Can't figure out why your kitchen appears outdated? Look down. It could be your countertop, the centerpiece of your kitchen and a key focal point of your entire home.
Ugly Countertop Syndrome may be common, but it's far from incurable. You may be salivating over white granite while bemoaning your finances, but the solution doesn't have to be that expensive -- or that difficult to install.
From paint to wood, concrete paper to (gasp!) laminate, your kitchen countertop options are endless with a little DIY, even on a tiny budget. All you have to do is decide which solution is right for you. Here are six ideas to get you started.
#1 Modern Laminate
Project time: 2 to 3 days
Cost: From $30 per sheet
Durability: 10 to 20 years, with proper care
Forget what you think you know about laminate. Manufacturers have begun creating countertops that mimic high-end granite styles. "You can't tell the difference until you touch it," says Meredith Barclay, a countertops merchant for Home Depot.
Try Formica, which makes several elegant granite-esque patterns that cost around $90 for a 96-inch-long sheet, giving you the look of Calacatta marble for much, much less. Or try Wilsonart's textured, glossy sheets -- perfect for creating your dream all-white kitchen without breaking the bank.
Or, try something bold -- like the glossy red kitchen countertops Cincinnati homeowner Suzanne Prince Quinn and her husband installed.
"It was bright-looking and sleek," Quinn says. "We wanted to have an uncluttered kitchen."
If you're going to install laminate yourself, don't be afraid to consult with experts. Barclay bemoans customers who think their special-order laminate countertop was made incorrectly. "But the customer really didn't know how to install the product that we delivered to them," she says.
For the most part, Quinn found the process simple. "It was quite easy to work with," she says. Ten years after installation, the only durability issue is that the countertops have risen slightly around the seams, a problem caused by moisture build-up.
Common installation pitfalls include making sure the laminate fits perfectly against uneven surfaces, such as textured, tiled, or brick walls. It's not a difficult process (all you really need is a compass and a pencil), but done incorrectly, it can look unprofessional.
For Quinn, laminate countertops have another benefit: Instead of being committed to granite or quartz for decades, she can change up her kitchen on a whim.
"If we'd spent a ton of money on granite or anything else, we would feel like we probably shouldn't change it," Quinn says. "This way, we get to make changes when we'd like to."
Project time: About a week
Cost: $300 to $500
Durability: Long-lasting, but stains easily
Concrete countertops are back in style -- Pinterest is rife with tutorials for transforming your home into industrial chic. But owners are divided on the trend's longevity, not to mention the upkeep. A survey on "The Kitchn" yielded responses ranging from "I do kind of hate them" to complaints about maintenance to "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
So are they for you? Here's what to expect with concrete: a dusty, messy process that takes about a week. Hiring a pro is recommended, but if you're feeling handy, it's a totally manageable DIY.
"Initially, it sounds a little overwhelming, but when you break it down to the original steps, there's nothing there that's hard to do," says Jenise Frohlinger, the blogger behind “Do It Yourself Fun Ideas.”
Frohlinger opted for a marbleized concrete, traveling to Las Vegas to learn the Ashby technique. She attended a course through Countertop Solutions. Although she recommends the course for anyone who wants to learn the nitty-gritty of countertop creation, Frohlinger says anyone can do this project, even without a class. Here's the counter she made in the course:
Frohlinger's advice for first-timers: Make sure your measurements are accurate, especially when cutting your countertop template out of melamine or plywood. And when you pour the concrete, do it in one shot, she says. "You want to make sure you're consistent in the color."
#3 Granite Tiles
Project time: A (long) weekend
Cost: From $7 per square foot
Durability: The same as granite -- indefinitely -- but with the annoyance of dirty or cracking grout
Want the granite look for less? Swap out the enormous slab for smaller tiles -- a project Barclay calls a viable DIY project for homeowners.
It's much cheaper, too. Although tiles can be purchased for as little as $7 per square foot, a slab countertop costs upwards of $60 per square foot.
Granite also weighs nearly 13 pounds per square foot, meaning a five-foot-long slab countertop might weigh up to 130 pounds -- or more, if you're using thicker materials. Choose granite tiles instead, and you're looking at only 13 pounds per 12-inch tile. That's heavy, but not crazy heavy.
You'll need a wet saw to cut the tiles to fit, but installation is the same as any other tiling project. Spread thin-set mortar on your surface, use spacers to separate the tiles, and grout in between.
But if you choose to go this route, Barclay has one warning: keeping the grout clean can be a pain "due to the variety of materials that come in contact with a countertop," she says. Regular maintenance will be required, and you'll want to clean spills and messes immediately.
#4 Contact Paper
Project time: An afternoon
Cost: Less than $100
Durability: Definitely not a long-term solution.
Although Barclay doesn't recommend this as a long-term solution, covering your countertops in contact paper can be a fantastic, low-cost alternative to a full remodel.
Depending on the size of your kitchen, contact paper can cost less than $100 and provide a dramatic transformation. HouseLogic writer Lisa Kaplan Gordon tried it herself and said it looked "100% better."
Installation requires a steady hand -- you'll need to be careful to avoid bubbles -- but shouldn't take more than a few hours to dramatically change your kitchen's look.
Although some remodelers report it lasting for years, don't forget the battle wounds your countertop might endure. Anything from hot pots to a dropped knife can wreck the paper.
But even if it doesn't last long, it's easy to redo when disaster strikes. As long as you consider it a temporary stand-in between remodels, your new countertops are unlikely to disappoint.
Project time: A little less than a week
Cost: $100 to $200
Durability: Paint will hold up well, but won't last forever.
Looking for another easy upgrade, but want a solution that's a little more permanent? Try paint.
Blogger Dawn Sailors of "Designing Dawn" bought a home on short sale that needed "a lot of cosmetic upgrades," she says -- particularly in the kitchen, which had cracked, yellow-speckled laminate tops.
"I just couldn't live with what was there forever, but we didn't have unlimited funds to update everything," Sailors says. Inspired by an idea she'd found online, she decided to paint the countertops, using neutral, light colors like white and gray -- and adding a little glitter to the mix for depth.
Because paint is permanent, take care during application. Sailors mixed in accent colors to give her countertops a subtle, marbleized effect and sealed the entire thing with EnviroTex Lite for a glossy finish and to ensure food safety.
The entire project cost Sailors just $120 and put her kitchen out of commission for a little less than a week -- two days of work and three days spent hardening. And even though they weren't meant to last forever, they've held up well.
"The countertops were meant in the beginning to be a stopgap until we could afford real stone counters," she says. "But they've held up so well, we still haven't replaced them four years later."
#6 Wood Overlay
Project time: About a week
Durability: With maintenance, it should last years -- as long as you're OK with dings and scratches.
Butcher block countertops are nearly as popular as granite. And while professional installation costs far less, it's still out of budget for many homeowners.
You can certainly pick up premade butcher block countertops from Ikea for $189 per 98-inch slab, but Erica Hebel from "On Bliss Street" decided to make her own using aspen boards from her local hardware store, which cost about $45 for a 72-inch panel. She paid less than $200 for the entire project.
This is what Hebel's counters looked like before:
The bulk of the construction is prepping, staining, and nailing the boards to your cabinetry -- nothing too complicated. Cover it up with a sealant (Hebel used Minwax Wipe-On Poly in a clear finish) to protect your countertops from drips.
"It was one of my very first projects ever," Hebel says. "The wood's very forgiving. As long as you have a tape measure, you can figure it out."
Although the countertops aren't quite as low-maintenance as stone, Hebel says they've held up "amazingly well" in the year since installation -- except for a few dents from dropped dishes, which "don't affect the finish at all." No, you shouldn't cut directly on the surface or put hot pots on them, but under normal usage, they'll last a long time.