Yes, modern homeowners have been installing slate roofs--and we mean real slate, not rubber slate replicas--on quite ordinary homes. Why do they do this, is it affordable, and can you install slate roof tiles on your home?
While it's not possible to issue an unequivocal "go for it" for all homeowners, hopefully you will see some of the benefits and pitfalls of shingling with slate on your home.
What It Is
Slate is a type of stone; you can identify most slate roofs by the way the light hits it from a certain angle. This is due to slate tile's high mica content, up to 40% mica in some types of slate.
One reason for slate's superior roof-tiling quality is its cleavage abilities. Think of a good piece of slate like a deck of cards. Because slate is a sedimentary rock, it is formed of many layers, and these layers can cleave off like the individual cards in a piece of slate.
Slate for roofing comes from a variety of locales: East Coast U.S. (Vermont, Virginia, New Hampshire, etc.); Arkansas, Kentucky; China; Brazil.
Interestingly enough, slate roofers are often called slaters.
Little-Known Rule Of Slating
Don't walk on the slate.
DIY slate roofer Daniel Ernst was able to pump out one slate square per day. Some days, he even installed two squares. A square is a roofing industry term for 100 square feet.
Cost to Install or Replace
Slate roofing costs are impossible to discuss since factors are always changing (location of house, size, type of slate, slate contractor, etc.). The best we can do is throw out a few numbers and let you assess.
Joseph Jenkins (see Resources, below) mentions that for slate roofing repair or replacement, they charge between $10 and $30 per slate.
On the DIY end, Daniel Ernst reports that his 2,240 square foot slate roof went down for a total of $14,669, which comes to $647 per square.
Costs for installed slate roofs vary wildly. I have seen costs from $1,000 to $2,000 or more per square installed.
Joseph Jenkins' The Slate Roof Bible: This book is...well, the bible of slate roofing. One of the best things about Jenkins' approach is that being a slate roofer himself he gives you the inside picture of slate roofing. Not only that, he devotes almost a third of the book to the important topic of types of slate.
Admittedly, the book does have a free-wheeling, Age of Aquarius feel, reminiscent of John Muir's How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. But it's easy enough to get past that and into the meat of the book. This idiosyncratic air is reflective of the unique nature of slate roofers, in general. After all, it's slate roofers, not traditional composite-shingle roofers, who write poems like James Godsil's Confessions of a Sissy Roofer.
A nice forum for information about slate roofing is Slate Roof Central. You will find information about slate roofing contractors, slate roofing costs, and much more.
Lastly, check out the Slate Roofing Contractors Association, a non-profit industry organization of slate roofing contractors. The main value to a homeowner is the directory of slate roofing contractors.