How do you find cheap countertops? It isn't easy. In fact, three popular types of countertop materials—slab granite, concrete, and quartz—will bust your budget. It is difficult, if not impossible, to score a deal on any of these. And forget about specialty and oddball counters like stainless steel, paper composite, zinc, or glass.
So, what's the best direction to take when looking to save money?
Laminate Counters: Learn to Love Laminates
Loving laminate is the first step toward scoring cheap counters. Sure, it's possible to purchase expensive laminate counter materials—premium, high-definition laminate is gorgeous and high-end, with high prices to match. But more often than not, you'll find that laminate is cost-effective. One reason is that laminate is nothing more than thin sheets of laminate material glued on top of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and thousands of shops and individual contractors can do this.
- Big Box Store Pre-Laminated Slabs: Home Depot, Lowe's, and other home improvement stores will have "pre-lammed" countertop slabs, usually in the back of the store. Not only are they cheap, but you can grab your slabs in the morning and have a new countertop by afternoon. The downside is that they rarely win awards for beauty.
- IKEA: There's no denying that IKEA puts out low-cost products with style. Their laminate counters are leaps and bounds better-looking than the big-box store counters. Consider just one: Pragel, a black mineral-effect laminate, looks decent and, per 73 1/2-inch by 25 5/8-inch slab, costs about one-third of the cost of a comparable product found in big box stores.
- Laminate It Yourself: Laminate sheets at Home Depot and other home improvement stores are quite cost-effective. Laminating the sheets onto MDF is tricky for most homeowners, though. But if you are confident that you can run a router, this is the cheapest way to get a laminate counter. One downside is that you won't get those nice rolled edges that you get when purchasing pre-lammed slabs.
- Bath Vanity Tops: When they come as part of a bathroom vanity unit, laminate counters are fairly cheap, plus the sink insert is already cut out for you.
Ceramic Tile: Classic Do-It-Yourself Countertop
Ceramic tile has long been a favorite choice for homeowners intent on doing it themselves and having a nice-looking countertop as a result. Ceramic is vastly cheaper even than granite tile. Add some bullnoses, corners, and a backsplash, and you've got an attractive product.
Seams are the problem with ceramic tile counters, though. Many home buyers who are avid cooks tend to look down on ceramic tile counters.
Tile Granite: Slab Granite's Feel and Look
People who want slab granite but don't want to pay high slab costs often choose tile granite. Tile granite comes in 12-inch or 16-inch squares, and no shipping costs are involved: go down to your local tile store, Lowe's or Home Depot, and there it is.
Easy to do yourself, tile granite can be installed with epoxies rather than mortar. And with the tiles fitted close together, this eliminates the need to grout between the tiles. Granite—any natural stone—will be an expensive material. But this is offset since the labor costs associated with installation will be nil.
Wood: Great Looks, Low Cost, High Maintenance
Quartz and solid surfaces must be made in big, expensive factories. You'll never find a kindly old craftsman mixing up a batch of Corian in his picturesque little workshop.
That is the controlling idea behind all of the high vs. low-cost counters: is it locked up in an expensive manufacturing process or do individuals have control over the product and process? And no material lends itself to cottage industries or light manufacturing more than wood.
Even with a company as big as IKEA, you find gorgeous counters that aren't expensive: Numerar counters, 73 1/2 inches by 25 5/8 inches, are solid beech (strips of beech laminated together) and are usually reasonably priced.
Modular Engineered Stone: Little-Known "Slab Granite" Alternative
With modular stone, the cost drops dramatically. No, these are not giant, uninterrupted expanses of granite. Modular granite is bigger than tile, smaller than slab. It's also engineered stone (like Cambria), not sliced directly from the earth. Self-installation is easier because modular granite can be handled by one or two people. You can install it yourself, saving on installation charges.
Solid Surface: Increasingly Cheaper, DIY Option
Solid surface: that's the industry term for materials like Corian and Silestone. Of all of the expensive counters, this is the one where you have the best chance of finding a cheap one.
In years past, when Dupont still had the Corian patent locked up, the solid surface was expensive. But once the patent expired, hundreds of manufacturers began making the solid surface, and this competition served to lower prices.
As with laminate, those solid surface vanity tops that come bundled with vanity units can be rather cost-effective.
One great resource for DIY solid surface fabrication is a company called SolidSurface.com. This company purchases a solid surface from clearances, close-outs, and other unusual sources and makes them available at their online store.
Why so Expensive?
Some types of countertops are so expensive that finding a cheap version of them is almost impossible. Why is this so?
- Slab Granite: This typically ranks as the most expensive countertop material. The stone itself is pricey, if only because it is quarried in Italy, Turkey, or India, and has to be shipped thousands of miles to get to you. Fabrication is difficult. Installation requires professionals. Slab granite is never a DIY project.
- Concrete: Concrete countertops rank neck-and-neck with slab granite in terms of cost. Even though the material seems ordinary enough, the real cost-driver is fabrication and installation. Professionals must make and install concrete counters.
- Quartz/Engineered Stone: Quartz counters lately have become a favorite alternative to slab granite. Cambria and Zodiaq are two popular brands of quartz countertops. But quartz is locked up in the hands of few manufacturers, a condition that serves to lower competition, promote monopolies, and thus, drive up prices for you.