Three popular types of countertop materials--slab granite, concrete, and quartz--will literally 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.
- 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.
So, what's the best direction to take when looking to save money?
1. Laminate Counters: Learn To Love The Laminates
Loving laminate is the first step toward scoring cheap counters. Sure, it's possible to purchase expensive laminate counter materials. But more often than not, you'll find that laminate is cost-effective. One reason is because it's nothing more than thin sheets of laminate material glued on top of MDF (chipboard) 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. Downside is that they range from ugly to inoffensive. You'll never find an in-stock laminate counter that makes your heart race.
- 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 costs only about $60 per 73 1/2" by 25 5/8" slab.
- Laminate It Yourself: Laminate sheets at Home Depot cost from $43 to $125 per 48" by 96" sheet. 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.
2. Ceramic Tile: The 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 backplash, 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.
3. Tile Granite: Slab Granite's Feel and Look (Sort Of). Except Much Cheaper
People who want slab granite but don't want to pay high slab costs often choose tile granite. Tile granite comes in 12" or 16" 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 off-set, since the labor costs associated with installation will be $0.00.
4. 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's the controlling idea behind all of 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" by 25 5/8", are solid beech (strips of beech laminated together) and go for about $130.
5. Modular Engineered Stone: A Little-Known "Slab Granite" Alternative
With modular stone, 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.
6. Solid-Surface: Increasingly Cheaper
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, solid surface was expensive. But once the patent expired, hundreds of manufacturers began making 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.