When Jeannette Noyes chose laminate countertops for the remodeled kitchen in her 1915 Indianapolis home, it was about more than cost.
"I didn't want to take the kitchen to a level that was way beyond the rest of the house," says Noyes. The new kitchen, she says, fits the house and "doesn't overpower it."
Of course, the savings didn't hurt. The estimate she got for granite counters was about $4,000, compared with $800 to $900 for Formica.
Given the price difference, even homeowners who want a totally modern look are now thinking twice about laminate countertops, as are some new home builders, says Mark Karas of Adams Kitchens in Stoneham, Mass. For a long time, granite was a given in new construction "no matter what the price point."
"Now we're going back to basics."
You can choose laminate countertops in hundreds of colors and patterns, from several brands. Some patterns replicate stone more closely than ever before with textured finishes.
It's also possible to have the undermounted sink that's typical of granite countertops — that clean look without an overlapping lip.
"Now we can get that look at one-third or one-fourth of the price," says Daniel Dietz of D.J. Dietz Designs in Reedsburg, Wis.
Laminate also lasts longer and wears better than it used to. And with material coming in 12-foot lengths, a little planning eliminates the need for most seams.
If you don't like the look of those dark seams where the material meets along the edges, the easiest solution is to choose a medium to dark color, so there isn't as much contrast with the core. Some lines of laminate have also introduced "solid-core," where the color goes all the way through.
Some installation techniques also can eliminate the line, including beveled edges and "rolled edges," in which the sheet of laminate is bent over the edge of the countertop.
If you have your heart set on stone, though, Karas says some suppliers are coming down in price at the lower end. However, the price can only drop so far because the process of shaping stone is more labor intensive, and there may be fewer choices; his firm currently offers five stone colors comparable in price with the highest-end laminate.
As for flooring, traditional materials such as vinyl and linoleum have updated looks, improved quality and lower cost.
"I think traditional vinyl floors are very underrated," Dietz says. "The looks are better than ever, and so is the wearability."
An even more traditional choice is linoleum — and there's a modern reason to pick it, too.
"Because it is made of sustainable materials, primarily linseed oil, the popularity of linoleum has skyrocketed," says kitchen designer Sandi Perlman of Indianapolis.
Karas cautions that new flooring can cost more depending on the existing floor. If you have several layers of old flooring, it can be a bad idea to add another layer of linoleum or vinyl on top, but stripping those layers adds to the labor cost. A more expensive flooring material that can be installed over the top might end up costing less in labor.
Or, if you're lucky, what's under those layers might be good news.
"Another thing people often don't consider in older homes: There might be hardwood that you can refinish," Dietz says.