An increasing number of consumers are opting for kitchen upgrades -- whether it's at the time they're buying a new house or down the road, when they replace the original products. And the new appliances, sinks, faucets, and countertops are getting fancier and more functional than ever.

Following suit, the National Kitchen and Bath Association, in its consumer trend research, found that more new homes are coming equipped with appliances.

Indeed, in 2004, 57 percent of all new homes were sold with a refrigerator included, totaling some 1 million. Five years ago just 51 percent of new homes came with a refrigerator. About 35 percent of the units sold in 2004 were side-by-side, which are typically more expensive, and command a larger market share among consumers.

Also, new home builders installed 1.7 million ranges, cooktops, and ovens, while consumers bought about 6 million new ranges. Conventional gas and electric burners maintain the majority market share at 55 percent, but smoothtop burners are on the rise with 43 percent of the total residential market, which is a four percent increase in two years.

When it comes to countertops, about 94 million linear feet of kitchen countertops were installed in homes in 2004 -- 36 million in new homes, and 58 million in kitchen remodels.

Laminate countertops, which dominated with 72 percent of the market in 1997, have lost quite a bit of ground with 53 percent of the market in 2004, as solid surfaces, granite, and engineered stone rise in popularity.

Meanwhile, kitchens.com, a consumer-oriented web site devoted to kitchen products and design, showcases some of this year's most interesting appliance finds, which include:

  • A privacy glass wine center. If you've seen those cool wine coolers but think yours might look a bit empty (or you don't want your guests to see all that wine you have), then this might be for you. Just push a button and the clear glass on your wine center goes opaque, keeping your wine from view.
  • Five-burner ranges in which the middle fifth burner can be just that -- or it can convert into a handy griddle for those weekend pancakes.
  • A new three-rack dishwasher. If you have a large family or entertain frequently, you might be interested in that extra layer of dishwashing space.

"There's still a strong surge of industrial-style stainless steel," said Christy M. Bowen, a designer with The Kitchen Source in Dallas, Texas. "Stainless steel goes with anything and everything, from traditional to modern. The stainless trend will grow even more pronounced before it goes out. If clients don't want stainless steel, then they want to conceal everything."

When it comes to countertops, granite is king.

"Granite is still the most popular option but the latest material that's catching on is engineered quartz," said Helge Seljaas and Ingrid Becker, co-owners of Arendal Kitchen Design in Salt Lake City, Utah. "The new quartz is non-porous, heat- and scratch-resistant, and comes in different colors."

Kitchens.com says other hot countertop trends this year include Silestone's introduction of built-in Microban® Antimicrobial protection for its countertops, "the equivalent of a death certificate for microbes -- the pesky mold, mildew, and bacteria that can settle on your surface. And while the quartz surfacing is already non-porous (making it one of the cleanest countertops around), the newest protection will propel it to 'cleanest' status."

And for those who want the look of natural stone without forking out the big bucks, there is now a range of natural stone and solid surface imitators that combine functionality with affordability.

Other hot products include ways to bring backsplashes to life:

  • Glass tile. Resembling quilted fabric, the fused glass design offers a retro take on the material. There are 36 color combinations available, ranging from sophisticated black and white to vibrant blue and green, and they're available in 1 1/2- and 2-inch squares, as well as a 2 1/2 x 2-inch rectangle.
  • Field Tiles can texturize any boring backsplash; its linen-like ribbing defines the outer surface of each tile with a rugged but natural beauty. Choose from 31 standard colors, or opt for ultra-personalization by commissioning a color all your own.

Other items that new homeowners may be clamoring for this year include:

  • Sinks in hues of light blue, indigo, pink, green, or orange.
  • Designer faucets.
  • Arts and crafts faucets, which feature an arching spout affixed to an octagonal base. Available in chrome, stainless, and oil-rubbed bronze finishes.
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