Marble, granite, quartz, butcherblock, concrete, laminate, stainless steel, solid surfaces, and more — whether you are just replacing your counters or fully renovating your kitchen/bathroom, it can feel like there are too many options when it comes time to choose a countertop.

Despite an intimidating list, there are basically just three categories of materials to consider for residential countertops. The first is “builder-grade”: This is generally considered the less desirable category but still a viable option depending on your project. The next category is stone — this is by far the most popular category, and for good reason. Then finally there are specialty surfaces, which may be across the entire kitchen or just an accent area (like at the island). This three-part homeowner series will cover each of these three categories.

Builder-grade is a term for materials that are relatively inexpensive to purchase and install. They may also be relatively low-durability and quality. As the label implies, these materials are most often used on builder-driven projects, not homeowner-driven projects. They are most commonly found in rental properties, kitchens/baths that have not been updated in at least 10 years, and renovations/new construction with very tight budgets.

While builder-grade generally has a negative connotation (especially in a workhorse space like a kitchen), it can be a good fit for a variety of other projects across your home. When you do not need high-durability, for instance, or you have/need a little surface area in an infrequently used room or secondary space, it can be an easy way to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars as an alternative countertop option.

Materials falling into this category have changed over the decades. But, for countertops, this generally includes laminate (also popularly known by the name brand Formica), solid surfaces (like Corian, which you can often recognize in a kitchen by its seamlessly integrated sink), or other hard surfaces (like Swanstone in bathrooms, which can be used as countertops or wall surfaces). Of these three, laminates tend to be the least expensive, but Corian-type materials are the most solid.

These budget-friendly materials genuinely range in their visual appeal.

Some look quite nice, especially from a slight distance, but others clearly reflect their lower price point. In general, builder-grade materials are not as durable as other options on the market: They can show signs of wear and tear relatively quickly after installation, especially with heavy use. Anything from the edge banding starting to peel or discoloration/bubbling in the surface (with laminates), or cracking at the sink drain (with solid surfaces) are common problems.

However, with good installation and good maintenance, builder-grade countertops have the potential to last many years and still look as good as new. Generally, you can use any kind of multipurpose cleaner on them, making them a low-maintenance option compared to some of the alternatives, and they come in a variety of manufactured colors and patterns.

Countertops are important features of your home. They are, debatably, the most used surface in the kitchen, as well as the bathroom, taking daily use and (in some cases) abuse. Part 2 will review stone countertop options, and Part 3 will cover specialty materials (which can overlap budget-friendly finds as well as stone).

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.

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