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Opening the Door to the World of Window Shopping

March 29, 2000|GARY DYMSKI | NEWSDAY

You've had enough. Not one more day with those creaky, old, drafty windows.

You're buying new windows. You'll squeeze the family budget.

Say hello to confusion. Because when you go window shopping, you'll be bombarded with terms like vinyl-clad and low-E, style choices (double-hung or casement?) and an intimidating array of manufacturers like Pella, Marvin, Andersen, CertainTeed, Simonton, Crystal Windows and Door Systems.

You can see through this maze to choose--and choose wisely--a product that is durable, energy-efficient, easy to maintain, stylish and affordable if you have the right information and a good idea of what you want.

Consumers should be just as concerned with the final step of the window process: installation. Proper installation is critical to performance. "No matter how good the materials are, it has to be put together correctly or there can be serious problems," says Dean Lewis, an engineer with the American Architectural Manufacturers Assn. (AAMA).

"The big issue in all of this is that windows are among the major investments in a home," says Tom Sinning, a national sales manager for Marvin Windows & Doors in Warroad, Minn. "Unlike a paint job or a bathroom cabinet, windows are a much more permanent fixture. You want to live with them for a long time. As styles change in a room over a five- or 10-year period, you don't want to have to change the windows.

"A window has to stand up over time in style and performance."

My translation: For economy and a virtually maintenance-free window, consider vinyl. For style and color, look for wood and wood-clad products.

And to hedge your bets, only pick windows that are certified by independent testing organizations, such as the National Fenestration Rating Council, the Window and Door Manufacturers Assn. and the AAMA. Look for the blue Energy Star seal on the glass. Choose reputable manufacturers that apply the latest technology and back their windows with warranties that exceed 20 years. Pick experienced installers.

"Most people shop price first," says Ron Boden of Jarro Building Industries, a contracting firm in East Meadow, N.Y. "My advice is don't look for price; look for value. Know exactly what you want in a window."

But because that affordability requirement is the major homeowner concern, we'll start there.

First, a little context: Residential windows primarily are made of vinyl, wood and clad-wood (a window with a wood frame, a wood interior and a maintenance-free exterior coated with vinyl or polymer-coated aluminum).

In the replacement arena, vinyl windows dominate the market with 36% of sales. Built with vinyl frames and generally the easiest to install because they fit into the existing space, they are at the lower end of the price scale. The wood and clad-wood products are next (and share 46% of the replacement and new-construction market).

Pella is widely considered the most upscale of the nation's window manufacturers. The company, based in Pella, Iowa, offers some of the most exotic features, including standard and custom exterior colors on its aluminum-clad wood windows, and blinds and shades between the panes of glass. Minnesota-based Andersen falls into the middle of the price curve, just ahead of most vinyl windows, and is popular in new-construction applications. Among these three manufacturing giants of wood and wood-clad windows, there are thousands of smaller manufacturers, many of them specializing in vinyl replacements, that offer a wide range of quality and price.

Do the Math

So what kind of prices are we talking? A standard-size window in vinyl--2 feet, 8 inches by 4 feet, 2 inches double-hung--can run from $200 to $300, including installation. A similar-sized Andersen vinyl-clad window, installed, can run from $300 to $400. Installation of a similar Marvin window can run upward from $450, and reach $600 for a Pella model. For homeowners looking to replace eight to 10 windows, it adds up.

But if you're willing to look past short-term financial outlay and consider instead long-term value, you should know some window specifics.

Most manufacturers, including the best in the vinyl industry, have at least three grades of windows (salespeople will call them "good, better and best"), so the price range can vary dramatically when a more inexpensive grade of one company is compared with an expensive grade of another.

Don't know if you should go with wood-frame windows or vinyl windows? Here's the difference. Wood tends to be stronger structurally and offer a little more insulation value. There is, of course, the natural and appealing look of wood. And windows with wood-frame interiors can be stained or painted. With wood you can match the moldings in a 100-year-old Victorian or the raised oak panel walls in a library. Tough to do that with vinyl.

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