For homeowners looking to remodel their kitchens, picking a durable and good-looking countertop is a way to make the room both comfortable and practical.
Kitchens are usually among the busiest rooms in the home, the place where families cook, eat, gather and entertain. It's also the room that's usually seen -- and judged -- by visitors and guests.
Durability, ease of maintenance and appearance are important aspects to keep in mind when choosing a countertop. And the nicer and more expensive countertops, made from granite or quartz, for example, can also add value to your home.
''You get a lot of opportunities for wear and tear. From a consumer's point of view, it's important to make sure that the surface you choose is durable,'' said Christine Coffin, North American market manager for DuPont Surfaces.
Those who are shopping for kitchen countertops should first set their budget, then research the types of available materials. Homeowners can surf the Internet or their local phone directory to find designers, fabricators and installers in their area. Large retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's sell kitchen countertops as well.
For years, laminates such as those manufactured by Formica and WilsonArt, were the most popular countertop material in new homes, but they have given way to granite, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In 1999, laminate countertops were found in about 75 percent of new homes, compared to 35 percent in 2006, the NAHB reported.
Meanwhile, use of granite countertops in new homes increased from 15 percent in 2001 to 40 percent in 2006. As granite became more popular, its prices have dropped.
Still, the most affordable countertop surface remains laminate, which is made of compacted paper and plastic synthetics (cost: about $12 to $20 per square foot). High pressure laminate surfaces are flat and smooth, easy to clean and come in a variety of colors. They even have styles that mimic the upscale look of granite or quartz.
''You can get a laminate that looks like a million dollars but that doesn't cost too much, and you can instead buy that Sub Zero refrigerator,'' said Bill Roush, director of communications for Formica Corp.
But laminate countertops have visible seams that can trap dirt or food, and they can't be repaired if damaged by people who cut on them and scratch the surface. The colors can also fade over time.
There are also solid surface countertops which are generally more expensive than laminate, starting at about $35 dollars per square foot. Corian, an acrylic solid surface made by DuPont, is nonporous and easy to clean, and they can be integrated with solid surface sinks. However, solid surfaces may not stand up well to heat.
Both laminates and solid surfaces are less expensive than granite, which is sturdy and can last a lifetime if properly maintained. Because of its rich and varied colors and textures, it can add beauty and elegance to a kitchen.
Granite can cost in the hundreds of dollars per square foot including installation. It is porous, so it must be treated with a sealant to resist stains; if not, stains can be very difficult to remove. Granite is very heavy, so installers must make sure the countertop is properly supported, said Stephen Melman, the NAHB's director of economic services.
Another issue with granite is that radon is emitted from some granite countertops because they contain uranium. A New York Times story in July pointed out that claims have been raised about granite countertops emitting cancer-causing radon and radiation. Scientists seem to agree that the levels are very low, but the precise effect on humans through long-term exposure remains unclear.
A countertop material that is gaining in popularity is quartz, a natural stone that is as sturdy as granite. However, it is nonporous, so it does not require sealing. DuPont's Zodiaq line, and Cambria Quartz are two manufacturers of quartz countertops.
Cambria's quartz countertops appear similar to granite in that the colors are deep and consistent. It does have seams, however, and is expensive, running at $60 per square foot and up, said Peter Martin, Cambria's director of marketing.
''There's an aspirational component that goes along with stone countertops. Its a more luxurious type of feel,'' Martin said.
Countertops also can be made of butcher block wood, which can be handy for chefs and their knives. They do require diligent cleaning.
Ceramic tile is easy to clean and stands up well to heat, but it is uneven and can chip or crack.
Other countertop surfaces include stainless steel and concrete. But the newest player on the market is recycled glass, a ''green'' product offered by a few manufacturers, including IceStone LLC out of Brooklyn, N.Y.
IceStone makes the countertop out of natural products, and it contains no resins or plastics. They are expensive, though, running at $75 per square foot and higher, said Susan Gardner Dartman, director of communications for IceStone.
And manufacturers like DuPont also are developing countertops from recycled materials.