Lessons Learned: Installing new windows?



Note: this article heavily focuses on Northern California. While some concepts may be similar in different locations, do your research on local specifics.

Installing new windows in my home was a bit of a balance between wanting to and needing to. My old windows are original to the house. They are black, single-pane aluminum frame windows made in 1982. Choosing the appropriate window manufacturer, product line, and installer was surprisingly hard. It was much like buying a mattress, where the key-value points are often obscured in confusing promotional material.

I’m happy with my windows, but it took a lot of work and a few gray hairs to get to my current place. Here I lay out my thought process and journey so that others can learn from my experience – both successes and headaches.

Why do you want new windows?

I’d encourage anyone starting a window replacement project to ask, “why do I want new windows?” Windows are expensive to install on their own and generally don’t increase the resale value of your home unless they’re in notoriously lousy shape detracting from the home’s apperance. Additionally, the cost of replacing new windows often far outpaces any energy savings to offset the installation expense.

All that being said, I still wanted to replace my windows. What came up was important?

  • UV protection: Having single pane windows made in 1983 meant that my windows had no UV filtration to prevent the bleaching of my floors, walls, and furniture. This was the single biggest reason why I wanted to replace my windows.
  • Better light: Due to the lack of UV filtration, I often had shades down in the house. Now I love having my windows open to bring lots of natural light into the house.
  • Modern: My old windows didn’t always stay open, nor did they evenly run inside of their rails. Modern windows have better locking mechanisms and fitment.
  • Energy efficiency: This one rated reasonably low for me as the solar system generally covers the cost of air conditioning. However, I will take any efficiency gains I can get.

Your windows may also be damaged and causing damage to the house. Broken seals allow water to get inside of the house and cause mold, rot, and other significant damage. Now, let’s take a look at the two top items that influence the impact on your wallet.

Optimizing your budget

I was surprised at the range price on bids when I worked with different vendors to scope my project. At the time I didn’t understand what options radically influenced price. They were the construction materials and installation methods.

Vendors generally use three kinds of materials in windows: wood, fiberglass, and vinyl. Each material has its pros and cons. Some vendors will mix materials to maximize benefits and control prices. Let’s take a look at how these three materials break out:

Wood$$$$* Wide variety of color options as wood windows need to be painted or stained.* Most maintenance intensive as they require painting.
* Expensive
Fiberglass$$* Good array of color choices and does not require painting.
* Rigidity of wood so not subject to warping
* Expensive (but less than wood)
* Limited design options
Vinyl$* Cost effective products
* Vendors generally have better warranty support.
* Limited color choices
Doesn’t accept painting.
* Sometimes subject to warping in areas with wide temperature shifts per day.
* Vinyl can crack easily in very cold climates.

Tip: Some window lines will combine materials like fiberglass on the outside and wood on the inside to maximize features and minimize maintenance and cost.

Installation type

Every window installer will ask do you want a new construction installation or a retrofit install. I wavered on this decision a lot. Installing new windows is obtusely expensive. There’s no way around that. I asked my shortlist of installers for addresses of houses that they’d done – both in new construction installs and retrofits. Looking at both with a close eye helped me make a better decision on installation method for my home.

New construction installation involves removing the trim, removing the window, removing the frame of the window, and bringing it back down to the studs. The installer will then install a new window, new vapor barrier, and all new components around the window.

By contrast, a retrofit window leaves the existing window frame in place. The installer then places a new window inside of the existing frame and attaches the new window to that existing frame. The moisture barrier from the old window remains intact as it is assumed to be functioning correctly.

Retrofit installation requires significantly less labor and also costs less to install. Let’s take a look at the relative benefits of both installation methods:

New Construction* All new components in the installation
* New construction windows show more glass and less window frame than retrofit installs maximizing view
* More installation choices as any window can be installed in a new construction manner.
* Cost. New construction can be twice the labor cost of retrofit installs.
Retrofit* It’s cost effective. Retrofit windows work well in situations where budget is the constraining factor.
* Many window companies and installers have very good warranties these days to cover any issues after installation.
* If during installation a a bad window pops up, you’ll need to install a new construction window anyway. You’ll want to make sure your installer matches the look of the other windows.

Replacing windows will likely be more expensive than you think unless you’ve got some construction background. If I had to do it again, I would’ve replaced my windows when I painted my house. Then I could have saved the cost of repainting after the contractor finished installing the windows. Why does this matter? Let’s talk about the installation method, and the answer will be clear.

Choosing a Window Manufacturer

Removal of the trim to start the install of a new construction window.

I struggled to decide on which vendor to use for my windows. Renewal by Andersen, however, was easy to eliminate as their bid was anywhere from twice to seven times as high as other options. Plus, I wasn’t convinced their product was that much better.

The hard reality is that there are great stories for each vendor and horror stories with each vendor. There was no clear winner. For me, I didn’t want to replace my windows again in this house – even if I live here for the rest of my life. Warranty coverage, window configuration options, the longevity of the company, and a certified installer in my area were the four key factors.

  • Warranty coverage – Why is a warranty important? You are spending a lot of money.  For example, my neighbor had 40-year-old Milgard windows that they came out and performed warranty service on. That’s pretty awesome.  Some companies will back their product for a specific term, say 10-20 years (like Andersen and Marvin). Some companies will back your windows for a term or as long as you own your home, whichever is longer (Milgard). Anlin offered to warrant as long as I owned my home as well as the next person to buy my home. Anlin at the most extensive warranty, but they only offered a vinyl product.
  • Window configuration options – Not all companies make all kinds of windows with all kinds of materials. A friend of mine did his house in Anderson but had a specialized window in the kitchen that Anderson didn’t make. He went with Millgard. That window looked a little different, but they were okay with that. I’d stay with a single vendor if you can for a more uniform look.
  • Company Longevity – Any warranty is only as good as the company who backs it. Choose one that’s been in business for a while without any drama looming in their future.
  • Certified Installer – I didn’t want to leave any gaps for the manufacturer to deny a claim on my windows. I chose a certified installer with my vendor of choice as well as getting my windows permitted. That way, my windows were installed by their trusted installer as well as signed off by the city.

Warning: Your windows are only as good as the manufacturer and installer. Read on.

Don’t overlook your installer

New water barrier installed common to a new construction window.

Nothing will affect the ongoing experience with your windows more than the installer. The best windows can quickly fail if not installed correctly. Choosing a reputable installer with enthusiastic customers in your area will make the project go more smoothly and your outcome better. Here are some questions I would ask each installer who gives a bid:

  • Are you a certified installer with my vendor of choice?
  • Where are your three closest customers that I can call for a review and see your work in person?
  • Am I in an area and climate you work in regularly? (the Bay Area has very different microclimates).
  • If it was your house, what would you do differently about the proposal we’ve worked up together?
  • Are you Diamond Certified? (Diamond Certified is a Bay Area certification program for contractors).
  • Does your company do the work, or do you subcontract it out? If it subcontracted out, can I count on working with you and only you to see this project through?
  • If you are using subcontractors, how can I ensure that they get paid?
  • If you’re not using subcontractors, is everyone who works on my house your full-time employee?
  • How long have you been in the business of installing windows?
  • How long have you been a certified installer for the brand of window I am using?
  • How do I pay you? What forms of payment do you expect and when do you expect to be paid?
  • Who does post-sale support? What conditions need to be met for me to fully pay you and we both agree the project is finished?

Tip: Doing a little bit of due diligence in the beginning will go a long way to make sure that the manufacturer and installer have the expertise and longevity to support your window purchase over the long term.

Other notes of consideration

Fully installed casement windows. Casement windows have the benefit of clean field of view.

Window manufacturer, material selection, installation type, and installer are the major considerations for your window project. There’s a few extra considerations I would like to add here as well.

  • Indoor window treatments – new windows are thicker than old windows. The thicker windows might not fit your existing window treatments. Consider if you’d like to keep your window treatments. New window treatments can easily add significant cost to the project.
  • Permitting by the city – in my municipality permitting new windows is required. Many people skip this part. I chose to permit my project as its good for resale value.  I also wanted an extra set of eyes to make sure that the water barrier was done correctly. Unchecked water can do a significant amount of damage to a home.
  • Window Casings – the trim around the window on the inside is the casing. I went back and forth, deciding if I wanted wood casings or left the existing drywall in place.
  • Project timing – I’d think about when to install your windows. Some geographies have rain during a specific season in the year. Other geographies have sweltering summers or freezing winters. If you’ve decided on new construction, consider bundling that project with painting the house. New construction will require significant areas of the house to be repainted. Sometimes it may be hard to match new paint with the old paint. Doing both projects together will save some money (and headaches).
  • Window type and style – all manufacturers make different kinds of windows: single hung double hung, casement, etc. I chose casement because I wanted a clean look throughout the entire window. Casement windows also maximize surface area when the window is open making the whole house fan more efficient to run. Also, choose a window that honors the architectural style of the house. Ask your installer for their opinions to maximize curb appeal.
  • Your HOA – If you live in an area controlled by a homeowners association. They likely have a set of approved choices that must be chosen to increase continuity in the planned development.
  • Security & childproof devices – Some windows have different security options like locks, childproof controls (essential on second stories). Make sure to ask the installer what options are available in the lines they carry to help vet the manufacturer you select.
  • Egress – as construction standards have developed, so have egress requirements. Egress is the ability to exit a bedroom from the window during a fire. Older style windows don’t always meet modern egress requirements. Make sure to ask your installer if any windows in the house don’t meet local code for egress or other reasons. Any changes to the size of a window will require a new construction installation.
  • UV fading and energy efficiency – all modern windows will have some UV filtering. Make sure to ask your installer what level of filtering options are available. Likewise, some windows will perform better in warmer climates. Other windows will perform better in colder climates. Make sure to ask your installer which windows will work best to meet your local energy requirements and give you the best efficiency for your dollar.
  • Scope of work – Make sure you are clear with your installer what your success criterion is. Some people will have the window installer install the windows and have their favorite painter finish up. I wanted my installer on the project end to end. I wanted my installer to bring me from a complete house to a complete house. Make sure you make this point clear in the installer can repeat back to you your expectations and that you both are on the same page.

Warning: Valences are the grid patterns inside of the windows. Just skip them.

Live in the San Francisco East Bay? I chose Quality Windows and Doors for my window replacements. They took great care of me and delivered a product I really love. My home has way more high-quality light which brings the outdoors in. So glad I did it and wished I had done it sooner!


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