STAINLESS STEEL can withstand almost any abuse without rusting or discoloring. It keeps its luster, it's easy to maintain, and it's nonporous, so bacteria doesn't grow on it. It's especially good for someone looking for a hypoallergenic solution, but it's not for neat freaks, since it shows surface abrasions, fingerprints, and smudges. Some people find its look to be cold or sterile.

COPPER has lots of character. It's warm and beautiful, long-lasting, and nonporous, so it does not foster bacteria. It will take a lot of maintenance if you want it to look shiny all the time, as it takes time to polish. It will naturally oxidize and develop a patina over time, and like stainless steel it will scratch. Copper has extremely limited customizations options.

Cost: Stainless steel and copper are both expensive, ranging from $130 to $200 per square foot installed, or even more based on the customization, size of the project, and geographic region. Ask your contractor to line-item the installation.

CERAMIC TILE has long been a regional favorite in the west, less popular in the east. It's highly resistant to stains and heat, and easy to repair if a damaged tile needs replacement. It's very versatile, and counters can be made in virtually any shape. It can br high-maintenance, as the grout lines can stain and require regular cleaning. Be careful of getting fine-ground coffee between the tiles. Always buy extra when choosing tile, because manufacturers change patterns and colors often. Even seemingly common tile can be hard to find later.

Cost: Prices vary, but basic ceramic tile (4 1/4 to 6 inches square) runs about $25 to $30 per square foot installed. Expect to pay more for complicated layouts, custom touches, and specialty tiles.

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