Windows for Dummies. No, the glass kind.
April 30, 2011 1:51 PM   Subscribe

My house needs new windows. I do not want the traditional window salesman vinyl. Every home renovation board seems to be geared to step 17 (this brand, this thing) in the process. And every window sales place feels scamtastic. What's step 1 to getting the windows I need?

I have a house built in 1925. It has most of its original (rotting, rigged by rope) wooden windows. It also has a few terrible 1961 aluminum windows.

I would like to take it to historically semi-accurate wooden double hung, double pane windows that actually open and close. This may require a few sills to be reconstructed and at least one window to be "reframed", since it's leaking ants and water (in equal measure).

I have saved to have the money that I think it will take to do this (and extra). My neighborhood has no restrictions, since we're on a block of hideous rebuilds and vinyl nastiness.

I have gone to forums like "This Old House" where people are troubleshooting issues after the fact or rebuilding a whole house (and all I've learned is "don't use Pella"). I've read DIY manuals that tell me how to do it myself. But I am not the sort of person that should be hanging off scaffolding a story up framing things.

Window salesmen want to refer me to their installers, but I'm worried I'll need more than just a window installer to shore up sills and things and they push their brands.

- Do I find a carpenter on Yelp and ask him/her to handle the window choice and oversee the installation?
- Do I find a contractor to, I don't know, just stand around and hire a bunch of subs for various things?
- Do I just pick a brand based on "pretty" and hope that the salesperson will actually help me find a good installer who can refer me to the fixits I need if they come up?
- Anything else I should do or not do based on your window-replacement experience?

tldr; I am scared of replacing my windows due to lack of experience/knowledge. I'm about to do something very expensive without a road map. Please recommend the first few steps to me so I don't just anxiety attack and keep putting it off.
posted by Gucky to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
A few years ago we needed some window work done. We found a guy who would shave off the outer edge of the window and the inside of the frame and put in a plastic insert. At the same time he replaced the original glass with insulated double panes. It made the windows airtight and easy to open, but the actual window frames remained. This was considerably cheaper that replacing them with new wood windows and we liked keeping the originals and not having to go with vinyl.
posted by DaddyNewt at 2:03 PM on April 30, 2011

I'm about to get some crappy vinyl windows replaced with, um, more crappy vinyl windows.

Look up "windows" in the yellow pages. I find that for stuff like this, you need to look in the actual yellow pages, not online. Call a couple places and have them come give you an estimate. This is the norm. This way, you can compare not only prices, but their preferred methods, what they recommend for your house, etc.
posted by kestrel251 at 2:17 PM on April 30, 2011

Maybe consider looking for general contractors that specialize in restoration as opposed to going the window salesman route. They you know the person is a) interested in maintaining the historical integrity of your home and b) is equipped if the job reveals structural issues beyond simply replacing the windows.

Construction is still in enough of a slump, I bet you can find someone good willing to take a job that is busier times might be too small for them.
posted by cecic at 2:20 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have a house with beautiful oak woodwork. We called 3 window salespeople. Anderson Windows sent out a window broker selling windows for a whole bunch of different companies, and it turned out that their renewal windows are actually inserts which will let less light in than your original windows. Another local window company did the same.

For LESS money, Marvin Windows took a sample of our woodwork. They made windows that were wood inside and gave us new entirely new oak trim that matched our old trim perfectly. The windows outside are clad so they are weatherproof. We were very happy with them. So if you can find a Marvin Windows in your area I would recommend them.

Marvin windows also said that they would replace any rotted interior wood that they would find. This would be an extra cost, of course, but the places that put in the window inserts generally don't do that because they don't take things apart enough to really see and diagnose rot. They put in the vinyl window and then you still have potentially rotted wood around it.

I sound like a commercial for Marvin Windows, but I am very happy with the end results and I can send you pics if you want to memail me.
posted by Ostara at 2:21 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're in for some surprises. The fact that you're concentrating on the windows
themselves, and not the restoration work that is going to be required before you
install the windows is a clue. The current windows are worse than you think they
are, and will require more work than you think they do.

I have no doubts that a "window installer" is going to want to shirk the restoration
work, too. The job that want done is not in the purview of any one person.

One point in your favor is that you know what you don't know, and another point
is that you have considered the option of using a general contractor.

If it were me, and I was not going to do the work myself, I would write up request
for quote, and see if I could get some general contractors interested in the work.
Get at least 3 bids. 5 would be better. Discard the low and the high, and look for
clustering in the middle. Check their licenses and reputations. Pay attention to
how they treat you.

"wooden double hung, double pane windows". Select some brands that you like,
and get some quotes for the windows from the numerous places that will give them
to you. You might be induced to consider vinyl framed windows in a hurry. Personally,
I don't like wood-framed windows for exterior use. Vinyl, fiberglass and vinyl, or solid
gold aluminum-clad wood are preferable.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:30 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Avoid the door-to-door window salesmen like Penguin (google Penguin windows scam), they are usually scams or deliver shoddy work.

If there is a local "window and door" place that works not only with the public, but with contractors too, that's where I'd start. Generally, a lot of their business is going to come from contractors, and if they did poor work, word would get around fast in the building community. Heck, ask a contractor who they would go to for windows.

The windows in my home are Peachtree. Hardwood on the inside, aluminum on the outside. 25 years and counting and they still look and work great. Their double-hung windows still have the old vintage look, but seal nice and tight and also tip open for easy cleaning.
posted by xedrik at 2:43 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: I like cecic's idea of finding a contractor who does restoration. You might ask at places like your town's historical society or if you have a museum that replicates an old farmhouse to see if they have some people they recommend.

I'm not 100% familiar with the whole bidding process, but if you put the job out for bids, can you request that the responders submit a paragraph stating what types of things they would look for and how they would approach it, like their philosophy of restoration. Rather than just a numerical quote of #windows x $cost of materials.
posted by CathyG at 3:59 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

UK experience here, so no idea how useful. When I recently replaced a wooden sash window, I used a local carpentry place that also made windows. I've also come across restorers who can repair all but the most rotted windows. To be honest it was pretty easy. There are quite a few around and I got a few quotes and went with the ones that offered a good product at a good price.

Wooden windows have a bad reputation, largely as a result of misinformation put about by the PVC window industry. But they last forever as long as you paint them every five years or so and do a bit of maintenance - a couple of ours date to the 1820s. And you really can tell the difference. Even in modern buildings, wood looks great and plastic looks cheap. Anyone who tells you this isn't the case is almost certainly a PVC window salesman.
posted by rhymer at 4:38 PM on April 30, 2011

Does your town have a hardware store or lumber yard that's been in business for generations (i.e. NOT Lowes or Home Depot)? If so, head down there and have a chat with one of the people who know everything there is to know about home repair (you'll recognize them when you see them). Tell them exactly what you've told us and they'll know a local contractor to recommend.
posted by amyms at 6:09 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Agreeing w/the Real Dan, the murkiness of your ideas about what you want done could get you in trouble. If you engage some random carpenter using the vague and uncertain language you used in your question, he's likely to think, "this person doesn't know what he's talking about, so I'll just do it the way I always do." If your area is full of vinyl nastiness, then it's also full of carpenters and contractors who are in the habit of installing vinyl nastiness.

You need more than price quotes and a contract; you need understanding. I'd suggest you get several quotes as Dan suggested. Look for contractors based in a more affluent area that has a lot of very nice older houses. Get a quote from a high-end window company like Marvin. Talk to window restoration specialists. Deal only with service providers who are willing to explain in clear language what they propose to do and how it differs from what other companies would do, so you can refine your understanding of your options and their relative costs.

It's also worth asking yourself what the chances are that you'll move anytime soon. Installing really nice windows in a neighborhood of vinyl nastiness is not likely to provide a good ROI.
posted by jon1270 at 4:36 AM on May 1, 2011

Our house was built in 1924, we wanted historically accurate replacement double hung windows and while the ones that were actually historically accurate were out of our budget, we did end up with Marvin windows, wood inside, clad outside, open and close beautifully. They were purchased and installed through a contractor we found on Angie's list. We have only had them a few months so far, but we are very happy.
posted by sulaine at 6:41 AM on May 1, 2011

We did this a couple of years ago on our early 19th century cottage, and my folks are doing this right now on their 18th century farmhouse. From our experiences, Rhymer and Cecic make great points about finding a carpenter who specializes in historical renovation. Not only will that carpenter probably be more skilled, but he/she will have a blend of skills that respect the great things about older construction methods while using newer technology where it is useful. The only advice I'd add would be to get 2 or 3 bids and don't choose only on price.
posted by minervous at 6:46 AM on May 1, 2011

You mentioned This Old House, but for my money, Old House Web is the best forum for getting advice and discussion regarding older homes. There are quite a few experts on window restoration and you are likely to get some pretty good advice over there.

Good luck!
posted by lyam at 6:26 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

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