What you need to know about replacing vinyl windows and siding

Vinyl Siding Overview

Want to know a few basic facts about vinyl siding? Certainly there must be a reason why every house seems to have it (hint: the last FAQ will answer that question!).

What is vinyl siding?

It's a second skin for your house: long strips of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fashioned to look like traditional wood siding.

Do I need to remove my current siding first?

You can do this, but for renovation projects installers typically install over existing siding.

Vinyl siding just comes in beige or wimpy pastel colors, right?

Traditionally, this has been the case. More recently, though, techniques have been developed to infuse vinyl siding with richer, deeper colors. Vinyl Siding Color Pallette - PDF

Will high winds rip off vinyl siding?

Most siding installation is rated for winds up to 110 mph. If wind does rip it off, note that vinyl siding is much easier to re-install than other types of siding.

What's it means when the salesperson talks about a "square?"

A square is 100 square feet of siding (10 feet by 10 feet). Individual square footage is not used.

I hate power washers. Do I have to use one to clean vinyl siding?

No. Actually, you're better off with less water pressure. Just use a garden hose, a soft-bristled brush, and diluted solutions of Fantastik® or Windex®. Solutions of vinegar (30%) and water (70%) will also do the job.

Will the color in vinyl siding last forever?

No. Nothing applied to a house exterior can be expected to last for decades. The color in vinyl siding does retain for quite a long time, though. Compared to traditional exterior house paint, the color in your vinyl siding will last much, much longer. Vinyl Siding Color Pallette - PDF

But isn't vinyl siding tacky?

In recent years, vinyl siding manufacturers have really stepped up to the plate to offer much more than the "plain vanilla" product we have become accustomed to. Even old homes can be sided with vinyl and retain their historic appeal. Really. It's worth investigating.

So, why does every house seem to have vinyl siding?

It's the cheapest siding option around. Try this test. Get a quote for having your house professionally painted. Chances are, the vinyl siding installation quote will very close, if not better. And with vinyl siding, depending on the installer, you might get a lot of extras thrown in--gutters, window cap, insulation under the siding, etc.

Replacing Your Windows

Unless you have owned a house for a number of years, you may never have had any need to know about replacement windows. They are not something that enters your mode of thinking - until it is too late. By that time, rainwater is infiltrating into your house, drafts are blowing, and visitors commenting that your "Windows need painting."

Replacement Windows Do Not Replace Everything

Replacement windows are an odd home improvement item. They do not exactly "replace" your window at all. What replacement windows do is replace a majority of the window - the glass and moving parts - but the framed part of your window stays in place. It is nearly impossible, and not at all advisable, to rip out the entire window and replace it with a new construction wind

When to Use a New Construction Window

However, there are a few instances when you would do this. If you are completely replacing a wall or if the area around the window is so rotted out as to be structurally unsound, then you would want to use a new construction window. In addition to putting in the new construction window, you would construct a substantial frame around the window to hold it in place. 

Replacement Windows Not Always Necessary

Many homeowners, experiencing high energy costs, jump the gun and pull out all of their windows and replace them. In some cases, this is premature. The seals on the existing double-glazed windows may have failed, allowing cold or heat to more easily pass into the house. In this case, it is quite simple to repair or replace just the failed pane of glass, saving much money and effort. 

Homeowners Often Fearful of Replacement Window Companies

The replacement window installation industry has gained a reputation over the last several decades of being overly aggressive, comparable to the reputation that door-to-door siding or encyclopedia salesmen gained in the latter half of the 20th century. This reputation is not entirely unfounded. Since profit margins can be so high, some companies use less-than-savory tactics to make a sale. Consumers are advised to obtain at least 5 quotes, and to educate themselves as much as possible prior to signing any contracts. There are some companies, though, that are striving to change engrained attitudes towards replacement window companies. 

Not a DIY Project

Replacement windows are a prime example of why it is sometimes nice to have professionals take on a home improvement project. Pro window installers do this job day in and day out, and they have the tools and skills needed to knock it out in minutes instead of hours or days. In theory, a homeowner can save money by replacing his or her own windows, but by the time you have mastered your learning curve, you are practically finished with the entire project. 

Pella, Andersen, Simonton...or No Name?

Replacement window companies often suggest no-name brand window manufacturers. Before rejecting these "no-names" in favor of big names like Pella or Andersen, weigh their features and cost. Again, because of the high level of competition out there, it is possible to obtain perfectly good no-name brand windows that are comparable with the expensive name-brand windows.

Cost of Replacing Windows Extremely High

How much it costs to replace your windows depends on many factors: locale, window materials, type of glazing, installer, and so on. But it is safe to assume that most homeowners will not escape a whole-house window replacement for less than $10,000. Keep in mind, this is very much a ballpark figure - and is on the lower end. Some homeowners cut costs by hiring a handyman and having him replace the windows. You may save some money. But because the pro window installers have perfected the installation process (and often come in with crews of 10 or more men), the amount of money you save will not be as much as you think, and you certainly will not save time. One nice thing: replacement windows have great resale value when it comes time to sell your house. 

Framing Materials Important

Homeowners concerned about maintaining the "classic" look of their own house naturally will reject the idea of installing vinyl windows in favor of wood materials. But vinyl windows are worth a second glance. Vinyl framing materials inhibit energy loss, don't require sealing or painting, and a much cheaper than wood. Metal windows are often architecturally necessary (to match the style of contemporary homes), but they tend to be the worst for energy savings. 

Summary - Replacement Windows, A Worthwhile Pain

Few homeowners who have been through the replacement window installation process will say that they care to repeat it. After all, it is necessary to invite 3-5 companies into your home to give quotes, and then invite one of those companies back to spend 2 or 3 days installing the windows (which necessitates being on the premises the entire time ). It is work, but worthwhile. Your house looks better and feels better. Your next round of wintertime energy bills are 10% lower. Your house is quieter.

So You Want to Replace your Windows or Siding

For something so common and universal, replacement windows can be a real mystery to the average homeowner. This is due in part to the fact that the replacement window industry rivals the new car industry in "locking down" all the information and keeping it within their own closed field. Learn basics about replacement windows, what they are, how they operate, and how to buy them. 

What is a Replacement Window?

A replacement window is a strange thing, with very few parallels elsewhere in the house. As the name implies, a replacement window replaces your current window, but not on a one-for-one basis. What you take out (the old window) is not completely replaced by the new window (replacement window).

When you remove your old window, you are removing only the sash and a few other related parts. You are not removing the entire window that was originally installed by the house builder. It is nearly impossible to remove every, single bit of material from the old window, so some of it remains attached to your house.

Even though the replacement window is not the same as the original window (also called a new construction window), it does function the same. If it's a double-hung window, it slides up and down. If it's a casement window, it swings in and out. Even though replacement windows are smaller than the originals, usually they will perform better. 

How You Know You Need Replacement Windows

It is usually glaringly obvious when you need to replace your windows. However, the high cost of replacing windows can cause homeowners to put off this project year after year.
  • High Energy Bill. Energy costs are abnormally high, yet you have done other non window-related repairs in an effort to save money (chiefly, insulation in walls and attic).
  • Drafts. Chilly breezes in your house during the winter can come from even the tiniest cracks in window glass or window framing. 
  • Window Glass Cold to the Touch. Single-pane windows will always feel cold to the touch, no matter their condition. But if you have double-paned windows, they should feel only moderately cold when the temperature outside is very cold. 
  • Difficulty Opening or Closing Windows. Wood windows stuck to the frame by layers of paint. Settling of the foundation causing frames to twist, preventing the window sash from moving. Casement window hinges and latches rusted. Any of these might necessitate a full replacement rather than repair. 
  • Window Painting and Repair Impossible. When your windows reach the point where the paint is alligatored, cracked, peeling, and the wood is rotting and falling apart, it becomes more cost-effective to replace the windows rather than repair.
  • You Get a Financial Windfall. If you have extra money that you can earmark for home remodeling (a work bonus, inheritance, home equity loan, etc.), it makes sense to put money into replacement windows.
  • Do-It-Yourself Window Replacement Not Possible. Most people do not or cannot replace their own windows. 

Find a Replacement Window Company

Replacement window companies fall into 2 categories. First, you have the purely local companies. These companies might favor one particular manufacturer, but usually they have a variety of manufacturers to choose from. Second, you have the franchised or corporate operations, like Sears, The Home Depot, Pella, Andersen, or Empire. These larger operations may offer you a variety of manufacturers, but more often they offer their own brand (i.e., Pella will install only Pella windows) or a favored house brand.

Remember, when you are shopping for replacement windows, you are shopping for both windows and installation companies, though they fall under the same umbrella.
  • Shopping for Windows - Consumer Reports offers frequent replacement window ratings. Even though it is an industry-supported lobby, the National Fenestration Ratings Council does a rather good job of supplying information about energy-ratings for windows.
  • Shopping for Installers - Installers are local, and it is often hard to get ratings for local contractors. Naturally, the Web offers a few places. Many urban communities are served by Consumers' Notebook, which takes a tough look at replacement window installers. Neighbors can also tell you whether a window company performed to their satisfaction.

    If doing an Internet search, be sure to geo-target your searches. For instance, in Google, search for "replacement windows [your city]." A map of your community should appear, along with a list of local window companies. Any ads reading "Top 5/10/etc. Window Companies" should be avoided, as they are little better than scams. ServiceMagic does a decent job of connecting you to participating installers, but keep in mind their referrals are not recommendations as to the quality of work.