A great kitchen has many important elements, including cool appliances, hardworking countertops, and an attractive yet durable floor to withstand abuse. But don't kid yourself: All of these things come second to the element that really anchors the kitchen—the cabinets.

It's the thing consumers care most about, says Jim Potthast, marketing services manager for Adrian, Mich.–based cabinet manufacturer Merillat Industries. “When observed in a research study conducted by Merillat, ‘Model Behavior: How People Act, Think and Shop a Model Home (2004),' cabinetry was the No. 1 feature that defines a quality kitchen,” he says.

Few people would argue with that. No matter what kind of high-end appliances and countertops you put in a kitchen, if the cabinets aren't right the space will look incomplete. “The kitchen and master bath are generally the No. 1 purchasing decision,” says Angela O'Neill, director of marketing for Wellborn Cabinets in Ashland, Ala. “Cabinets are the blueprint of the kitchen and even [the] home. They can set the style of the entire home.”

TREND WATCH Given the importance of cabinets, it is important that you select products that are likely to catch your buyers' attention. This is relatively hard to do because people have different tastes. But several emerging trends have been particularly strong with buyers.

“Clean and simple lines are the new look,” says Connie Edwards, a certified kitchen designer and director of design for Timberlake Cabinetry in Winchester, Va. “Contemporary looks in hardware, light fixtures, and cabinet layouts are hot in remodeling and are now piquing the interest of more builders.”

O'Neill agrees that “clean doors” and “warm, contemporary” looks are in, but she says there is more to the look. “Stacked wall cabinets rather than staggered heights are seen as part of this movement to a cleaner, simpler aesthetic,” she explains.

Oak, with its noticeable grain pattern, was once the dominant species in cabinets, but it has been replaced by maple's more uniform look. “While maple remains the preferred wood species, there is also a growing interest in cherry wood, as well,” Edwards says. Mixing materials in the kitchen is a popular trend, so it's not unusual to see wall cabinets in one style and island cabinets in another. “This creates an eclectic look and can be more memorable for the buyer touring a variety of model homes,” Edwards believes.

For Merillat's part, medium-tone cabinetry was the most popular choice among the consumers in its 2004 research. “However, darker tones are continuing to increase in popularity,” says Paul Radoy, the company's design services manager.

But a great kitchen is not only about the style of the cabinets or the species of wood they are made from; it is also about functionality. The kitchen is now the hub of activities such as paying bills or doing homework, so consumers will need cabinetry tailored to those activities. And as they collect more stuff, buyers will need an efficient way to conceal them. “Interior storage features are also important—especially for the active adult segment,” O'Neill explains. “The 55-plus age bracket places value on the convenience these storage features add to the home and homeowners' lifestyles.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Winchester, VA.