IT'S A GOOD TIME FOR HOME BUYERS WHO are in the midst of choosing a counter-top surface. Their options are endless—from engineered stone and granite to solid surfaces, butcher block, and stainless steel. These pricey materials are wonderful, but for homeowners looking for low price point plus performance, nothing beats the trusty laminate countertop.

Laminate is made from several layers of Kraft paper sandwiched together with phenolic resins. The decorative top layer—the pattern you see—is treated with a melamine plastic coating to give it scratch resistance. “It is a very durable product and is pretty resistant to scratching,” says Brenda White, public relations coordinator for Temple, Texas–based Wilsonart International, a major laminate manufacturer.

With a material cost of about $2.50 to $3 per square foot, laminate costs less than almost all other countertop materials, which makes it attractive for buyers on a budget. The low price point is also one reason laminate was, for a long time, the undisputed king of the countertop hill. “It is really not a bad surface at all,” says builder Chip Vaughan of Wayne, Pa.–based Vaughan and Sons, adding that “for the price, it is a very good product.”

Back To Basics With the growing popularity of solid surfaces and the relative low cost of granite, laminate is no longer home buyers' first choice. Vaughan and Sons, for example, has stopped offering the product in its houses. For one thing, the builder's homes are in the $700,000 price range, and those buyers want granite. The other reason is that “some people look at it as an inferior product,” Vaughan explains.

Nothing could be further from the truth, laminate manufacturers say. In fact, they say, laminate is holding steady and is still popular because it offers the same proven performance it always has. “What we've done is worked on the formulation of the resins to remove the toxicity and keep the durability,” says Jola Spring, senior product manager for the high-pressure laminates and premium laminates divisions of Cincinnati-based Formica Corp.

The Imitators Probably the main reason laminate is popular again has to do with the advances in printing technology that allow the product to imitate granite, metal, or almost any other material with amazing clarity.

“There is a world of difference between the [old products that looked like stone] and the new ones,” White says. “The old ones look fake and unreal, but the new ones are more realistic and have a finer quality.”

Formica, for instance, has introduced Etchings, a line that not only looks like granite but also has the small fissures and high-gloss sheen of the real thing. The company also offers the Authentix Collection, which duplicates the look and feel of stainless steel and copper. For those who salivate over the red-hot quartz engineered-stone surfaces but can't afford their hefty price tags, Wilsonart has introduced Topaz, a new series of premium laminate patterns that look and feel like the true article.

Manufacturers insist that laminate still offers design options for home buyers and builders—even for those who normally favor higher-priced materials. “[Laminate] is a good fit in the kitchen,” says Allen Rosenberg, marketing vice president for laminate manufacturer Panolam Industries in Shelton, Conn. “But it's also an option for a second bath, a mudroom, and laundry rooms. Those are all good places for it.” Others hope the new and exciting offerings lure more people back to the material. Says Spring, “With the economy slowing down, the product gives buyers the look and feel of granite at a fraction of the cost.”