Surfing real estate listing photos has become one of America’s most popular pastimes, and odds are no rooms get more hearts and starry-eyed emojis than clean, bright kitchens. Who hasn’t pored over listing photos of waterfall islands, gleaming backsplashes, wine fridges, or other features you hope you might someday have while whipping up a meal for the family?
While it’s fine and fun to dream, I’m here to tell you that many of the features you love in listing photos are a huge pain in real life. I learned this the hard way—in my own kitchen!
The fact is, many kitchen trends that look fantastic in listing photos end up being annoying IRL, so in the interest of providing a reality check, here are a few that should give you pause.
1. Marble countertops
Disclaimer: I have marble in both my kitchen and bath. Yet I can attest that marble works for only two types of people: Type A neat freaks, and lovers of patina. I’m a bit of both, which is a good thing, as marble requires intense maintenance.
For example, acids—which are in everything from tomatoes and lemons to your favorite cleaning products—can eat away at marble’s shine via a process known as etching. Also, grease from cooking can stain marble permanently, unless you apply a baking soda poultice before the stain sets. Sound too onerous? Stick to good ol’ granite countertops instead.
2. Stainless-steel appliances
Homebuyers’ love affair with stainless-steel appliances has since spilled over to countertops, backsplashes, and beyond. And while this material is antibacterial and sanitary, it’s ironically not easy to keep looking clean. As anyone with young kids can attest, there will be a constant battle against fingerprints.
Still, if stainless steel is on your wishlist, you may want to consider some of the newer metals that look like steel but are much easier to keep smudge-free.
3. Open shelves
I once swooned over the idea of open shelves rather than cabinets. But while open shelves are a hot trend in listing photos, living with them was a maintenance nightmare. Our dishes quickly developed a greasy film, and we don’t even fry foods. Once a month, I had to take all our dishes down and give them a long soak in hot vinegar water.
Ensure that there’s enough other storage provided in the kitchen for all your cookware and accessories, especially things you don’t want to display. If there is ample storage and if you like to display your pretty items, by all means go for the open shelves. Just know that your items will need the occasional dusting and washing.
4. Glass-front cabinets
Living with open shelves made me realize that my dinnerware was not so picture-perfect, and glass-front cabinets pose a similar challenge. As a design element, their prettiness is undeniable. But they’re not so pretty when what’s behind the glass is boxes of pasta and beans, soup cans, and jars of marinara.
If you have hand-blown glass or pottery or other decorative items you’d love to display, go for it. Just be sure the kitchen layout also includes plentiful storage to hide your pantry goods, and all those not-so-pretty travel mugs, water bottles, and food containers that most of us use daily.
Watch: Cook Up Something Beautiful With These Eat-in Kitchen Design Tips
5. Butcher block counters
Butcher block counters can easily add character and warmth to a kitchen. However, after having had them in a summer house and after only five years, I can report the wood had developed black moldy streaks on both sides of the sink. On the small island where we chopped food and poured drinks for guests there were endless red rings from wine glasses.
I eventually sanded them down, stained them a dark walnut, and applied a clear polyurethane topcoat—in the hopes of getting another decade or so out of them. But if I had it to do again, I’d have chosen a more durable and care-free material.
6. Shiplap backsplash
We’ve all fallen in love with shiplap—thanks, Chip and Jo! Using original wood planks you salvaged during demolition can be a great way to retain the character of a room. But if you’ve never lived with shiplap, beware: There is some maintenance. The gaps between boards are dust magnets, so you can add vacuuming walls to your spring-cleaning list.
Shiplap can be particularly problematic in a kitchen, depending on how the material is being used. Wood panels aren’t waterproof—and that doesn’t bode well in a backsplash.
7. White tile backsplash
Many homes that are fixed up to sell will feature white tile in kitchens and baths. White, when new, is clean and bright—and that’s attractive to buyers. Who doesn’t want to move into a pristine home? The problem is, white doesn’t wear so well over time. Grout lines behind the stove attract grime and become dingy over time. Sure, there are bleach pens and other cleaning tools you can use to keep after it; just know what you’re getting into.
8. Pendant lamps
Lighting can add that “wow” factor to a kitchen, but keep in mind that it needs to not only look great from afar, but also be functional.
The positioning of pendant lights can be tricky. They need to hang low enough to provide task lighting for food prep. However, hang them too low, and they can overwhelm your kitchen design—or worse, you won’t be able to see around them to chat with your guests.
9. Open layout
Open kitchens that offer sightlines to the living area always seem so spacious, but they’re not always practical. For one, you rarely see a listing photo with dishes, glasses, mugs, books, pens, backpacks, and laptops scattered across a gorgeous waterfall island, but that’s the norm in most family homes. Also left out of photos: cooking smells that permeate the whole house and the nonstop blare from the TV in the adjoining room.
The allure of open floor plans had already begun to wane a few years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated it, and for good reason. It’s just not practical when one big open space is now being shared by Dad making lunch, a toddler glued to the TV, a kiddo with a headset attending remote school, and Mom at the dining table trying to reply to her boss on a conference call.
10. Outdoor kitchen
As listings make clear, more and more “rooms” are being added to our backyards. First it was outdoor tables and chairs, so we could dine alfresco. Next it was outdoor lounge areas and fire pits to retire to after dinner. Now we’re all swooning over listing photos showing full-fledged outdoor kitchens.
Before you succumb to the appeal, give a lot of thought to how you live. An outdoor kitchen may be worth it if you really grill for a crowd often. Still, in the final analysis, how hard is it to carry out a tray from the kitchen? Is shortening that trip really worth the pain of having an extra room to keep stocked and clean?