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Laminate is cheap and easy to maintain, but utilitarian

If you're daunted by the thought of spending upwards of $10,000 on countertops for a good-sized kitchen, experts say you should consider the advantages of a decidedly unsexy surface: plastic laminate, the best-known brand of which is Formica. In a test of various countertop surfaces by a major consumer organization, laminates receive special mention and are praised for their resistance to stains and abrasive pads, as well as their wide array of colors and patterns. Best of all, the testers say, laminates are inexpensive and easy to clean.

Laminate is made by combining paper and resin under high heat and pressure. The bottom layer is made of kraft paper (the same paper from which grocery bags are made.) The middle layer contains the color or pattern that you see, and the top is a clear layer. Laminate countertops are nonporous and therefore don't need to be sealed. They resist damage from common kitchen products like lemon juice and other acidic substances. Laminate countertops are reasonably durable, although not indestructible. About.com warns that laminate "scratches and chips are almost impossible to repair," and the nonbiodegradeable plastics in laminate surfaces don't make them a favorite of environmentalists. They also can warp, melt or discolor if hot pots are placed on them.

Perhaps most important of all, virtually every source we consulted agrees that Formica and other brands of laminate countertops are less elegant and attractive than granite, quartz, solid surfaces or concrete. The seams and edges are visible and almost impossible to blend. Still, elegance and attractiveness might not be important if you're installing countertops in a rental unit or utility room, of if your budget is limited. The fact remains that laminate surfaces cost three or four times less than stone surfaces, and experts agree that they're relatively easy to clean and maintain.

Despite their numerous drawbacks, laminate and Formica countertops may seem like even more of a bargain from an installation standpoint. It won't be an easy job, but from what we've seen online, a moderately experienced DIY enthusiast with the right tools should be able to cut, carry and install laminate countertops with minimal drama (though BobVila.com's Joyce Carrol warns that laminate installations can be a "nightmare"). If your walls aren't square or flat, or if your countertop needs to turn a corner, you'll probably be better off hiring a contractor.

A ready-to-install, solid-color, 8-foot countertop costs between $80 to $100. If you hire a contractor to build your countertop, prices could range from $15 to $25 per square foot, perhaps more. If you're up to the task, doing the job yourself can save hundreds of dollars in installation costs.

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