While there are a dozen different options for countertop surfaces in your home, two stand out above the rest: granite and quartz. During the past few decades, these two options have overwhelmingly prevailed over all other choices on the residential market. Part 1 of this 3-part countertop series reviewed budget-friendly builder-grade countertops. The next category to review is “stone.”

One of the most common questions homeowners ask me is: What’s the difference between granite and quartz? Quartz and granite are technically both stone. They are also both resistant to stains, scratches and heat, and are generally low maintenance. Both are typically sold with a polished finish, though honed and leathered finishes may also be available. In the United States, both are typically sold in slabs that are about an inch-and-a-half thick and 9 to 10 feet long by 5 to 6 feet wide. Some quartz may be easier to find in larger slab sizes.

The root of their differences lies in the fact that granite is natural stone and quartz is manufactured — a.k.a. an engineered — stone.

Though enhanced with a polish and usually some reinforcement (since these are very heavy, but thin, slabs of stone), granite is completely natural, quarried straight from the Earth: It is literally sliced out of mountainsides. What results is a spectacular variety of natural color and pattern with no two identical pieces, even within the same kind of stone. The less expensive the stone, the more predictable its color and pattern; the more expensive stones are typically more unique one slab to another. Once you reach the exotic stones, they can be jaw droppingly beautiful. Touring your local “slab yard” will showcase this (and makes for a fun afternoon, if they allow public browsing).

The cost of granite is dictated not by quality or country of origin so much as availability: Price is directly related to where a stone falls on the spectrum of ubiquitous (level one) to exotic (level 5 plus). The more commonplace a stone is — Ubatuba, for instance, or Luna Pearl — the less expensive it will be. Exotic, including semiprecious, stones — such as Jasper or Agate — are astonishingly unique but can come at an astronomical price point.

When it comes to maintenance, to keep your stone looking its best, granite does require a little bit of care. Because it is a natural stone, it is porous, meaning it has the potential to absorb certain solutions. Lighter colored granites tend to be slightly more porous, so they can be more susceptible to staining if, for example, you have olive oil or red wine pooled on your counters for a long period of time. (You might even see lighter granites absorb straight water — which will completely evaporate a few minutes later.) This varies by color, though, and is usually not a point to stress about. Mostly, it means you want to use a granite-safe cleaner (clear Windex — not the blue bottle — works well) and a sealer.

Though granite is durable, sealing your stone once every few months or investing in a daily cleaner/sealer combo such as DuPont Revitalizer will help protect your granite from daily use and minor spills. Worst case scenario, there are a few pastes and concoctions available (if not readily to you, then to your fabricator) that can also help extract certain kinds of stains, or at least minimize their appearance, if they happen.

While granite is the most popular of the natural stones for countertops, there are a variety of other options with their own unique traits. Marble, for instance, can be very porous and soft, evident in the faded features on sculptures or indentations on ancient building steps around the world: Over great time, with great use, marble will softly wear. In a home kitchen, this is not really an issue, but the softness of the marble will result in a stone countertop more susceptible to staining and scratching. (With many marbles — like the famous Carrera marble — this is almost a guarantee, so if this does not appeal to you, you may want to consider an engineered stone like quartz that is designed to look like marble without the delicacy.)

On the other hand, quartzite — a natural stone composed of almost entirely quartz — is extremely hard and durable. Soapstone is also very hard but typically has a honed (instead of polished) finish, resulting in higher maintenance to keep it looking clean.

This leads us in to quartz countertops. Though its name may imply otherwise, quartz countertops — also known as engineered stone — are man-made composites using natural materials. The process basically involves extracting quartz — the hardest part of granite — from natural stone, grinding it up, and mixing it with binders and pigments to create a slab. That means quartz countertops are technically more durable than granite countertops. It also means quartz counters are nonporous, so they require no specialty cleaners or sealing. (Though more abrasive cleaners can still diminish the polished finish of quartz.)

When it debuted, quartz was known for its predictable patterns and relative consistency across slabs. In the past 10 years though, manufacturers have pioneered the marbling technique, which yields organically swirling patterns and truly marble-like designs — except its maintenance and durability are far superior. (Real marble, such as the Carreras, also tends to have a surprisingly off-white base color, but quartz look-alikes can deliver pure-white coloration.)

The cost of quartz is often compared to that of granite, but there is no hard and fast rule that one is more expensive than the other. Quartz prices range from one manufacturer to another and can sometimes fall below the most common (a.k.a. “level one”) granites. Cambria (made in the United States), Caesarstone and Silestone are three of the big names in quartz, but there is a wide variety of manufacturers, many with specialties like replicating real stone or offering bold palettes of solid colors.

It should be noted that this discussion of stone countertops does not include tiles made of granite or quartz. Countertops made of any type of tiles fall into the builder-grade category. (As a professional architect and pseudo-gourmet home chef, under no circumstances does this author recommend tiles as a countertop material: Grout lines on a work surface are a nightmare.)

The countertop material you choose for your kitchen has to work for your style: your style in terms of aesthetics and level of maintenance. Granite and quartz are the most popular countertop options for residential kitchens. Understanding the similarities and distinctions between them, as well as some other stone options, can help you make an educated decision for this workhorse feature of your home.

Part 3 of this 3-part countertop series will next review a variety of specialty and nontraditional options for your kitchen and accent areas of your home.

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

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