Granite still rules supreme on the kitchen countertop, but there are several viable alternatives.
While many of today's home builders offer granite countertops as standard items, many homes also can be outfitted with quartz and solid surface countertops.
Those who want to get more exotic can try the rustic look of Jerusalem stone or the muted tones of limestone. While the latter two stones are more commonly considered for floors, they also can do wonders as a countertop surface.
There are pros and cons to each materials, so it is worth your while to do some research.
Granite is much beloved in the kitchen industry because it offer a rich, stunning look. Granite also has become synonymous with luxury housing, although granite countertops now are seen in nearly all price ranges.
Granite is available in a range of colors, from blacks and browns to greens and creams. The stone has natural imperfections that add character and dimension. That randomness does not appeal to all buyers, however. Those who prefer neat lines and consistency will gravitate toward man-made products such as solid surface and quartz.
One downside to granite and other natural stones is the fact that they are porous and can stain. Many people shy away from stone for that reason. Others take it in stride, realizing that stone requires sealing and more frequent cleaning, but is worth the effort.
"Stone is stone and stone has porosity," said Alan Zielinski, owner of Better Kitchens in Niles. "By sealing it, it shouldn't stain if you spill red wine on it."
Quartz countertops are another alternative for those who want the look of granite without the maintenance issues.
"There is a flood to the market of quartz surfaces and there is a lot of competition out there, which is good," said Ron McEachen, general manager of Oak Park Kitchens.
Quartz is a relatively new product made from 95 percent quartz and 5 percent polymer resins. These countertops are highly durable and do not have the same maintenance requirements as granite.
One major selling point for quartz is the wide array of colors. Because it is man-made, it comes in an almost limitless array of colors. This is particularly important for those who are trying to match a specific wall tile color or who want a color that is different from those traditionally seen with granite.
Opinions are mixed, however, as to whether granite or quartz is considered the best choice.
"You will get people who like the convenience of quartz and the consistency of color over natural stone," McEachen said. "On the other hand, you still have people who like natural stone."
There also are different types of granite that some homeowners may not have seen. Depending on the distributor, one might find exotic colors and stone patterns. Some of those unusual patterns may be available through a home builder for an extra fee.
Another way to give the countertop an exotic look is to buy marble and have it acid washed. While marble is not always recommended for the countertop because of its porosity, this can create a one-of-a-kind look.
"When you acid wash on marble it will soften the calcium that is part of marble and give it a very Old World effect," Zielinski said.
Homeowners should consider the maintenance issues, however, before deciding to use it for a countertop. In some cases, people use it in a small area, such as a baking center on an island. This gives them the look without having higher maintenance throughout the kitchen.
Solid surface is another option for those who like the consistent look and light colors offered through brands such as Corian. These countertops typically are made with the kitchen sink and countertop as one piece. This appeals to many people because it is more sanitary and eliminates the need to clean around the sink lip.
"There are people who are attracted to it, but the synthetic nature of it throws some people off," McEachen said.
In contemporary settings, many designers are using stainless steel countertops. This is a highly durable and hygienic material, as it is used in restaurant kitchens.
Stainless steel will scratch over time, however. Those who like it just accept that fact and consider it part of the surface's natural character.
The downside is that stainless steel provides a very cold look. It does not typically appeal to those who like traditional kitchens with warm colors and tones.
Laminate countertops seem to have fallen out of favor with many buyers. As competition heats up in many condominium markets, for example, most builders have switched to granite to get an edge on the competition. Now, granite has become the norm.
"Home buyers see granite as being upscale," said Anita Olsen, director of sales and marketing for Focus Development. "If you try to do a laminate in a condo market, it wouldn't be seen as very high-end."
Concrete has not caught on as well as some predicted years ago.
"It's a very unforgiving and unrepairable surface," Zielinski said. "If you knock a corner of it, it's going to look like a chunk out of your driveway."
Allison E. Beatty is a Chicago-area freelance writer. If you have questions or information to share regarding new home buyers' product and design choices, write to Choices c/o Chicago Tribune, New Homes Section, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611. Or, e-mail:email@example.com