The rise of granite countertops

I’ve written about this before but more people are also interested in this topic: what is behind the rise in popularity of granite countertops?

“What’s interesting is how granite has quickly become the one and only material, across the country and across all price points,” says Ron Cathell, a real estate agent in Northern Virginia. It used to be a high-end thing, back in the 1990s when these countertops began making appearances. It was aspirational. “Then, 12 years ago, the first sort of moderately priced homes started using it. Now, every home has to have granite if you want to sell it. Not just sell it, but rent it. It’s become such a thing. It’s almost — ” he searches for the right metaphor. “It’s almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet.”

As the price has gone down, the popularity has gone up; just look at the graph provided by, a Web site dedicated to the natural stone industry. In 2000, 895,000 metric tons of granite slabs were imported to the United States. In 2011, that number was 1.43 million — and that’s down from a high of 2.64 million a few years ago. The recession slowed granite sales — even cheap granite, which can be bought for as low as about $30 a square foot. Less cheap can go for $80, or however much you’re willing to spend, really. The backsplash is the limit.

“Let’s get deep, let’s get psychological,” says Anthony Carino. Carino is the co-host of “Kitchen Cousins,” a renovation show on HGTV, the network that taught the world about recessed lighting and radiant heating, that democratized the stainless steel appliance so it could be enjoyed by New Yorkers and North Dakotans alike. HGTV is the land that viewers visit when they are trying to cultivate a personal design aesthetic by spying on what everyone else is doing. “People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking about,” Carino says. “It’s like listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars.”

I would argue that this is not psychological – it is sociological. Granite countertops are in for three big reasons:

1. It signals something about its owners. Perhaps it is that they have the money (a marker of social class). Perhaps it is because they have the right taste (though whether it is about aesthetics or being functional would be interesting to look at). Perhaps it is because they are smart enough to get behind the latest trend (#2 on this list).

2. It is what is popular now, thanks to HGTV and other outlets. People want what is popular, partly because they don’t want to be left behind (like having Harvest Gold appliances) and partly because of #3.

3. It helps a home sell. Add stainless steel appliances and decent cabinets and you have a kitchen that is ready to help sell the house.

People internalize these important factors and then make a decision whether to purchase granite countertops or not.

A few other things intrigue me:

1. Are granite countertops “green” or “sustainable”? Does it matter?

2. I’ve seen a few references here and there to a backlash against people who buy this. One referred to purchasers as the “granite and stainless set.” Will this grow into a bigger movement and/or how long will the granite countertop popularity last?

3. Is part of the appeal the natural nature of granite? Although one could argue that it is strange to bring a big slab of rock into your gleaming kitchen…it makes for an odd mix of modern machines and prehistoric rock.

4. How do people sell other countertop surfaces these days if granite is so popular? Besides price, what is the sales pitch for something else?

Also, Megan McArdle recent wondered why people purchase stainless steel appliances.

h/t Instapundit

Moving? Consider the walkability and transit scores

The Infrastructurist looks at two figures that may become part of the home-buying equation in the near future: a home’s walkability and transit scores.

How much this influences homebuying decisions remains to be seen. I’m sure there is part of the population that wants such a location where daily needs, like parks, food, and transit are within a reasonable walk. But there are certainly others who would emphasize other features, like the size of the home, over the home’s context.

We know that Americans don’t want to walk much more than a quarter mile to get to things. New Urbanists use this information to guide their planning: homes should be within a 5-10 minute walk away from necessities.

How race effects chosing a house

The Houston Chronicle contains an interview with sociologist Michael Emerson about a forthcoming study (to be published in Social Forces) regarding housing choice and race.

First, a bit about the methodology of the study:

Researchers for the Institute for Urban Research at Rice University asked that question to 1,000 whites, 1,000 African-Americans and 1,000 Hispanics in Harris County to determine whether race makes a difference when they select homes and neighborhoods, independent of crime, housing prices and schools…

The housing questions were part of 30-minute interviews conducted for the annual Houston Area Survey. Respondents were asked to imagine they were looking for a house and found one they liked in their price range. They then were presented with computer-generated, random scenarios of school quality, property values, crime rate and racial makeup, and asked the likelihood that they would buy the house.

By using hypothetical situations, researchers were able to isolate the effect of certain factors, such as the racial composition of a neighborhood or the crime rate.

Here is a quick summary of the findings, according to Emerson:

For whites, the percentage of African-American or Hispanic matters significantly. They’re more and more averse to buying a house in a neighborhood as the percentage of African-Americans or Hispanics increases, even when crime is low, property values are increasing, and the local schools are of high quality.

The other result we found was for African-Americans in the Houston area, they’re sensitive to the percent Asian. So as the percent Asian increases, the less likely they are to say they want to buy the house.

And for Hispanics, the racial composition did not impact their preference for buying the home.

One other way to understand how strong the impact is, for whites: The likelihood they wouldn’t want to buy the house when there was racial diversity was equal to the likelihood they wouldn’t want to buy when the crime rate was high.

These findings are similar to those of other studies: Whites prefer not to choose a neighborhood with a certain number of African-Americans and Hispanics, even if the neighborhood has other positive features. The findings about other races are interesting as well – a lot of the housing literature focuses on the preferences of whites which makes sense as they are still the largest group and historically and today tend to have more wealth. But it is important to know the preferences of African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly as the Hispanic population grows.

Interestingly, the racial composition of the neighborhood does not appear to matter to Hispanics. I am curious to see what Emerson and his co-authors suggest is behind this.