Your Guide to Countertops

Countertops are the focal point of any kitchen and they play a large role in a bathroom’s design. In addition to being stylish and attractive, countertops need to be functional and practical. What works for one person may not work for another. Learn a few of the basics of selecting the right countertops below.

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If you’re considering replacing your kitchen or bathroom’s countertops, the first thing you need to ask yourself when shopping for new countertops is why you need them in the first place. Will they be a part of a complete remodeling project, or are you simply replacing them to give your kitchen a much needed facelift? Are your existing countertops in bad shape? The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how to proceed.

The next thing you need to do is determine your budget. This needs to be decided before you start shopping for countertops in earnest. It will give you parameters to follow, and it will help you avoid wasting a lot of time. If the countertops will be one part of an entire remodeling project, you may have to be as economical as possible.

If you are strictly updating the countertops in your kitchen and nothing else, though, you may be able to splurge a little. If you’re replacing existing countertops, measure them to get the total surface area. Since countertops are typically priced by the square foot, having the measurements handy will help you determine your budget.

Finally, you need to decide what your chief concerns and priorities are. If you do a lot of cooking, you are going to want durable, functional countertops. If you spend very little time in the kitchen, on the other hand, you might be able to get away with countertops that are more decorative than anything. By determining your top priorities, you can rule out certain options and zero in on others.

Marble and Granite Countertops

Granite countertops are popular because of the material's durability and uniqueness, as no two slabs are alike. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Panadda H.)

Marble and granite countertops remain one of the most popular choices for homeowners looking to upgrade the look of their kitchens or bathrooms. Cut from veins of naturally occurring stone, both marble and granite are prized for their solid durability, the unique beauty of their grains and the fact that they add value to a home.

However, there are differences in where marble and granite countertops should be installed. Granite countertops are ideal for kitchens and bathrooms. Heat-resistant and easy to clean, a granite countertop can cost $70 to $150 per square foot. Marble countertops are relatively more porous and soft than granite countertops, meaning it's less resistant to stains and scratches, making marble a better installation choice for areas where the countertop surface isn’t heavily used, such as the bathroom.

Since it's porous, stone countertops require periodic sealing to prevent moisture from entering the stone and causing stains.

When selecting a natural stone countertop for purchase, ask to see the actual stone slab your countertop will be cut from. Sample stones may show the general texture or pattern of a countertop contender, but no two stones or cuts of stone are alike. What seems like a minor imperfection in the grain or a small streak of vein may appear greatly magnified when applied to the entire surface of the countertop. You’ll also want to make sure there’s enough source slab to fulfill your project’s total square footage, including backsplashes. It’s nearly impossible to match two different stones.

When it comes to disadvantages, you should keep in mind that stone countertops cannot be changed once they are installed. Make sure you really like the pattern and color of the stone you choose, because a stone countertop will likely outlast you. Color and pattern aren't uniform, so you have to be willing to accept variations. In some instances, marble and granite countertops can be cracked, chipped or stained. Installing a granite or marble countertop may also require adding structural support to underlying cabinets since the slabs are extremely heavy.

A more affordable option for stone countertops is purchasing and installing marble or granite tiles. With the exception of the visible grout lines, granite or marble tiles can achieve the same appearance and benefits of a slab-based countertop, but with less cost and less installation time.

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Laminate and Corian Countertops

Laminate countertops provide a budget-friendly alternative and can be made to have the look of stone countertops. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Linda B.)

Synthetic Stone

Synthetic stone countertops, such as brand-name products like Caesarstone, Silestone and Corian, have many of the same advantages of natural stone countertops, but with additional benefits. They can be engineered to match the patterns and grains of natural stone slabs, but unlike stone slabs, not having enough of the source material to adequately cover the surface area is not a major consideration. More synthetic can always be made. Synthetic stone countertops, however, can cost as much or more than natural stone countertops.

Another factor that may make synthetic stone countertops a good choice is ease of maintenance. Synthetic stone slabs can be manufactured all in one piece, which alleviates the need for maintaining or repairing the grout or sealant where two natural stone slabs would meet. Unlike natural stone countertops, many synthetic stone countertops do not need to be sealed regularly. Synthetic stone countertops are also more resistant to the chipping, pitting or cracking that can occur with natural stone.

Laminate Countertops

One of the least expensive and affordable countertop options, laminate countertops are generally made from paper pressed between plastic resins using heat which is then bonded to a firmer material like particle board or plywood. Popular among homeowners because of its durability and design versatility, laminates come in a wide variety of colors and textures that mimic high-end granites, marbles and slates. Laminates also allow the appearance of materials that aren’t as kitchen-friendly, such as hardwoods.

Laminate countertops, which are commonly referred to by the most popular brand name, Formica, are economical choices. At approximately $10 to $30 per square foot, they are suitable for people with limited budgets.

In terms of cons, laminate countertops are not always easy to clean. They are also easily damaged; they are not heat or scratch resistant. And if damage occurs, most laminate countertops cannot be repaired, only replaced. Where stone or synthetic stone countertops could theoretically last hundreds of years, as laminates become worn, they may start to look faded and dull.

Butcher-Block Countertops

Another material to think about when choosing new countertops is wooden butcher block. Butcher block countertops are a versatile home design trend that can lend warmth to your modern kitchen or an authentic feel to a vintage farmhouse. At approximately $40 to $60 per square foot, they are also affordable.

Butcher block countertops have several advantages and disadvantages in terms of durability. If they are scratched or burned, the damage wood can be sanded down with ease and reoiled. On the negative side, there isn't a lot you can do if your butcher-block countertop becomes dented by the impact of a heavy object. Wood also ages well, gaining more character the more its used. However, because wood is naturally porous, wooden countertops do require regular maintenance in the form of regularly wax or oil treatments.

Tile Countertops

Tiles are available in a variety of materials, from ceramic tile to natural stone to recycled glass to handmade porcelain. Like some other options, its shape and coloring can be left to the imagination of the homeowner. Cost will vary depending on the size of the tiles, size of the countertop and quality of material.

The biggest advantage of tile countertops is that they can be designed in an endless array of ways. Individual tiles can be replaced easily and affordably. It's also easy to find heat-resistant tiles. Cons include the fact that the grout between them can stain. The tiles can be chipped or cracked quite easily in some cases.

Concrete Countertops

This is an increasingly popular option, because of the homeowner’s ability to customize it according to color and design. Rocks, shells or colored glass can be added to the concrete to add texture or unique. While this modern option may be popular, it will likely cost the homeowner more per square footage compared to laminate and tile.

Concrete countertops are extremely durable but also lend a nice aesthetic alternative to more conventional kitchen countertops.

Countertop Installation

Like any home improvement hiring experience, it’s important to do your research when hiring a countertop installation contractor. No matter the material, be sure to get three estimates and check Angie’s List for consumer reviews on local contractors.

Be sure to ask about the contractors’ license, if required in your area, and verify that the company carries the appropriate bonding and/or insurance. Have each estimating contractor provide references from recent customers. Many contractors will also have portfolios of completed countertop installations to give an idea of how your finished project may turn out.

If you’re installing natural stone countertops such as marble or granite, you’ll likely want to visit countertop showrooms or stone yards and select the slab yourself. If you’ve already selected a contractor to provide the installation, you may benefit by having them with you when selecting the stone. An experienced installer will be able to identify faults and weaknesses in individual slabs that may not be apparent to the homeowner. They’ll also be able ensure there’s enough material to complete the job.

If you’ve decided to install an engineered stone countertop, make sure the professional you hire has experience in the particular material you choose. If you’re interested in a particular product, look for installers who have been certified or trained by the manufacturer to ensure that it will be installed correctly.

There will be few qualified contractors who specialize in less traditional countertop choices such as concrete, so it's especially important to research your contractors and choose a professional with experience.

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