Counters and cabinets have two distinct roles in homes. From a functional standpoint, counters provide working surfaces in kitchens, bathrooms, pantries and bars. Cabinets provide storage facilities in kitchens, bathrooms and other rooms. Counters and cabinets also play a strong role in the visual, cosmetic and architectural side of things. Cabinetry can be a focal point in a room and often, the cabinetry is an indicator of the quality of construction throughout the home. As inspectors, we focus on the functional and performance side of things.
A variety of materials are used for counters, with varying price points. Each material has pros and cons. Some of the more popular choices for countertops include the following:
Plastic laminate: Developed in the early to mid-1900s, laminate countertops still are a popular choice. A plastic sheet is adhered to a particleboard base in the factory. These countertops tend to be easier to work with because they are relatively light and easy to cut on site. Depending on the quality of the laminate, this material also is relatively heat- and stain-resistant, although damage from cutting utensils is a common issue.
Butcher block: Pieces of wood are glued together and sanded to create a smooth surface. These countertops need to be sealed after manufacture and then periodically after installation. Without sealing, the wood pieces can warp due to moisture, and germ and pathogen retention can become an issue. Although most countertops are maintenance-free, butcher block is an exception. Wood is subject to burn marks from hot pots, for example. Some kitchens feature sections of butcher block, blended with other countertop materials.
Natural stone: Marble and granite are the two most popular choices for natural stone countertops. To manufacture the countertop, natural rock is cut and polished to achieve a smooth finish. The finish can be glossy, matte or honed. Depending on how it is finished, the same stone can provide different looks. Porosity is an issue with some natural stone countertops, which may discolor without regular sealing. Marble stains much more easily than granite.
Quartz or cultured stone: Consisting of ground quartz with a resin binder, this nonporous engineered material is a durable choice and it never has to be sealed. It is also known as engineered stone. With clever pigmentation, patterning and texturing, quartz countertops can be made to look like many natural stone products.
Stainless steel: As the name suggests, stainless steel sheets are formed into the shape of the countertop. This material is extremely hygienic and easy to maintain. Stainless steel countertops are the choice of commercial kitchens, although you also may see them in residential homes.
Tile: Tile is one of the few types of counters that’s built entirely on site. A plywood base is installed over the cabinets. After the sink and faucet cutouts are done, the cement board base (or plastic substrate) and edging are affixed. Then, tile is installed on top of the substrate.
There are a few other counter materials, such as concrete and bamboo, for example, but these are relatively rare. It is helpful to become familiar with the materials that are commonly used in your area so that you can better inform your clients.
Inspection Tip: When a client asks you what material the countertop is made of, you could state that it’s very difficult to tell by looking because so many manufacturers do such a good job of imitating natural products. The good news is that, if you can’t tell what material it is by looking at it, it shouldn’t be an issue because no matter what the material is, the appearance is very good.
Problems with Counters
Countertops may be loose because of poor installation. Loose or missing pieces may be the result of water damage or physical abuse. Burned, cut and worn surfaces reflect normal wear and tear. Mechanical damage is usually the result of an impact, which may have been a one-time event or a repetitive issue. Stained counters usually are the result of liquid penetrating through cuts and plastic laminate, for example. Metal that’s rusted is usually the result of a defective metal or strong acid. Ceramic tiles that are loose or missing or have grout that’s loose or missing usually are the result of poor installation, mechanical abuse or excessive deflection in the substrate.
Rot in the substrate is usually the result of leakage around sinks and basins. This often occurs at faucet connections and may be the result of splashing or leakage of the faucet.
The implications of a loose countertop may be personal injury if the countertop falls.
Poor hygiene is the implication of loose or missing pieces; burned, cut or worn surfaces; mechanical damage; or stained counters and rust. Loose or missing ceramic tiles or grout may also contribute to hygiene issues, as well as being cosmetic defects.
Loose and missing grout and tile pieces can be a hygiene issue.
When inspecting a countertop, grab the edge and try to lift it with moderate force. Don’t damage the countertop by applying excessive force. Look for these factors:
- Loose or missing pieces, burns, cuts or worn areas
- Mechanical damage resulting from impact
- Stains on marble, wood and plastic laminates
- Rust on metal countertops
- Loose or missing tiles or grout on ceramics
When you’re looking at cabinetry and plumbing fixtures, check the underside of the countertops, especially around sinks and faucets, for evidence of rot.
Check underneath counters for rot.
Although home inspectors are not required to move household goods, it can be revealing for you to slide a cutting board or other articles out of the way so you can see the entire countertop.
Cabinets may be solid wood, particleboard or metal. Particleboard is often covered with a plastic laminate. The quality of cabinets typically varies with material and price.
Problems with Cabinets
You can encounter numerous issues when inspecting cabinets.Water-damaged, rotted or stained cabinets may be caused by leaks from the roof, plumbing or heating systems, walls or windows. Water damage may be the result of splashing at sinks and counters. The implications of severe water damage may be failure of the cabinets.
Check underneath sinks for rot from plumbing leaks.
Mechanical damage, worn cabinetry and broken glass may be the result of normal wear and tear or physical abuse. Significant damage or wear may result in the collapse of the cabinet or inoperable doors or drawers. Cracked or broken glass can be a safety issue if glass falls onto people. In many cases, though, the defects are simply cosmetic.
Defective hardware or stiff or inoperative drawers and doors may be an original installation issue, a lack of maintenance or abuse. These kinds of functional problems diminish the usability of the cabinets. Doors, drawers, hinges or other pieces that are missing or loose also affect the usability of cabinets. Doors that are loose or swing open or close by themselves may indicate problems.
Cabinets that are not well-secured to the wall are a safety issue. Falling cabinets can seriously injure someone.
Shelves that are not well-supported are usually minor problems, unless they are filled with china, before giving way. This can cause damage and injury.
The minimum requirement for clearance between the bottom of the cabinet and the top of the range is 30 inches. The implication of inadequate clearance is a potential for fire. If there is a metal hood fan, the minimum clearance is reduced to 24 inches between the bottom of the cabinet to the top of the range. This length is further reduced with microwave hood fans, but the exact dimensions are determined by the manufacturer. Check that there is at least 18 inches between the bottom of the microwave hood fan and the top of the range.
Rusted medicine cabinets are not hygienic, and the cabinet eventually may rust through and become nonfunctional.
Inspection Strategies for Counters and Cabinets
- Where water damage is visible, probe for rot and make sure the cabinet structure is intact. For laminate countertops, check underneath the sink where the faucet passes through. Water damage often can be found in this location.
- Let the client know about wear or mechanical damage that does or could affect the usability of the cabinetry.
- Recommend that broken or cracked glass be replaced.
- Operate all doors and drawers, looking for hardware or operational deficiencies. In many cases, all that is required is an adjustment or some lubrication.
- Apply moderate upward force on wall-hung cabinets to ensure they aren’t loose. Test that shelves are secure by applying moderate downward force to the front edge.
Many home inspectors get their clients involved when looking at counters and cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms. The evaluation of these systems is somewhat subjective; allowing clients to open and close cupboard doors and pull out drawers may be helpful to both you and the client.
Carson Dunlop - Consulting engineering firm devoted to home inspection since 1978. www.carsondunlop.com
More information about interior systems can be found in the ASHI@Home Training Program (http://www.homeinspector.org/ASHI-HOME-Training-System).