Window Replacement Basics: Cost, Materials, and Process

Living room windows
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Unless you have owned your house for a number of years, you may never have had any need to think about replacement windows. The logistics and functioning of windows are rarely something that homeowners need to think about—at least until something goes wrong.

Dated styles, air leaks, water infiltration, thermal leaks, fogged glass, and insect intrusions are just a few of the many reasons why you might want to consider new replacement windows for your home.

What a Replacement Windows Is

A replacement window is a window that is smaller than the existing window and which replaces a majority of the existing window, such as the glass and moving parts. So, replacement windows are not a one-for-one, exact replacement. Replacement windows are sometimes called pocket windows or insert windows to reflect this.

In general, if the visible portion of your existing window is deteriorated or damaged, and its physical operation doesn't work well anymore, it's time to consider replacement windows.

Replacement vs. New-Construction Window

Replacement windows might seem like the ultimate solution to your window problems, but this is not always so. The framed portion of your window stays in place. Areas around the window are sometimes those that are most heavily damaged.

Window sills receive the brunt of the moisture from open windows, yet they are never replaced during the window replacement process. That is a job for a fine carpenter or contractor.

If the area around the window is so rotted out as to be structurally unsound, then you must build up that area again and use a new-construction window. This type of window comes with fins on the outer side of the window to allow it to be nailed onto the house. Replacement windows have no fins. This allows the window to slide into the opening.

Window Replacement Costs

As an average, expect to pay $600 to $700 per window. Less expensive vinyl windows can be as inexpensive as $300 to $500 per window. Architectural windows or other specialty windows can be as expensive as $1,000 to $2,000 per window.

How much it costs to replace your windows depends on factors such as locale, window materials, type of glazing, and type of window. It is safe to assume that most homeowners will not escape a whole-house window replacement for anything less than the low five figures.

Some homeowners cut costs by hiring a handyman and by having that person replace the windows. Because the professional window installers have perfected the installation process and often work in large crews, you may not save as much money as you would like. Even though replacement windows may prove to be a major investment in your home, they tend to return decent resale value when it comes time to sell your house.

Double-Hung vs. Single-Hung Windows

Both single-hung and double-hung windows are the types that have a lower sash (or pane) that slides upward. When the house gets too hot, you can unlatch the window and slide the lower sash up.

But with single hung windows, the upper sash is fixed in place and inoperable. Only the lower sash slides up and down. With double-hung windows, both sashes can move. This is especially valuable for upper story windows because it allows you to clean windows from the inside. Also, if you have small children, you can open the upper sash only, leaving the lower sash in place and your child safe.

If neither conditions apply to your home, there is little reason to buy double-hung windows. You will save some money with the single hung windows. Plus, with fewer moving parts, the single hung windows have less of a chance of failure.

Fixing vs. Replacing Windows

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 and a waste of money.

The seals on the existing double-glazed windows may have failed, allowing cold or heat to more easily pass into the house because crucial argon or krypton gas has escaped. One indication that the glass has failed is fogging on the inside, between the panes of glass. In this case, it is possible to repair the window or replace the window sash.

Best Time to Replace Windows

If replacement window companies only installed in optimal conditions such as during spring and summer months, they would go out of business. Though the window technicians may be less than happy about it, your windows can be replaced in all manner of inclement weather, short of blizzards and hurricanes.

One downside of scheduling during temperate seasons is that everyone else is doing the same thing. You may find yourself in a long queue for installation or you may not even be able to get in during that period.

Still, if possible, it is better to have your windows replaced in better weather. If the technicians are working under duress, they may rush the job through. Caulking may not set well in extremely cold conditions. Moisture can affect the tight tolerances related to window installation.

Do-It-Yourself Window Replacement

Replacement windows are a prime example of why it is sometimes beneficial to have professionals take on a home improvement project rather than doing it yourself. Professional window installers do this job day in and day out, and they have the necessary tools and skills needed to finish the job in hours, not days or weeks.

In theory, homeowners can save money by replacing their own windows. But the retail supply chain for replacement windows can be limited. Home centers usually stock only new-construction windows and rarely replacement windows.

Brand Name Windows vs. Generic Windows

Replacement window companies often suggest generic or low-profile window brands. You can obtain decent windows that will serve you for a few years. Contractor- or builder-grade windows perform basically the same way that big brand windows should: letting in light, sealing out moisture, opening to allow airflow. Longevity may not be their strong suit, though.

Companies with visible brand names such as Pella, Andersen, and Marvin tend to have good follow-up customer service and robust warranties.

Replacement Window Frame Materials

Vinyl Windows

Homeowners concerned about maintaining the classic look of their own house often will reject the idea of installing vinyl windows in favor of wood materials. But vinyl windows are often worth a second glance. Vinyl framing materials inhibit energy loss, do not require sealing or painting, and are much cheaper than wood.

Metal Windows

Metal windows are often architecturally necessary in order to match the style of contemporary homes. Long associated with energy loss since metal is a thermal conductor, newer metal windows are better insulated against the cold.

Fiberglass Windows

Fiberglass-framed windows are far stronger than vinyl windows while using fewer materials. This is important because it expands the glazing area, thus giving you more light.

Window Glazing: Single, Double, and Triple

A double-pane window, or double-glazed window, consists of two sheets of glass with an air or inert gas such as krypton or argon in the middle. A double-pane window can increase your energy efficiency by almost 100-percent.

R-value is the standard by which energy loss is measured. A single pane window has an approximate R-value of 0.85. Contrast this with a double pane window with an R-value of about 1.5 to 2.0. Now consider a double pane window with low-e glazing with an R-value of 2.4 to 3.0. Finally, the highest rated window, a low-e double pane window using an argon gas fill, would have a 2.7 to 3.6 R-value.

Ultimately, windows are energy-wasters compared to more thoroughly insulated sections of the home. For walls and attics, an R-value of 1 to 2 is not impressive. These areas are typically filled with fiberglass batt insulation, exhibiting R-values of 13 or greater. Yet within the world of windows, an R-value above 2 is good.

The fact remains: double pane windows are standard, even in parts of the country that have temperate climates.

For extreme climates, consider purchasing triple-pane windows.

Enlarging Window Size Entails Major Carpentry

It is no easy task to enlarge a window opening to accommodate a newer, larger-sized window. But does it require ripping out all of the wallboard and siding?

When you enlarge a window opening up to eight inches horizontally, you can often keep the same header and sill (the top and bottom parts of the window) and simply install one new vertical stud to either side of the window. While this means ripping out wallboard from floor to ceiling, width-wise you only need to take out a foot or two, at most. This section of the wallboard comes out to accommodate the new stud. And no exterior siding ever has to be removed.

It is always easier to order smaller sized windows than enlarging a window opening. But if you have to enlarge, it is certainly a manageable task.

Tips For Buying Replacement Windows

Few homeowners who have been through the replacement window installation process will say that they care to repeat it. But for such an expensive purchase, it's well worth your time to get three or even more estimates from window companies.

Replacement window sales tactics can be overly aggressive. Since profit margins can be so high, some companies might use unsavory tactics to make a sale such as bait-and-switch. With this tactic, you're baited into a window sale presentation with a promise that sounds too good to be true. Once the window company rep is in the door, they switch things around and try to sell you more expensive windows.