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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Countertop Conundrum

Selecting the right material for your kitchen countertops

Having just completed a kitchen renovation myself, I know how overwhelming it can be when its time to select the best countertops. I was inundated with the decisions that needed to be made when it came to picking the kitchen counters. I had a limited budget and was really looking for a durable, refined and upscale look that would appeal to most buyers when it came time to sell the property. Not only did I have to think about cost, color and how it would meld with the cabinet choice, but, durability, maintenance and ease of cleaning were things to also consider.

And, then, what to do with the back splash?

There are a number of options available when it comes to kitchen countertops. I’ve tried to list most options here, along with some thoughts in terms of durability, cost and appeal for resale.

Granite Counters
Granite is an extremely durable natural stone that is quickly becoming the material of choice for many homeowners. Granite is mined from quarries located around the globe and comes in a variety of grades (qualities) and colors. Some have more uniform patterns while others have dramatic streaks of “movement” and color. Granite was a fairly expensive product early on, but with its popularity and the prevalence of more granite fabricators, prices are coming down. Homeowners may select from different grades and have a choice of slab thickness, as well as edging type. The surface is extremely hard and can withstand the test of time but it will dull knives if it is cut upon. Granite needs to be sealed occasionally and cleaning the surface with a natural stone cleanser is recommended as soap can dull the sheen and cause drying.

Engineered or manufactured surfaces
There are several engineered surfaces – a stone-like product and a man-made solid surface. The stone-like option you’ve likely read about in many of the design magazines is known as Quartz, Ceasarstone®, Silestone® or Zodiac®. These are brand names for an engineered or manufactured stone product that is made largely from ground quartz and may even have bits of polished glass and stone within. These surfaces are often dramatic, even or uniform in color, some may even appear to shimmer and don’t have a lot of “veining” or movement. It comes in a large array of colors and styles, is non-porous so it resists staining and is scratch resistant. It is easy to clean and care for, and should be sealed periodically.

The other manufactured product is created almost entirely from man made materials. Often referred to as “Corian” after the DuPont product brand, this acrylic polymer (mostly plastic) counter is custom made to your specific specifications and usually seamless. This surface is softer than a stone product and provides a bit of a bounce when something falls upon it, perhaps saving it from breaking. As it is soft, this type of solid surface countertop does nick. Scratches can be easily removed by simple sanding, often times with a finger nail file. You’ll need to avoid putting hot pots and pans on it as it can stain, burn and even melt.

Ceramic and granite tiles are durable and easy to clean. For a counter surface, an important point here is the size of the tile. Smaller tiles tend to look dated and require more grout lines. Many homeowners selecting tile are using pieces that are at least 12” x 12” and minimal grout lines. It creates a nice look and is relatively inexpensive. And if you’re handy, it can be a rather easy do-it-yourself project. Granite tiles may be an option as they create the elegant look of granite without the cost of the more expensive slab countertop. Tile can be uneven in places and the grout can get stained easily. You may want to consider a smaller grout line and darker color of grout.

Laminated surfaces
Laminate counters had long been the gold standard when it came to the ideal kitchen countertop surface. Many people today still stand by this tried and true product as it is easy to clean, does not absorb foods and comes in a variety of colors and styles and is relatively inexpensive. Laminated countertops are sometimes referred to a singular branded trademark – Formica®. Other manufacturers have a similar surface and they can be found at most home improvement stores. Several options are available for edging including bevel, bull nose, radius and square.

Wood surfaced counters (Butcher Block)
Butcher block countertops were widely used around the Depression, seemed to go out of vogue, but now coming back with great vengeance. Maple and oak are often the woods as they are hard and can stand up to wear. We are seeing wood surfaced counters used in conjunction with other stone/solid surfaces, as wood makes a terrific and practical accent to a kitchen, such as a built-in cutting board or when used on an island. Depending on where you live, wood surfaced counters will need some care – occasional oiling will help prevent them from drying out.

Stainless Steel
A sleek and contemporary countertop option is stainless. Think of your favorite restaurant –the chef is working on stainless surfaces throughout his kitchen. It goes with everything, is non-porous and very durable. You won’t want to cut on it as stainless does scratch and can dent, so be careful on how you use it.

Soapstone Counters
Soapstone is generally dark charcoal in color and has a smooth feel. It is often seen in historic homes, country-style and lately, we’ve been seeing it crop up in remodeled mid-century modern homes in the kitchen for countertops and sink material, and in mud rooms and laundry areas. You’ll need to regularly apply some mineral oil to keep it from drying and fading.

Marble has often been the stone of choice for the elite as it continues to be on the upper end of the price scale. Marble has a rich and luxurious look, but may not be a practical choice for most households when it comes to a kitchen countertop surface as it is a relatively porous material that is susceptible to staining and scratching. Perhaps a better spot for marble is in the powder room and bath. In the kitchen, marble may be a great supplemental stone to be used along with another of more durable and resilient qualities. It makes a great accent tile set medallion-style into the backsplash. Proper and regular sealants are a must.

Concrete Counters
If you’re looking for a smooth, more contemporary style, concrete may be for you. Although expensive to create, each is unique and can be molded into unusual shapes with interesting angles and inlays. (I was in a kitchen not long ago where the homeowner had her promise ring pressed into the corner along with some stones and shells she had collected years before). Concrete can be tinted to the homeowners’ personal tastes and the top can be finished and polished in a variety of ways. Concrete is somewhat porous and will need to be sealed. And, depending on how it is mixed, concrete can crack. When selecting your contractor, you will want to make sure they have experience in casting countertops and ask to see samples and/or testimonials as to their work.

For owner occupied homes, granite and engineered countertops are the most common choices for today’s renovations. Both have been found to be about the same from a hygienic perspective as they are similar in porosity and absorption. Tile and laminated counters are frequently seen in rental/investment properties because of material costs. As for my kitchen, in the end I selected granite for my countertop surface and then used 2” x 4” tumbled travertine tiles for the backsplash. I did not go with the highest grade of granite, rather one that was on the lower end of the spectrum with a more even and uniform pattern. And, by using a different material for my backsplash, I was able to reduce my granite costs. From a design perspective, I felt like I needed to break up the visual appearance of the granite by adding some color and texture variation to the space.

©2010 Tom Weiskopf, PLLC. Tom Weiskopf, PLLC is an AZ licensed real estate agent with John Hall & Associates serving the Phoenix area. For more information, Tom can be reached at (602) 953-4000 or via e-mail at

1 comment:

  1. The photo is actually of a home that went through an entire remodel a few years ago. Exceptional from the front door to the second master suite. In the kitchen, the cabinets are knotty alder, the granite imported from Brazil. Although not listed on the market, the homeowners would likely entertain an offer!