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A nifty kitchen

Ask any real estate agent, and she'll tell you that when it comes to home equity and return on investment, the two most important rooms are the kitchen and the bathroom. Forget the fancy pool; it's nice, and it might close the deal at sale time, but prospective buyers are going to decide yea or nay in the kitchen.

The kitchen is a focal point for family gatherings and entertaining guests. So what are the main components of the typical kitchen? Well, there's the major appliances. They should match and be energy-efficient. Storage? There should be plenty of cabinets to stash food, dishes, pots and pans.

But what really stands out are the kitchen countertops. This is where the real work is done. Because of that, lighting should be focused on them, literally putting them in the spotlight.

Whether you're planning on building a new home or you're rolling up your sleeves for a remodel, you have a lot of choices when it comes to selecting the countertops. The things to consider are personal preference, aesthetics, matching the rest of the decor, and, of course, budget. Let's have a look at some of the choices.

The current favorite: granite

There's no denying the fact that granite is a trendy choice just now. It's available in a multitude of color mixes and patterns: that's just the way nature made it. Where is it quarried? All over the world. The U.S., Italy, Brazil, India, China; the list goes on. Obviously, the farther away it comes from, the more it will cost.

The high price of granite is driven by its popularity and transportation costs rather than its availability. Generally speaking, you can expect to shell out from $60 to $120 per square foot, not including installation labor costs.

Maintenance is routine. To begin with, most suppliers recommend applying a granite sealer before use. Avoid dropping anything on it. Clean up spills right away with a damp sponge or cloth, to avoid stains. Use trivets and coasters. True, granite is quite heat-tolerant, but any grit between a pot or pan and the surface might scratch the sealer.

Corian: imitation stone

Corian is a stone look-alike made by DuPont. It's very durable, nonporous, and heat- and scratch-resistant. It's available in over 130 distinct colors, so matching your decor is a snap. The fact that it's synthetic brings the price in lower than natural stone.

Maintenance is similar to granite, other than not requiring a sealer. It is important to wipe up any spills immediately, even water, because standing liquid tends to form a film which will require a strong cleaning agent to remove.

One interesting fact about Corian that makes a strong selling point is that it comes from the factory kosher certified. Is DuPont a forward thinking company or what?

Plastic laminate: it's everywhere!

Plastic laminate is arguably the most prevalent countertop in homes throughout the country. In the way that most soft drinks are referred to as "Cokes," plastic laminates are generically called "Formica." Formica is actually a brand name. Other brands of plastic laminate are Wilsonart, Nevamar, Hamilton, and Pionite.

Laminates are available in a mind-boggling variety of colors and patterns. What you see when you look at the surface is actually a photo-like reproduction.

Caring for a laminate countertop is basic. It's nonporous, but it scratches if you try to use it as a cutting board --which a surprising number of people do. Since it is a plastic material, it's definitely not recommended to put a hot object directly on it.

A big selling point here is that working with laminate is a great DIY weekend project, as long as you're only planning on flat surfaces. In other words, curved corners or backsplashes are best left to cabinet shops. A 4' X 8' sheet of laminate can be had at home depot or Lowes for about $80.00.

Other than the laminate, you'll need a saw with a laminate blade, some contact cement, a router with a laminate bit, a J-roller, some dowels, and, of course, your time!

A butcher block countertop: functionality and style

Nothing says "class" like a butcher block countertop. As the name implies, it's used as a cutting surface. Strictly speaking, you don't often see an entire butcher block countertop surface. It's usually just a section of it located where it's most logical for use.

These countertops are always made with hardwood (maple being my personal favorite). Different shades of wood can be laminated together for an impressive-looking surface.

This is another fun DIY project. There's nothing too difficult about building one, and you can be just as creative as your imagination allows. I'll save all the details for a later date, but it basically boils down to cutting hardwood strips, gluing them together, cutting to the desired dimensions, meticulous sanding, sealing, and installation.

Regular care involves disinfecting the surface often and keeping it wiped down. Periodically, you'll want to sand it lightly and re-seal it. I like to use a product called Behlen Salad Bowl Finish.

Ceramic tile: providing a vintage look

Many, many years ago, modest kitchen countertops were made exclusively of wood; of course, this proved a very bad idea, for a number of different reasons. Primarily, what's in a kitchen? Fire and heat. Fire, heat, and wood don't always play well together.

Another problem is all the moisture. Back then, sealers weren't what they are today. But in the early 1900's, ceramic tile began to replace wood. If you want a truly extreme retro look, go for hexagonal white tiles: white was the most common color because of its hygienic implications. (Think old-time hospital walls.)

Today, ceramic tile is still used, for both countertops and backsplashes. Laying ceramic tile is also a very do-able DIY adventure. The important thing to remember is to use a high-quality grout sealer.

These surfaces are very easy to care for. Wipe it, scrub it, set hot pans on it. Well... very warm pans, anyway.

Have you made your choice yet?

While the above list is far from all-inclusive, I've covered a few of the most popular kitchen countertops. The important thing is to choose something that you like now and that you will continue to enjoy looking at for years in the future. The really good news here is that almost all of these are DIY possibilities.

Even with granite, you can do much of the work yourself. For example, when my mother-in-law was getting granite for her bathroom vanity, I did all the cabinet work, but I let the rock guys cut and set the countertop. Then I finished the project by installing the snazzy plumbing. Saved her a ton of money... and scored some points at the same time!


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