Annie and Todd Gaede put their 1970s Montgomery colonial on the market last year. Three months later, without an acceptable offer in hand, the Gaedes joined the legions of people who, in the nation’s sluggish housing market, have decided to stay put and invest in a renovation rather buying a new home.

The Gaedes’ project, undertaken by Cincinnati’s Pinnacle Building Group, included knocking out a wall and creating an open design with a new kitchen and living area. Such a project is all the rage these days, as homeowners look to update closed-in living spaces and create a kitchen that works as the center of activity.

“The kitchen is where we really live,” points out Rich Maile, owner of Maile Build Remodel Design in Northern Kentucky. “It’s not a workspace like it was 40 years ago. It’s where you prepare food, gather to talk, have parties.”

Good thing, then, that remodeling the kitchen is one of the best investments you can make in your home. Maile estimates that homeowners will recoup about 75 percent of what they spend if the house is sold within the first 12 months after the project. “But you’re not leaving 25 percent in there forever,” he adds. The rest of the investment begins to appreciate at the same rate as the house itself.

However, contractors agree that the kitchen is also one of the most complicated places to remodel. The Gaedes’ project, for example, centered on the kitchen but encompassed much of the first floor, and it required taking the ceiling and walls down to the studs.

At one time or another during the process, the project required drywall and flooring contactors, plumbers and electricians. All that, says Jeff Olinger, president of Pinnacle, makes it critical to plan carefully and use quality contractors to do a large remodeling project. The kitchen is such an important center of the home that any setback will impact the family significantly.

Warm Tones Are Hot

The Gaedes’ project went as planned, taking five months to complete. Annie says it was worth the wait. She’d grown tired of the “fake wood” in the exposed beams and the fireplace that looked like it was built in the 1970s (because, of course, it was).

Her new open kitchen features stools around a new island equipped with a sink and dishwasher, dark hardwood floors, granite countertops, chestnut cabinets, a granite backsplash, and a gas cooktop. The wall elements through the first floor include sage green paint, wainscoting and built-in bookshelves.

Such warm finishes are what Steve Barber, owner of Steve Barber Construction in Cincinnati, says are popular in Cincinnati these days. Some of the trendiest Cincinnati homes built in the 1990s are now undergoing remodeling to eliminate the pickled pine finishes that were the rage in kitchens then.

“You’re seeing the maple and cherry, the warm tones,” Olinger says. Corinne Coleman, account manager at Armstrong Cabinets in Cincinnati, is seeing that as well, even in projects that people are doing without contractors or designers. “Right now, and for the last few years, everything is in the warm tones: chestnuts, mochas, espresso. Maple is hot. Honeys and naturals are still out there.”

Floor-to-ceiling cabinetry is trendy, too. “That’s true especially in a small space. That helps with adding depth to the room,” Coleman says.

For countertops, the hot sellers continue to be the “rock tops,” or solid-surface countertops such as granite and quartz. But laminate, which can cost 60 percent less than granite, is gaining in popularity as manufactures increase color choices in their lines.

Budgeting Time and Money

In today’s market, people are mindful about the cost of the project. The rule of thumb is that even a high-end kitchen renovation shouldn’t cost more than 20 percent of your home’s market value. That is, a new kitchen in a $500,000 home shouldn’t cost more than $100,000. Consider that custom cabinetry in many kitchens in upscale neighborhoods can easily cost $50,000.

Anyone considering such a large project should consult experts and come up with a list of priorities, such as a bigger workspace or more light.

You should have also have a budget, and discuss it with the builder right away. It might be that you can’t get everything you want, but good contractors will discuss options. They’ll also recommend ways to stay in the budget by not replacing the items that might still be useful.

But if you want a major remodel on a budget, Olinger typically recommends you focus on one area rather than trying to spread a tight budget across more rooms, such as a kitchen and bathroom and family room.

“What I try to do, even in the upper end, is to say, ‘OK, if your budget is this, let’s focus completely on making your kitchen and hearth room totally updated and brand new.’ Bottom line, let’s focus 100 percent on one or two rooms rather than 75 percent on three or four rooms.”

It can be a problem, he says, when you try to save money by keeping some old elements, such as cabinets or lighting, when you’re updating everything else in a room. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to save money, he adds.

“We can work with almost any budget if we can align the expectations with the budget,” Maile explains. Compromising on what you want for your budget can present problems. “It’s a lot of money to spend if you end up with something you’re not excited about.”

The Gaedes have lived in their home for seven years. In that time, they’ve redone the basement and the home’s outside, and the recent remodeling by Pinnacle completes the process. Today, they have a home they’re comfortable living in for the long haul, Annie says. “Our son is 11, and now we’re going to stay at least until he is out of high school.”