Replacement Windows Definitive Guide

Man measuring window

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For something so common and universal, replacement windows can be a real mystery to the average homeowner. A replacement window is a strange thing, with very few parallels elsewhere in the house. As the name implies, it's a window that 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 difficult to remove every single bit of material from the old window, so some of it remains attached to your house.

Signs That 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 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.

Finding a Window Company

Replacement window companies fall into two categories. First, you have 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 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 (e.g., 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.

Consumer Reports is a good source for performance and quality ratings on windows. For background information on window energy ratings, visit the website of The National Fenestration Ratings Council (an industry-supported lobby). You can consult Angie's List or similar contractor rating and referral sites for contact information and ratings on local window companies and installers.


Click Play to See Replacement vs. New-Construction Windows Compared

Tips for Buying Replacement Windows

The replacement window industry is highly competitive, and it's not hard to find an abundance of window companies in any sizable town. As with many areas of home improvement, salespeople can be misleading about how much money you can save by replacing your windows (through energy savings), and not every company is totally honest with its estimates. It pays to do your homework and shop around. A few tips can help get you started:

  1. Five or more estimates. Nobody likes getting estimates. But this is not the time to become lazy with getting estimates. Get five or more estimates: a wider range of price quotes puts you in the driver's seat. The good news is that replacement window estimates are easy to get. Few companies charge for estimates, and salespeople will typically bend over backward to accommodate your schedule.
  2. Know your target. Do not let the salesperson tell you which windows need to be replaced. Even an honest salesperson may be tempted to push a few more windows onto the estimate.
  3. Find off-brand windows. Encourage the salesperson to help you explore the entire range of window manufacturers—not just the expensive name brands.
  4. Sit on the estimate. Do not immediately act on the estimate. If you wait a while before committing, you may be able to negotiate a lower price. This is an industry with built-in room for negotiations.
  5. Consider inexpensive windows. With the fierce competition between replacement window manufacturers, it is possible to find cheap replacement windows that still satisfy your needs.
  6. Choose window materials carefully. An old saying goes: "Vinyl is final." This means that, while wood can wear and rot over time, vinyl windows will remain in good condition for decades to come. But that isn't always the case. As a plastic material, vinyl is subject to damage and fading from sunlight. Aluminum windows are highly durable, but they typically have lower energy efficiency ratings than wood or vinyl. The bottom line is, prioritize your goals and choose the type of windows that best meets your needs and budget.