Counters and cabinets have two distinct roles in homes. From a functional standpoint, counters provide working surfaces in kitchens, bathrooms, pantries and bars. Cabinets provide storage facilities in kitchens, bathrooms and other rooms. Counters and cabinets also play a strong role in the visual, cosmetic and architectural side of things. Cabinetry can be a focal point in a room and often, the cabinetry is an indicator of the quality of construction throughout the home. As inspectors, we focus on the functional and performance side of things.
A variety of materials are used for counters, with varying price points. Each material has pros and cons. Some of the more popular choices for countertops include the following:
Plastic laminate: Developed in the early to mid-1900s, laminate countertops still are a popular choice. A plastic sheet is adhered to a particleboard base in the factory. These countertops tend to be easier to work with because they are relatively light and easy to cut on site. Depending on the quality of the laminate, this material also is relatively heat- and stain-resistant, although damage from cutting utensils is a common issue.
Butcher block: Pieces of wood are glued together and sanded to create a smooth surface. These countertops need to be sealed after manufacture and then periodically after installation. Without sealing, the wood pieces can warp due to moisture, and germ and pathogen retention can become an issue. Although most countertops are maintenance-free, butcher block is an exception. Wood is subject to burn marks from hot pots, for example. Some kitchens feature sections of butcher block, blended with other countertop materials.
Natural stone: Marble and granite are the two most popular choices for natural stone countertops. To manufacture the countertop, natural rock is cut and polished to achieve a smooth finish. The finish can be glossy, matte or honed. Depending on how it is finished, the same stone can provide different looks. Porosity is an issue with some natural stone countertops, which may discolor without regular sealing. Marble stains much more easily than granite.
Quartz or cultured stone: Consisting of ground quartz with a resin binder, this nonporous engineered material is a durable choice and it never has to be sealed. It is also known as engineered stone. With clever pigmentation, patterning and texturing, quartz countertops can be made to look like many natural stone products.
Stainless steel: As the name suggests, stainless steel sheets are formed into the shape of the countertop. This material is extremely hygienic and easy to maintain. Stainless steel countertops are the choice of commercial kitchens, although you also may see them in residential homes.
Tile: Tile is one of the few types of counters that’s built entirely on site. A plywood base is installed over the cabinets. After the sink and faucet cutouts are done, the cement board base (or plastic substrate) and edging are affixed. Then, tile is installed on top of the substrate.
There are a few other counter materials, such as concrete and bamboo, for example, but these are relatively rare.
Problems with Counters
Countertops may be loose because of poor installation. Loose or missing pieces may be the result of water damage or physical abuse. Burned, cut and worn surfaces reflect normal wear and tear. Mechanical damage is usually the result of an impact, which may have been a one-time event or a repetitive issue. Stained counters usually are the result of liquid penetrating through cuts and plastic laminate, for example. Metal that’s rusted is usually the result of a defective metal or strong acid. Ceramic tiles that are loose or missing or have grout that’s loose or missing usually are the result of poor installation, mechanical abuse or excessive deflection in the substrate.