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Granite countertops look great, but are costly with some drawbacks

Until fairly recently, granite kitchen countertops were the exclusive preserve of high-end homes and apartments because of their high cost and difficulty of installation. Today, though, you can easily purchase granite countertops at mass-market retailers like Lowe's and Ikea, and while the overall cost is still fairly high (anywhere from $50 to more than $250 per square foot installed) granite has become accessible enough that it's now the most popular countertop surface in the U.S. Major brands include Granite Certified by DuPont, Mystic Granite and Rembrandt Countertops, though you'll probably be limited to the choices available from your contractor or home-improvement store.

Home-improvement websites and publications (ranging from Popular Mechanics to HGTV.com to ThisOldHouse.com) concur about the advantages of granite countertops: They're stylish, nearly impervious to heat damage and scratches, extremely easy to clean, environmentally sound (they're made of natural stone) and can add to the resale value of your home. Also, compared to the limited options a dozen years ago, buyers of granite countertops can now choose from among literally hundreds (some sources say as many as 3,000) of patterns and colors, including solids, patterns and swirls. (The process works this way: You choose a granite pattern at the store; a contractor comes and measures your counters, cuts the slab of granite to fit, then delivers and installs it).

Granite countertops do have some disadvantages, though. Besides the cost -- which can easily exceed $2,000 or $3,000 for a mere 30 square feet of counter space -- most granite surfaces are porous and need to be resealed at regular intervals (anywhere from six months to two years), lest they slowly absorb stains over years of use. From what we've read, resealing granite countertops is a fairly straightforward do-it-yourself task, but if you're the type to put off important household chores you may be better off choosing a less expensive kitchen countertop surface that requires less maintenance. Speaking of maintenance, it is possible to install granite countertops yourself, but this is not a task for the faint of heart. These counters are extremely heavy and difficult to cut, according to sources like DoItYourself.com, and it's very easy to crack your new granite countertop while transporting it from one place to another.

Concerns have been raised that some varieties of granite countertops may contain unhealthy amounts of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive element that (in large quantities) has been linked to cancer. Some granite countertops have been tested and have shown elevated levels of radon, an issue that has been seized on by manufacturers of other countertop materials, while other granite countertops contain no radon. If you're concerned about radon levels, ask your contractor (or home-improvement store) for more information. You can find the original article about the granite/radon issue in the July 24, 2008, issue of The New York Times. Robert Levesque, the founder of HomeStyleChoices.com, has also written a good summary of the issues in his article, "Radon In Granite Countertops: What It's About and What You Can Do".

Although granite is by far the most popular polished-stone countertop material right now, it does have some stiff competition, including soapstone and marble. The problem with soapstone countertops, experts say, is that they are available in only a limited array of colors (mostly variants of dark grays and browns. Other than that, soapstone countertops are similar in performance to granite, and they need to be treated occasionally with mineral oil to retain their dark uniform color. Soapstone can scratch, but the scratches can be sanded out. Soapstone costs about $100 to $150 per square foot installed. Some suppliers are Green Mountain Soapstone and Vermont Soapstone Company.

As you might have guessed, marble countertops are extremely heavy and expensive. They have a classic stone look, but experts say that although marble can be used for countertops, it isn't the most practical material. Reviewers say that marble countertops are also more prone to staining and scratching than other stone countertop surfaces. Acidic liquids like vinegar or lemon juice can etch the surface. Prices for marble countertops range from $50 to $140 per square foot.

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