Paul and Marta Sheffield were so sure about what they wanted in a house they could sum it up in three word: openness and light.
"When we started house-hunting a year and a half ago, we told the realtor we only wanted to see houses with cathedral ceilings," Paul says.
When she first walked into the house they eventually bought in Huntington Beach, Marta was so discouraged she wanted to turn around and walk right back out.
Even with a huge, open cathedral ceiling in the living room, "It was so dark you couldn't believe it," Marta says.
"But it had so much potential," Paul says.
The house was right in every other way, so they bought it, moved in, and ordered skylights for that dark living room.
"When the installers opened up the roof, the sun came pouring in, and it was just like walking into heaven," Paul says.
The Sheffields chose two skylights in the most popular size, 2 by 4 feet, made of opaque white acrylic, which maximizes the light while protecting carpets, curtains and furniture from the fading that direct sunlight can cause.
"The living room now behaves as an atrium during the day," Paul says.
"The light is so uplifting. It changes your whole emotions," he says.
Marta says she appreciates the skylights most when she gets up in the morning. "I leave the house every day by 5:30 in the morning. Now when I walk through the living room, I can see light. It doesn't seem quite so early. And it's still light when I come home too.
"Darkness really depresses both of us," says Marta.
Marta's potted palms have benefited from the increased light too. "They're growing like crazy," she says.
"Skylights are an easy way to make a change in the way a house feels," says Judy Weston of Skylights by Weston in Fountain Valley, installers of the Sheffields' skylights.
And Paul says the installation was relatively painless. "It only took a day."
One reason it went so quickly, Weston says, is that cathedral ceiling installations are the simplest and least expensive. If there is an attic, a light shaft must be constructed as well. And in some cases, electrical and heat connections must be rerouted, which also adds to the cost.
Roof type is also a factor, Weston says. Composition roofs are the easiest to cut into, while wood shake and concrete tile roof make the job somewhat more difficult. But skylights can be installed in any kind of roof.
Fixed skylights are less expensive than openable panels, and glass costs slightly less than acrylic, according to Dan Gomes of Bristolite Skylights in Santa Ana, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of skylights.
Because each installation is different, costs vary, but Weston says a 2-by-4 skylight could range anywhere from $600 to $1,800.
Aside from cost, Weston says the most common question she hears is, "Will it leak?"
"And I say, yes, it will if it's not installed properly. During the winter, we get calls all the time from people who had skylights installed by handyman-types or who did it themselves. We spend a lot of time repairing other people's leaks," she says.
With skylights, as with other home improvements, it's important to make sure you're dealing with a licensed, bonded contractor. "Ask for references. Ask if they carry liability insurance," says Cherie Patch, also of Skylights by Weston.
It is possible to install a skylight yourself, Gomes says. Bristolite sells to individual homeowners as well as professional installers, and also provides installation instructions.
Unfortunately, he says, too many people follow the wrong sequence. "A lot of people go ahead and cut the opening in the roof and then hope it's a standard size." If it isn't, they need a custom skylight, which costs more, he says.
"The best application for the do-it-yourselfer is a self-flashing unit on a composite roof," Gomes says. "You peel the roofing back, place the skylight on the actual tongue-in-groove or plywood, put the roofing material back over it and apply sealants." The other most common installation, a curb mount with a frame supporting the skylight, is most often used on tile or wood shake roofs.
Before you decide what type of skylight to install, Gomes and Weston recommend thinking about how much light you want to let in. Opaque white, such as what the Sheffields chose, transmits more light than a clear skylight, while bronze or gray tinted skylights let in a more subdued light. Bristolite offers three different whites, with different levels of opacity. White skylights also block ultraviolet light, which can attack drapes, carpets or whatever is below.
Ultraviolet blocking was another reason the Sheffields chose white skylights. They wanted more light on the paintings in their living room, but they didn't want to risk damaging them.
"The actual objective can differ," Gomes says. "Think about whether you're trying to access light or see out of the skylight."
Patch chose a bronze skylight for her bedroom, which lets in muted light during the day but allows her to see the stars on clear nights.