5 easy kitchen updates for under $500

Your kitchen may be looking a little shabby. But Consumer Reports offers five ways to spruce up your kitchen.

1. Give Cabinets a Fresh Face

If your cabinets are plumb, square and sturdy, there are two ways to update them for a fraction of what it would cost for replacements: refacing and refinishing. Refacing offers more choices; refinishing requires more work, but costs less.

Refacing involves adding new "skins" to cabinets, and costs $150 to $300 per door opening, including materials and installation. Or refinish your cabinets with a new coat of paint. First, clean them with a degreasing agent, rinse, sand and prime, and then give them a topcoat or two.

2. Add a Bright Spot

Use color to energize your kitchen. A few well-placed accessories, such as boldly hued mixing bowls, flowers or even fruit, can instantly create an eye-catching focal point. An island offers another opportunity to introduce color. Just paint this gathering spot in an attention-grabbing shade. Consumer Reports notes that you'll want a semigloss or high-gloss formula for easier cleanup on this high-use area. And don't forget that light fixtures can add accents of color.

3. Add an Island

A custom-built island adds convenience -- but often at a hefty price. Save by opting for an unfinished or ready-to-assemble prep table and doing part of the work yourself. You'll find a wide variety of doors, drawers and countertops in different configurations. A 36-by-24-inch unfinished island topped with a wooden counter starts around $300 at unfinishedfurnitureexpo.com. For a high-end look, consider an island topped with stainless steel. Or choose one with a granite top.

Before you buy, be sure you have enough room to fit the island comfortably. You want a 36- to 48-inch clearance on each side.

4. Add Splash to the Backsplash

A relatively easy and inexpensive update is to install or replace a tile backsplash. According to George W. Edwards, a certified kitchen and bath remodeler with A&C Kitchens and Baths in Chester, Pennsylvania, the average cost is about $3 to $5 per square foot, though decorative inlays and trims can cost more. Whether you do the job yourself or hire an installer depends on the state of your existing backsplash, and how much time you can commit to the job.

5. Mix Up Materials

For decades, kitchen design favored uniformity -- one cabinet type, one countertop material. But Consumer Reports says that nowadays designers are creating excitement by combining a wide range of materials and finishes. That's good news, because it means you don't have to worry about everything matching perfectly in your makeover.

Choose pricey glass-doored cabinets above, but bargain wood or laminate-front units below. Stick your expensive slab of granite or marble on an island, where everyone will see it, but go with basic laminate around the perimeter. Instead of a built-in island or built-in storage, use freestanding furniture to add prep space and storage.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

5 must-have range features

When shopping for a range, look for range features that save time and make cooking easier. They're especially handy when hosting large gatherings and for marathon baking sessions, says Consumer Reports.

The cooking appliance experts at Consumer Reports put these five range features on their list of favorites.

1. Double ovens. Roast a lemon-garlic turkey in one oven while apple pies bake in the other -- different foods, different temperatures and no crossover of aromas. Or use one oven for daily dinner but both when hosting holidays. Many double-oven ranges pair a smaller top oven with a larger oven below, and some pair two ovens that are the same size.

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2. Induction. Every induction range Consumer Reports has tested delivers fast cooktop heat and superb simmering. The electromagnetic field below the glass cooktop surface quickly generates heat directly to the pan, offering you precise simmering and control. Remove the pot from the element and heating stops, and the surface stays cooler than a radiant electric smoothtop, which should make cleanup easier.

3. Convection. Convection can cut cooking time and result in more uniform heating. Convection also improves browning and crisping, using one or more fans to circulate the oven's hot air. Convection used to be just on higher-priced ranges, but now it comes on ranges that are less than $800.

4. Warming drawer. Timing a meal so that the main course and side dishes come to the table at the same time is tricky. A warming drawer can help. Warm the sweet potato casserole and roasted vegetables in the drawer while the chicken cooks on high heat to give it that crispy, nicely browned finish.

5. High-power burners. Great for bringing a large pot of water to a fast boil -- perfect for pasta or pesto -- and it provides the high heat needed for stir-frying. Every range in Consumer Reports' recent range ratings had at least one high-power burner, including electric coil ranges, and some have two, even three.

What to Consider When Shopping for a Range

-- Type. Freestanding ranges are the most popular and easiest to install. Typically, the oven control panel is on the back panel, above the cooktop surface. Slide-in ranges give a custom built-in look and easily slide in between surrounding cabinets. The oven controls are on the range front and there's no back panel, which showcases your backsplash.

-- Size. Most electric and gas ranges are 30 inches wide, and they are what Consumer Reports buys and tests for home use. Pro-style ranges usually span 36 inches or more. Consumer Reports tests both 30-inch and 36-inch pro-style ranges. They're big on style, but aren't the best performing ranges Consumer Reports has tested. Even regular ranges now have beefy knobs, rugged grates, style and stainless trim for a lot less money.

-- Capacity. A roomy oven comes in handy when baking or entertaining. Consumer Reports measures oven space you can actually use. The smallest ovens in its tests are a little more than 2 cubic feet; the largest are nearly 4 cubic feet.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

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