Counter Tops 101

A recent transaction I had got me to thinking about counter tops. This was a really beautiful, high-end home. The kitchen had been recently remodeled and the information given by the seller was that the counters were granite. In the home inspection the home inspector stated that they were acrylic. Who was right? The seller was absolutely certain that they were granite in part because they had cost him about $10,000 for the material alone. I went to Contract Furnishings Mart where a wonderful man, Patrick VonPegert, was of great help to me. I am going to try to do justice to what I learned, but I also want to encourage you to do your own homework as I am not an expert.

thPatrick told me that while granite is the style that is currently the most popular, quartz is actually more commonly purchased. This is because quartz has similar properties to granite and at the lower end of the product cost it is similar in price. But quartz tops out at its maximum expense much lower than does granite. So it tends to be more affordable as a generalization.

I explained to him my delimna with the question of the counter in the home I was selling and I showed him a photo. He felt, looking at the photo, that the counter was likely granite but he then showed me an acrylic sample in his showroom that was virtually identical. I asked about the cost as evidence and I learned that acrylic counters are also expensive and the $10,000 price tag would not be evidence of the material in question. He then taught me two simple tests. The first was the temperature of the surface. Putting my hand on a granite sample and then putting my hand on an acrylic sample there was a huge difference in temprature. The natural stone is significantly colder and the acrylic was more easily compared to room temperature. The other test was dropping a quarter on the surface. The stone had a higher pitched “ting” whereas the acrylic was more of a lower pitched thud. With this new knowledge in hand I met my client at the house and put our hands to the counter (very cold) and dropped a quarter (ting). My clients response was that she loved the kitchen and the look of the counters so she was fine with them in any case.

Here is some more information and my thoughts of various counter materials. I obtained this information from the Popular Mechanics website. Pricing is suggested and subject to change.

Granite is gorgeous. Materials cut straight from the earth is solid panels, then custom cut to become a seemless counter surface, they are, in a word, stunning. They come in many colors of solids, varigated, and lined. I have seem some surfaces that literally pull you in and leave you transfixed. There is a reason that they are the premium material. Having said this, they do have a down side. They must be properly sealed to prevent staining and then the seal must be re-done as needed. They need to be cleaned with stone cleaner and not with normal household cleaners. I suspect that there are lots of folks who have granite counters who don’t have a clue about the proper maintenance. They are also expensive with the cost being $75-$250 a square foot. I also have to point out two additional concerns that I have. Natural stone is a finite resource. I so hope that granite counters installed today will be still in use 100 years from now. Please, please, don’t fall pray to changing styles. I so hope that they don’t end up in landfills 20 years from now. Last, granite gives off radon. You know, that nasty stuff we test for in home inspections to prevent lung cancer. I did make an effort to find out if the amount of granite in a typical kitchen counter is a concern by asking an environmental specialist. This was years ago. He told me that the granite in the counter would have to be 10 feet thick to give off the amount of radon that hurts people. But I still think if I had a lot of granite in my home I would test for radon (well, I’d do it even if I didn’t have any granite).

Soapstone and Slate
These materials have much of the same look as granite because they too are natural stone. They have fewer color options. Soapstone is porous and must be sealed with mineral oil. Slate is non-porous and is much easier to care for. It won’t stain easily and scratches can be buffed out. Cost runs $100-$150 per square foot.

Acrylic and Polyester
These counters resist stains and scratches and are both renewable and repairable. Scratches and burns can be sanded out. Gouges can be filled. The color choices are basically limitless as are textures and edges. Cost runs $100-$200 per square foot.

th-2Engineered Stone and Quartz Composits
These counters are 90% quartz, glass, or any other materials chosen to be blended, and 10% acrylic. The color options are pretty limitless. Maintenance is reasonable. Cost runs $150-$200 per square foot. I particularly like the counters made with recycled glass. I tend to be pretty environmentally aware and the idea of materials that are both recylcled and beautiful really appeals to me.

Plastic Laminate, otherwise known as Formica
There is a reason that this stuff has been used in homes for so long. It’s super affordable and wears well with little or no maintenace beyond cleaning. It comes in hundreds of colors and options. Cost is $3-$25 per square foot.

The trend has moved away from tile, which was the counter top king in the 1990’s. This is mostly due to the issue of maintaining seems and grout, which must be cleaned and sealed regualarly. Having said this, tile is still a popular option for back splashes and smaller surface areas like breakfast bars and pantry counters. Be sure you use a tile that is rated for counters. Wall tile is typically more thin and would more easily crack. I do see a lot of tile in new construction that is under $500,000. This is particularly true in homes that have more modern design elements. Tile stylistically fits in with modern lines. As I mentioned, if you go the route of tile, be sure to properly clean and seal the grout regularly. Cost runs $3-$100 per square foot.

Wood counters are pretty unusaul. It’s more common to see wood sections in counters on areas like cooking islands or next to the stove for food prep. Wood has had a bad reputation as not being sanitary. This was debunked in 1993 by a University of Wisconsin study that showed that bacteria on wood surfaces like cutting boards will be 99% dead within 3 minutes of exposure to the wood. My bigger concern is how well it will wear. It’s a softer surface that will burn, scratch, and suffer water damage pretty easily. To properly care for it, it should be oiled every 4-6 weeks. And it’s not cheap, running $100-$200 a square foot for a well made counter.

This is a material that I am seeing more and more of. Going back to the popularity of modern design, concrete fits right in with that trend. It can be done in a variety of colors and does have a look of stone but with more clean lines. A properly made counter will be pre-cast and fully cured and finished off sight. It should be re-inforced with wire mesh or rebar to minimize cracking. I had a home inspector tell me once that all concrete counters crack. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think if you are considering concrete you need to decide if this will put you off or not. I have seen cracks in concrete counters. I don’t think that they usually destroy the functional use of the counter, although cracks do invite dirt. To my eye the cracks can become part of the design element. But don’t go with concrete if this may drive you nuts. Cost run $85-$100 per square foot.

There you have it, counters 101. I hope you found it helpful. My thanks to Patrick at Contract Furnishings Mart and to Popular Mechanics.