Four years ago, Tony Tucker decided the time had come to look into replacement windows for his Takoma Park, Md., house. The original windows didn't keep the 70-year-old Cape Cod snug, even after the installation of newer storm windows. Some windows were permanently stuck shut; others had to be propped open.
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Tucker was right to consider new windows. Experts recommend replacements when windows are leaky, tough to operate or have only one pane of glass (aka single-glazed). New materials and technologies have brought to market products that pay for themselves over time by reducing energy bills and eliminating the cost of repainting every few years.
But after doing some research and meeting with sales reps, the Harvard-trained health care analyst's project stalled. Choosing windows and a vendor turned out to be "much more complicated than the health care debate," he says. "There was a lot more to learn, more people I could have talked to. But it was already hard to sort out the information I'd gathered. I just didn't want to get ripped off."
If replacing windows is not quite navigating Medicare Part B, it does confront consumers with a daunting array of options — in three categories: the window system, the material it's made of and the type of glazing. Your home improvement goals and budget will shape your choices in each category.
Choosing the right window system depends on how much of the window you need to replace to solve your existing problems. There are at least three different systems: sash replacements, sash replacements in a unitary frame and "prime windows," or full window units with structural frames and sills like those used in new construction. If your old window frames are rotted and you see signs of water damage in the wall framing, you'll probably want to go with prime windows (be sure to find the source of the leak and fix that first). If, on the other hand, the frames are sound and square, you may be able to get away with simply replacing the sash.
Replacement windows come in vinyl, aluminum, wood, clad wood or fiberglass. Each looks and performs differently, and cost differences among materials vary widely. As a general rule, the most expensive choice is clad wood, which combines a traditional look with low maintenance and energy efficient performance. By contrast, vinyl windows, which offer good energy performance but usually look heavier and lack traditional details, tend to cost the least.
Double-pane insulating glass is now standard with most replacement windows, but you can add special features: low-E coatings and gas fill can enhance energy performance, while other choices address noise control, safety, security, privacy and reduced cleaning. All, however, come at a price.
High Anxiety Sales Approach
Determining the type of replacement windows you want is in many ways the easiest part. Finding a dealer with reputable business practices and a skilled installer may require more effort. According to the Better Business Bureau, the volume of complaints about home improvements, including window replacement, is second only to car repairs.
Window replacement sales reps are notorious for high-pressure tactics. Edward Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington, D.C., and Eastern Pennsylvania, warns consumers against dealers who push for a cash-only transaction or up-front payment. "These are red flags," he says.
Other problems he sees frequently: sales reps who mislead homeowners about window replacement-related tax deductions or a window's energy cost savings.
Cold calling is a common practice of dishonest sales reps who often trawl older neighborhoods, preying on people who don't know wood from clad wood. Tucker made the mistake of inviting such a salesman into his home. The man was determined not to leave without a deal, he says. "After two hours, I had to threaten to call the police."
Another tactic some window sellers use is to quote a price that's good only for that day. A variant is to quote a price, then offer to drop it dramatically if the prospective buyer is willing to sign a contract before the meeting ends. In each case, the salesman is attempting to keep the homeowner from getting competing bids from other companies.
The Pitfalls of Installation
The complaints Johnson hears about are not limited to sales reps. Installers often take longer than expected or install the wrong product — whether intentionally or not. Homeowners are often disgruntled over the poor quality of the job.
Industry insiders say the best way to identify reputable replacement window installers is to look for certification by the American Window and Door Institute or Installation Masters. And while it could take some scouring, look for complaints about specific companies on the Better Business Bureau website and RipoffReport.com.
Here are some steps that Tucker took — and you can take, too — to identify which windows are right for you and to avoid rip-offs:
- Define and prioritize your goals for replacement windows regarding energy efficiency, maintenance reduction, noise control, security and appearance.
- Gain at least a basic understanding of the properties, costs and tradeoffs associated with various replacement systems (PDF), materials (PDF) and glazing options.
- Don't assume that national name-brand windows are better than lesser-known brands. Buy only replacement windows rated by the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC). Also look for products certified by the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA). Use NFRC performance data to compare specific window models.
- Resist unsolicited sales presentations. Seek estimates only from local dealers/installers with solid track records who can provide credible references.
- Shop around. Don't be pressured into making a quick decision by today-only price offers.
- Check dealer claims about your eligibility for window replacement tax credits.
- Before installation begins, compare the brand and model numbers of the windows brought to your home with those listed on the contract. If your installer obtained the windows from a dealer, ask to see the installer's order sheet.
- Don't make a big down payment. Make sure the payment schedule stipulated in the contract allows you to maintain leverage throughout the installation process. As always, don't make a final payment until the project is completed to your satisfaction.