Roofing Buyer's Guide

Learn how to tell if it's time to replace your roof, and get information on the latest roofing materials and approximate costs.

Regularly Inspect Your Roof

Regularly Inspect Your Roof

By: John Riha

Replacing your roofing is a big, expensive job, so do your homework to make sure you get the most out of your investment. Understanding the process and the types of roofing materials available is essential to making the right decisions for your home.

Unfortunately, knowing when to replace your roofing is the home improvement version of Russian roulette – you'd like to squeeze as much service as possible out of your existing roof before it springs a leak. Once it does, however, it's already too late to avoid additional expensive repairs. Knowing the warning signs of an aging roof can help you time your replacement correctly.

Spotting potential trouble

Once every year, examine your roof. You don't have to get up on top of the roof to check it out; stand on a vantage point where you can see the entire roof – possibly a neighbor's yard – and scope it out with a pair of binoculars. Look for signs of wear that include shingles that are cracked, broken, curled and missing; rust spots on flashing; moss and lichen growth; and any discoloration and peeling paint under eaves.

Pay special attention to any branches that are touching or within five feet of your roof. In stiff winds even branches that are several feet from your roof can rub against roofing surfaces, wearing away the protective layers, lifting shingles or even puncturing the roofing materials. Trim back all branches.

Inside the house, look for dark spots on ceilings and walls – sure signs that moisture is entering your home and that your roofing may have a leak.

Asphalt Shingle Roof

Asphalt Shingle Roof

If your roof isn't too steep, you may be able to tackle simple shingle repairs yourself. Photo courtesy CertainTeed.

Roofing repairs

Small trouble spots can be fixed with a shingle repair or replacement. If your roof isn't steep (a pitch defined by the National Roofing Contractor's Association as 25%, or 3-in-12 or more), and you're not afraid of heights, you can attempt these simple repairs yourself. Take every safety precaution when working on a roof. Otherwise, call in a professional who will do spot repairs for $100 to $150 each.

If you have asphalt roofing shingles, one of the surest signs of an aging roof is finding piles of granules inside your gutters. These colored mineral granules coat the surface of asphalt shingles and help protect them from sun and hail damage. As the shingles age, these granules loosen and are washed into the gutters.

Knowing the age of your existing roofing puts you ahead of the game when it comes to determining if you need a replacement. The overwhelming majority of roofs are asphalt shingles, which generally have a life expectancy of about 20 years. Asphalt shingles generally perform better in cooler climates. In warm, southern regions, lifespan of asphalt shingles may be as little as 10 to 12 years. Other types of roofing, such as wood shingle and metal, have considerably longer life expectancies.

Roofing Over Asphalt Shingles

Roofing Over Asphalt Shingles

A second layer of roofing can be installed directly on top of a single layer of asphalt shingles. Photo courtesy CertainTeed.

Tearing off the old roof

When it comes time to replace your roof, you'll need to decide if you want to tear off the old roofing. A single layer of existing asphalt shingles in good condition can be roofed over once, but an existing second layer and other types of roofing materials must be removed before new roofing can be installed. Expect to pay $1 to $3 per square foot to tear off and dispose of old roofing, depending on the complexity and steepness of the roof.

While it may save money to add a second layer of roofing without the expense of tearing off the old shingles, keeping the existing roof means keeping the old flashings and vent boots – generally considered the weak link in your roofing system. The new flashings and vent boots that accompany a clean installation ensure the best possible protection for your home and generally are worth the extra cost of a tear-off.

Easy-to-Install Asphalt Roofing Shingles

Easy-to-Install Asphalt Roofing Shingles

The most popular roofing material, asphalt shingles are inexpensive and can be installed by a skilled DIYer. Photo courtesy CertainTeed.

Shopping for roofing

Roofing materials are sold by the "square," a measurement equal to 100 square feet. An average two-story, 2,500-square-foot house with a 4-in-12 pitch roof requires about 1,500 square feet of roofing, or about 15 squares. When estimating, add 10% to 15% for waste.

Note that certain types of asphalt shingles with cooling granules and metal roofing with appropriate pigmented coatings help reduce energy costs and may qualify for a federal energy efficiency tax credit of up to $1,500. Check with your distributor to see if the roofing you choose meets Energy Star requirements and if the manufacturer offers a certification statement that you can use to obtain the credit. 

Asphalt shingles, also called composition roofing, are by far the most popular type of roofing material. They are readily available, durable, relatively inexpensive and can be installed by an experienced do-it-yourselfer if the roof is not too steep. The individual shingles feature slits that divide the shingle into three pieces or tabs that give the finished roof a textured appearance. For this reason they are sometimes called "3-tab shingles."

Asphalt shingles feature a fiberglass or cellulose core sandwiched between layers of asphalt. A top coating of mineral helps protect the shingles from damage by the elements. Some varieties include zinc- or copper-coated ceramic granules that help prevent the growth of algae and moss, a problem often found in the warm, humid climates of the Southeast. Some types have especially high wind ratings that are especially suited for coastal regions.

Green Shingled Cottage Roof

Green Shingled Cottage Roof

Asphalt shingles come in a variety of colors. Photo courtesy CertainTeed.

Generally, thicker shingles are more durable and have longer warranties. A variant called architectural or laminated shingles features overlapping tabs that mimic the shadow patterns of thicker materials such as slate and wood. All varieties of asphalt shingle come in many colors.

Expect to pay $200-$400 per square, installed. Do-it-yourselfers with less-steep roofs can expect to pay $1 to $2 per square foot for tear-off, and $65 to $100 per square for shingles.

Wood shingles and shakes are premium products prized for their beautiful natural color and traditional appearance. After several years, wood roofing will weather to a soft, mellow gray.

Beautiful Wood Shake Style Roof

Beautiful Wood Shake Style Roof

Wood shakes are popular for their natural, rustic appearance. Photo courtesy Cedar Shingle & Shake Bureau.

Although similar, shakes differ from shingles in how they are manufactured. Shakes feature one or both faces that are mechanically split, creating a heavily textured, rustic surface. In some cases, the back of the shake is sawn to produce a relatively smooth, even surface. Shingles are sawn on both sides. Shingles are tapered along their length; shakes may be tapered or a uniform thickness. In general, shakes have thicker butt ends than shingles. Medium shakes are 1/2 inch thick at the butt; heavy shakes are 3/4 inch thick.

Wood shingles and shakes aren't recommended for do-it-yourself installation unless the DIYer has considerable experience. Shakes and shingles usually are applied over a series of horizontally installed 1x4 or 1x6 furring boards called space sheathing. Gaps between the boards allow air circulation vital to preserving the lifespan of wood roofing materials. Apply wood shingles and shakes only to roofs with a pitch of 4-in-12 or greater.

Bent Shingle Roof on Cottage Home

Bent Shingle Roof on Cottage Home

Steam-bent shingles are reminiscent of the thatched roofs of England. Photo courtesy Cedar Shingle & Shake Bureau and C&H Bureau.

Some locations allow shakes to be installed over solid plywood sheathing to help resist seismic activity; other locations don't allow wood roofing at all due to fire hazards, or may require wood roofing materials to be treated with a special fire-retardant chemical. Be sure to check with your local building authority when planning to use wood roofing.

You'll pay $400 to $900 per square for shake and shingle roofing, installed. Most manufacturers offer warranties of 20 to 25 years, but properly installed wood roofing may last twice that long.

Bright Red Metal Roof Panels

Bright Red Metal Roof Panels

Standing-seam metal roof panels are durable and available in a wide range of colors. Photo courtesy Central States Manufacturing.

Metal roofing comes as panels or tiles. Panels are manufactured in lengths up to 20 feet long so they can span from the eaves to the ridge without horizontal joints. The panels are joined along their edges with "standing seams" that prevent water penetration and give the roof its characteristic ridges. Once associated with mountain getaways and high-end architectural homes, standing-seam metal roofing has become an increasingly popular option for other styles of houses as well. Because it features a factory-paint finish, it is available in a variety of striking colors.

Interlocking steel and aluminum shingles mimic the textural look of wood shakes and slate roofing. They are lightweight, strong, fireproof and resist rot. Metal shingles can be recycled and are one of the more environmentally friendly roofing materials.

Eco-Friendly Metal Roofing Shingles

Eco-Friendly Metal Roofing Shingles

These interlocking metal shingles are made to resemble slate roofing. Photo courtesy Atlas International Metal Shingles.

Metal roofs are especially durable, too, and last 50-75 years. Metal shingles cost $300-$700 per square, installed. Standing-seam metal roofs cost $7-$15, depending on the complexity of the roof design and the number of roof features, such as skylights and chimneys. Installing a metal roof takes specialty tools and know-how, and is a job for a professional roofing contractor.

Clay tiles with their distinctive barrel shape and reddish-brown color, often are associated with classic Spanish-style architecture of the American Southwest. Flat, glazed clay tiles are reminiscent of French farmhouses and come in many colors. These tiles are made from a mixture of pulverized clay and water, and are extremely heavy -- a square can weigh half a ton or more. If you're considering having your roofing replaced with clay tiles, it's a good idea to first have your roof structure evaluated by a structural engineer to see if reinforcement is necessary.

Clay tile roofing is extremely durable and may last 75 years or more. Although strong, clay tiles may break if walked on. Occasionally, chipping or breaking occurs and tiles must be replaced. Expect to pay $300 to $1,100 per square, installed.

Eco-Friendly Recycled Rubber Roofing

Eco-Friendly Recycled Rubber Roofing

Recycled rubber roofing is eco-friendly and has a 50-year life expectancy. Photo Courtesy of EcoStar.

Concrete tiles are durable, fireproof, insect-proof and resistant to damage from hail. They can be molded to closely resemble wood shakes, barrel-style clay tiles, glazed clay tiles and even slate roofing materials, but generally are less expensive. Most concrete tiles include a molded, interlocking system that makes the roofing extremely tough and long-lasting -- some varieties include lifetime warranties.

Regular concrete tiles are heavy (at least 900 pounds per square) and may require additional reinforcement for the roof structure. Lightweight concrete tiles reduce the load (600-700 pounds per square) but cost more. Although difficult to install, a determined DIYer could tackle a concrete tile roof project. Expect to pay $200 to $800 per square, installed.

Slate was once popular but is now prohibitively expensive for all but the most deluxe application and renovation project. Typically quarried in the Northeast, slate splits naturally into sheets that make virtually indestructible roofing tiles. With its beautiful dark gray, green and red colors, slate adorns some of the most historically significant buildings in the U.S. It may weigh as much as a ton per square, making careful roof engineering absolutely necessary. The specialized skill necessary to install slate is a vanishing art. Expect to pay $600 to $1,500 for an installed slate tile roof.

Rubber composite shingles are made from a blend of plastic and rubber, and many manufacturers use recycled rubber exclusively so environmental impact is low. Most rubber tiles are molded to resemble slate and wood shakes, and do a remarkable job of mimicking their natural counterpart, both in color and in texture. Rubber shingles are tough and durable, won't break, and are impervious to rot and insects. A 50-year warranty is standard. You'll pay $400 to $800 to have rubber shingles installed, but availability is limited.

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