen. There's a trend toward wanting kitchens to look evolved rather than cookie-cut; pristine and new, but comfortable.”

Wood doors, dovetail joints, and concealed hinges represent high-quality crafts-manship—and with it, durability—to consumers. Those items, along with cherry wood and full overlay doors, are strong sellers for the western builder clients of Well-born Cabinets, of Ashland, Ala.—homes selling for $350,000 to $900,000. “Cherry is coming back, and we'll soon be offering knotty alder, knotty maple, and knotty cherry,” says P.J. Scharer, a Wellborn sales representative for five western states. Buyers are also customizing their kitchens with stacked moldings, he says, which can add 10 percent to 15 percent to the cost.

Detailed Finish: Knotty cherry, alder, and maple woods with stacked moldings are moving in builders' higher-end homes.

Counter Couture While buyers everywhere covet granite—builders say it's the countertop upgrade of choice—other products are giving granite a run for its money. At this year's International Builders' Show in Las Vegas, DuPont rolled out 17 Corian colors in its builder series. Also new is the Private Collection, featuring colors and patterns that “celebrate the unpredictability of nature,” and Corian Bas Relief, textured tiles for vertical applications. Zodiac, which is 97 percent quartz, is picking up in popularity, says Valerie Aunet, DuPont's marketing manager for builders. Starting this year, Beazer expects to sell more Zodiac countertops, which cost about 25 percent more than granite, to buyers of homes $300,000 or more. In February, the builder began showing it in a model home in Florida for the first time.

LG HI-MACS, of Peoria, Ariz., is focused on the vast middle market. With 52 standard colors available in both 1/2-inch and 1/4-inch thicknesses, for use as a back-splash, the manufacturer hopes to convince moderate-income buyers to trade up from laminate to solid-surfacing. “We have a price point now that we think will pull up a lot of the market share enjoyed by plastic laminate,” says president Jerry Dailey.

Design-center displays are evolving along with the products. Both Richmond American Homes and Holiday Homes have recently put together countertop and cabinetry color packages to expedite decision making. And Beazer Homes recently remodeled its cabinetry display to feature smaller door samples that can easily be carried around. They're improvements designed not only to show off the workmanlike qualities of the products, but also to emphasize kitchens as the domestic centerpieces they've become.

Boxes & Tops At two Beazer Homes' communities in the Orlando, Fla., area, home prices range from about $200,000 to $500,000. Wilsonart countertops and Timberlake flat-panel oak cabinets come standard on houses at the lower end of that price range. The upper end gets white Corian countertops and flat-panel oak cabinets with some routing on the face. Design center manager Nancy VanBenschoten notes that an average upgrade on cabinets starts at about $750 and can go as high as $5,600 when the cabinets are upgraded throughout the home. Some of Beazer's upgrades include:


  • White thermo foil cabinets with a choice of one-year and five-year warranties;
  • Maple cabinets with a choice of Natural or Spice stain;
  • Cherry cabinets with a choice of Spice or Bordeaux stain.
  • Countertops:

  • Beveled edges on laminate;
  • Corian—50 color options;
  • Granite—10 color options;
  • Zodiac—30 color options.
  • Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.