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Ask your mother or grandmother what kind of countertops she had in her kitchen or bathroom and you're likely to get a one-word answer: Formica. The brand name was synonymous with the popular laminate finish for decades. After all, the company has been around since 1913.

While the relatively inexpensive laminates are still a popular choice for today's homeowners, other options abound. A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that solid surfaces, such as Corian andSurrell, ceramic tile, and marble, slate or other natural stone are edging out laminate finishes. Solid surfaces ranked most desirable. The more money people were willing to pay for a new home, the more solid surfaces rose in popularity.

There is no one perfect countertop. Each has pluses and minuses when it comes to price, durability, maintenance and general appearance. In fact, today's kitchen designers say homeowners might do well to consider mixing and matching countertop materials. You might like the overall look of solid surface but choose to install butcher block in an area where you chop foods and try marble in the area where you prepare pastry.

One material you might associate more with your driveway than your kitchen is also gaining in popularity. Concrete is now working its way inside the home. It can be shaped and colored to your personal taste, but because it is a porous material, it has to be sealed and it can crack.

Another increasingly popular option is stainless steel. The countertops can easily be integrated into sinks or backsplashes. Stainless steel is durable and can stand up to the heat of pots and pans, but don't use it for a cutting board.

When you're ready to choose a countertop, the folks at Home Depot suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long do you intend to live with the countertops you choose?
  • How much cooking or baking do you do?
  • Is the countertop material easy to clean?
  • Is it easily damaged?
  • Does the countertop material lend itself to the look you want?

Both the Home Depot and Lowes web sites offer capsule descriptions of the different countertop materials and Lowes provides a handy list of pros and cons associated with each option.

Price shouldn't necessarily be your deciding factor. The National Kitchen and Bath Association points out that "everything is relative." For example, while solid surface may be more expensive than laminate to install, it shouldn't ever have to be replaced and it can be repaired, except in the most extreme cases.

However, NKBA acknowledges that strength may be the biggest drawback to Corian or Surrell. Do you really want a countertop that may outlive you? The association notes that most people eventually want a change, and if you paid a lot of money for that countertop, you will likely be a lot more hesitant to replace it. If you're not planning to keep your home forever, NKBA says solid surface countertops add value and prestige to your home when you try to sell it.

If you want to find out what colors will be hot in the coming years, the Corian web site offers some hints. The company has polled its color experts on the latest trends and divided the colors into four categories: Neo-Nature, Night Lights, Fluid Motion and Joy.

Chances are your mother never had to weigh whether she wanted "Fluid Motion," other than water, in her kitchen or bathroom.

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

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