Editor's note: This story has been updated since it originally was published in October 2010.
If your windows on the world no longer enhance the facade of your house, shield it from the elements or filter out noise, there is no better time to update them. Retailers whose business withered as homeowners stopped spending on big home-improvement projects are ready to deal -- and anxious to keep their installation crews working. Many dealers have cut markups to the quick, says Susan Selman, with Schmidt Windows, in suburban Chicago. Plus, the tax credit for installing energy-efficient windows in your home, which will help defray some of the cost, expires at year-end. The credit is worth 10% of the cost, up to $500. Just remember that replacing windows is an expensive proposition that includes not just the price of the windows but the cost of expert installation to ensure that the windows perform as promised.
Repair or replace?
Replacements come in two flavors. If the original framing is sound and reasonably square, you can install a replacement window into the original opening, replacing the sashes, side jambs and trim. If the original frame is rotted or significantly out of square, a new-construction window must be installed, which can cost 50% to 100% more than a replacement window, according to CostHelper.com. Replacing multiple windows will cost you less per window than installing just one or two.
Tom Patterson, owner of The Window Man stores, in Virginia, says that the number-one question he asks customers is, How old is your home? Until the early 1970s, windows were generally well made with old-growth woods (the tight grains resist moisture and decay). Newer homes, says Patterson, may have poorly constructed, builder-grade windows that are already failing because their wood frames are susceptible to moisture. "I've put my finger right through the sills of ten-year-old windows," says Patterson -- a sure sign of rot. You can test your sills yourself by trying to poke a screwdriver into them. Or ask a window installer, home inspector or contractor to take a look.
If you have old windows you love and the frames are sound, you may be able to repair them, strip off the old paint and repaint or stain them, and add new storm windows with low-emittance (low-E) coatings, which reduce the heating and fading effects of the sun. Patterson says low-E storm windows run $200 to $500, depending on size and options, such as higher-performance laminated glass. He charges $40 to $200 per window to install them. (Storm windows may be eligible for the tax credit if they meet certain requirements.) Windows painted shut long ago will open and you'll preserve the architectural or historical character of your home -- which some neighborhoods may require anyway.
Calculate your payback
You'll recoup much of your investment when you sell your home, but not as much as you would have at the peak of the real estate market in 2006, according to the latest annual "Cost vs. Value Report" by Remodeling magazine. The payback on upscale wood windows has dropped the most, from 83% in 2006 to 72% in the 2009 survey.
Be sure to match the style and quality of the new windows to your house -- high-end in a luxury home, midrange in an average home, says John Bredemeyer, an appraiser in Omaha. The value of high-end windows in a tract house won't necessarily be reflected in the home's appraised market value. Prospective buyers may love those gorgeous, high-performance windows, but they may not be willing to pay more for the house to get them.
Your monthly energy bill should show immediate savings. Before you install new windows, however, you may want to seal up a leaky house and insulate it. It could cost several thousand dollars, but it may be more cost-effective. To evaluate your options, a home-energy audit, which costs $250 to $600, is a smart idea.
Choose the right window
Before you begin to shop, you need to learn the lingo:
Double-hung windows may be opened from the top and bottom. Casements open with a crank, which makes them easy to operate. They are especially handy in hard-to-reach places, such as over the kitchen sink.
Double-pane windows are two pieces of glass that may have an inert gas (such as argon or krypton) between them that insulates better than air.
Mullions, or vertical and horizontal dividers, give windows a traditional look; snap-out mullions (also known as simulated divided lite, or SDL) make cleaning easier.
Tilt-out windows let you clean the exterior from the inside.
Windows ordered off-the-shelf in standard sizes cost less than custom sizes with upgrades -- such as non-standard frame colors, hardware finishes and glass types; "between the glass" blinds or shades; and premium screens. High-performance and specialized glass (triple-paned for extremely hot or cold climates, or impact-resistant for wind- or hurricane-prone regions) add to the cost of a window. But the added cost may be worth it. For example, triple-paned glass could save on cooling a room that is often overheated by direct sunlight.
The Web sites of well-known manufacturers, such as Andersen, Marvin and Pella, include guides that will lead you through the decision-making process. Another great resource is the Web site of the Efficient Windows Collaborative, which is committed to promoting energy efficiency and sustainable building design.
A brand name isn't everything. Window dealers may sell a single manufacturer's products or several companies' products, including those you may never have heard of or seen advertised in home magazines. As long as the seller can provide specs showing that the product offers the quality and performance you want at a price you can afford, you needn't fear the unknown.
Many manufacturers produce lines of windows that sell in various price ranges. If you can't afford the A line, you might get much of what you want with a B+ window, says Kerry McDaniel, with Galaxy Exteriors in Los Angeles. He says that big-box stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, tend to sell the B and C lines in order to stay at the prices they want to offer. Because Lowe's now sells some Pella windows, Patterson suggests that you ask the local Pella dealer to match Lowe's price, if it is lower.
Visit the showroom, if you can, to see and test models that interest you. Do the windows look as attractive up close as they do online or in the catalog? If the window tilts out, open it to see whether, given its weight, cleaning it is a job for one person or two.
Select a dealer
There will always be home-improvement "tin men" who knock on your door and take you hostage in your own living room until you sign a contract -- not to mention the telemarketers, the lead-generating Web sites and the guy operating out of his pickup truck. Don't go there. You want a well-established company with a storefront and a Web site with helpful information. A dealer who will come free of charge to your home to assess your needs is even more desirable.
Check the dealer's rating and record of resolved complaints with the Better Business Bureau or your county or state office of consumer protection. And post a query about the company's reputation on a local listserv or on Angie's List. Then obtain several bids. If one company can't provide exactly the same window as another, ask for the most closely comparable product it sells.
Installation, including anchoring, insulating and sealing the window to the house to make it airtight and watertight, is as important as the quality of the window itself. A poorly installed window may be hard to open and close, and its durability, energy efficiency and appearance will be compromised. "You can buy the best window in the world, but if it isn't put in correctly, you're throwing away your money," says Selman.