How to Choose New Windows and Not Worry You’re Wasting Money

Find out how much windows cost — and whether you really need to spend the dollars.

Image: Lisa Panero

You knew your windows weren’t in the best shape when you bought your home, but now they’re really starting to get to you. They’re making your home look — and feel — well, dumpy.

Not only that, you feel drafts coming from your windows in winter, then they jam shut when summer rolls around. Talk about frustrating.

Maybe it’s finally time for new windows, but can you afford it? And what if you make a mistake that makes your house look even worse? It can, and does, happen.

“You put the wrong window in and, boy, it will stick out like a sore thumb.” That’s what window expert Larry Patterson, president of Glass Doctor of North Texas in Dallas, says.

Here’s how to choose new windows without making mistakes — and avoid spending money you don’t need to:

First Ask, "Do I Really Need New Windows?"

It may be that not replacing them is the smart thing to do, especially when you factor in the cost of new windows: $10,000 or more on the average home.

And while manufacturers may tout the energy savings new windows can provide, it could take yearsto recoup that 10 grand. The most significant energy savings you’d see is $583 annually (says the U.S. Energy Star program).

Do the math: It’ll take 17 years (!) for you to save enough to make up the cost. Perhaps a little window caulking and weatherstripping will do?

Related: Find Out If You’ll Save More By Repairing Rather Than Replacing

Even if your windows are broken or damaged, you might not need to buy new. Older wood windows can last more than 100 years (for real) because the old-growth wood used back then is super durable — still!

So in many cases, especially if your home has original windows, they may just need new glass or some simple repairs, which will save you a bundle. 

But if your windows are a lost cause, and it really is time to replace them, here’s what to know:

How to Choose New Windows

For better or for worse, new windows can change the look of your entire home. Let’s aim for better, yes?

It starts with picking the right material, says Dan Bawden, president and CEO of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston and chair of the National Association of Home Builders’ Remodelers group.

Vinyl windows might look fine on a Colonial house, but they would never work with a Tudor-style home, he says. That’s because wood trim is what makes a Tudor a Tudor (try saying that three times with a straight face, ha!).

“The windows need to match the quality and price point of the house,” says Bawden.

Choose From 5 Types of Window Materials

  • Wood — Very durable and energy efficient with classic good looks. Needs regular care (AKA painting).
  • Composite — Made of modern wood products such as particleboard. More resistant to moisture than wood.
  • Vinyl — Easy to maintain and affordable. The frame can be filled with fiberglass for more insulation.
  • Fiberglass — Very strong, sturdy. Can also be filled with insulation.
  • Aluminum — Probably the most affordable. Not good for energy savings in cold climates because it conducts heat.

You’ll probably hear about wood-clad windows, too. They’re real wood on the inside of your home, but vinyl, fiberglass, or aluminum on the exterior. Choosing wood-clad will add to the cost, but their easy-to-maintain classic style might make you overlook the bottom line.

Match Your Home's Window Style

Of course, the material your windows are made of isn’t the decision you’ll have to make. Two more things help determine which style of window to choose:

  • Windows with grids or without?
  • Windows that open from the top, bottom, both — or side?

Windows with grids that divide the glass into what looks like smaller windows (really old, single-pane windows actually are made up of individual panes of glass held together by wooden grids) are the more traditional classic windows, while those without grids are more modern in style.

So a sleek, contemporary home would look just right with grid-less windows, but a red-brick 1800s Georgian would look near naked without grids on its windows.

The most common window-opening styles are:

  • Single-hung windows. Only the bottom opens. The least expensive option.
  • Double-hung windows. Both the top and bottom open. The most common and easiest to clean.
  • Sliding windows. They slide open to the left or right. Great for hard-to-reach places, like over the kitchen sink.
  • Casement windows. They crank open from the side, allowing more air in.

If you love a stiff breeze, casement windows could be your answer. “If you open that thing, it’s like an aircraft wing,” Patterson says.

Be Cautious About Add-Ons If You Want to Save Money

Like everything from cars to toothbrushes, windows can come with features ranging from standard to “OMG-why-would-you-need-that?!” Here are the most common ones with a little sensible advice about each:

Argon gas-filled windows

  • Can only be used with double-pane or triple-pane windows.
  • Save about $10 a year in energy, says “Consumer Reports.”
  • Cost about $30 to $40 per window, so they can be pricey.
  • Don’t work forever. The gas leaks out over time.

Triple-pane windows

  • Recommended only for extremely frigid climates.
  • Add about $100 to the cost of each window.

Impact-resistant glass windows

  • Are only necessary if you live in a hurricane-prone area.

Low-E-glass

  • Has an invisible coating that keeps the home cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  • Helps prevent sunlight from fading your furnishings.
  • Can make your home seem dim inside if you opt for too much coating. If you pick 40% light transmittal versus 72%, “it’s significantly darker, and you’re going to notice that,” Patterson says.

U-factor

  • It’s a rating (from 0.2 to 1.2) that measures a window’s insulation.
  • The lower the rating, the better.
  • Not usually worth the cost to pay for a rating below 0.3.

Tips for Choosing a Window Manufacturer and Installer

Quality naturally varies from brand to brand. Who can you trust?

Look for lifetime warranties and/or certifications from:

  • Energy Star
  • The National Fenestration Ratings Council
  • The American Window and Door Institute
  • The American Architectural Manufacturers Association

An expert installer may be even more important than choosing the window itself. A poor installation of a high-quality window will result in poor window performance. Read online reviews, ask for references, visit window showrooms, and ask about manufacturer certifications. And as always, consider multiple bids.

“Anyone can screw a window in,” Bawden says. “I want someone who really knows how to seal that window well.”

Related:  Insider Tips for Buying Energy-Efficient Windows

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