Helpful Consumer Information

Replacement Windows (Part I): I saw a large display of windows at the hardware store. How are they different from what you sell?

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There are actually quite a few differences, so maybe this is a good time to do a series of articles on the important basics that anyone who is considering window replacement should know before they start shopping around.

There are two categories of windows available to retailers: (1) “new construction” windows are the ones you see at the hardware store, and (2) “replacement windows” are what you can get from reputable companies like us.  And I don’t use the word “reputable” lightly… it is essential that you understand the difference between them because there are some less-than-honorable window dealers who will be looking for an opportunity to rip you off.

So lets start with a description of the two types of windows:

“New Construction” windows can be found at the large hardware stores and are manufactured for those places where the walls and framework are not yet finished, such as the construction of a new building or house, or when a wall is being completely rebuilt or reframed.  If your house still has the original windows, then that’s what you have.  “New construction” windows are manufactured in bulk in predetermined stock sizes; they are then stored away in warehouses so builders can buy the sizes and quantities they need “off the shelf”.  Once they are delivered to the construction site, the builder can make sure the windows are a secure fit by positioning each window into the newly framed wall first, and then adding the last of the load-bearing wood to make sure the frame wood is up tight against all sides of the windows to allow for proper sealing.  If you go to a big builders supply or hardware store that has a display of these windows, you can recognize a “new construction” window by the presence of nailing fins sticking out of the outside of at least two sides of the window frame; these fins are what the builder nails to the frame wood/studs to secure the window in place.

“Replacement” windows are designed to work the opposite way: to precisely fit into a wall and window opening that already exists, such as a finished wall that cannot be re-framed to fit the shape of the new window.  In those cases, the window must be customized and special ordered in precise dimensions to fit the shape of the frame.  For that reason, these windows do NOT have nailing fins; instead they are manufactured to be attached by long screws that go through the window frame into the load-bearing wood.  This customization is necessary because the structure of houses and buildings shift over time, so the shapes of the window openings can have slight changes, too.

For example, a window opening that was originally built to be a perfect rectangle has probably shifted by ¼ to ½ inch in every direction.  That may not seem like much of a change, but its enough to guarantee that if you try to install a perfectly rectangular “new construction” window in an opening that has shifted there will be gaps around the outside of the window that will result in air and water leaking into the wall and the house.  Or, some part of the window opening could have possibly NARROWED, and could cause the uneven frame wood to put excessive pressure on the window and quickly make it difficult (if not impossible) to operate, or even cause the glass to crack.

To prevent these problems, it is necessary to make precision measurements of each and every opening, measuring all four sides and the angles in between to within approximately 1/8th of an inch each way, so that a precisely-measured custom window can be made specifically to the dimensions and shape of each window opening.  That means that no matter how many windows are in your order, no two windows will be the same size and shape… each one must be custom-made, one at a time.  That means the manufacturer must re-tool for each individual window, so each one requires a little more care and precision to manufacture and install, and that makes them a little more expensive.  But the advantage is that it will guarantee that each window will fit snugly inside the opening it was made for and will still allow room for minor movement of the house in the future.

“Replacement” windows also have a little different appearance than the “new construction”.  As you can see in the picture below, the frame in the window is heavier and slightly wider so it can effectively hold the weight of the extra-thick glass and other energy-efficient features that we’ll discuss in other articles.


Windows (Part 2): Beware of the “bait & switch” of “New Construction” windows instead of “Replacement”

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As we explained in Part One, if you want to replace windows in an existing home, and if you want it done right, you need “replacement” windows.  The information in Part One is essential for you to know because unfortunately, there are some dishonest window dealers who assume you don’t know those details and will promise you custom-made replacement windows and then scam you.  They try to do this in one of two ways:

The first way is commonly called the “bait and switch”: he will show you a “replacement” window, but once you make the order and put down a deposit he will do a switch and order the less expensive “new construction” window in a similar model and in the closest size he could get for your openings, just to increase his profit margins.  In order to keep you from noticing the switch, when the windows are delivered to the installers they will cut off the fins and sand down as much of the scar as they can before the windows are delivered to your house.  Then they will rush to tear out your old windows so they can install the “new construction” windows quickly before you have a chance to get a look at them.  Since they will not be a precise fit and there is almost always one or more gaps around the outside of the frame, the installer will try to fill them in with foam and caulk.  The problem with that method is that (even though there is a special caulk that is made specifically for tiny gaps that is pliable enough to give leeway to the window if the house continues to shift) if the window is not a precise fit and the gap is too large, the caulk cannot keep it sealed.  So, even though you paid for, and thought you were getting, a custom window, now you have a window that is not an exact fit and will begin to leak around it, no matter how much foam and caulk he uses.

In the picture below, we replaced the siding, windows, and eight huge sliding patio doors.  The windows and doors were manufactured by Simonton, which means they are heavy and must fit securely.  The fact that this house is built on stilts on the edge of Lake Livingston also means that the windows had to be made in exact dimensions, because the house will always continue to move around.  If we don’t put a precisely-measured and manufactured window and door in each and every opening, then as the house moves and shifts those windows and doors will become stuck and/or damaged.  In other words, only true “replacement” windows would work… “new construction” windows would have failed long ago.

The second way you can be ripped off is not attempted very often, but it has been attempted a few times over the past ten years.  Any time companies like AHE order a large number of custom windows for a home, there is the potential for a window or two to be made in the wrong dimensions, and it could be our mistake or a mistake by the manufacturer.  When that happens, we have to return the window to get credit for a new one.  Even though they don’t fit your specific needs, they are still perfectly good windows, so often the manufacturer will sell them (usually at a loss) to builders and contractors for the purpose of installing them in new homes. However, sometimes they end up in the hands of less-than-honest window dealers, who then use them in the “bait and switch” I described above.  Plus, there have been rare instances where these dealers take these recycled windows (as well as “new construction” windows) and re-fabricate them to look like new custom replacement windows.  I’ve even seen someone take a low end model of window and change the labels so it looks like a higher-end model.   Here’s an example: several excellent window manufacturers use the exact same frame in several different models of windows, with each model offering more features and better energy efficiency than the one before it… yet they all look almost exactly alike.  Unethical dealers will take the cheaper low-end window, change the tags and labels, represent it as a higher-end window, and sell it to you at a higher price.

You can protect yourself from both of these scams by taking the following steps:

(1) Always check the documentation, starting with the contract you sign when you make your order from the dealer. Make sure that the contract clearly specifies the manufacturer and the model of the window you are buying, and that they are clearly and specifically described by the term “replacement window” written on your contract.

(2) Do NOT pay for the windows in full up front; manufacturers of custom windows require the company to put a deposit on the windows they order, so your retailer has the right to ask for a reasonable deposit to protect themselves.  However, it is almost never necessary to give them more than 30% of the contract price up front, with the remaining 70% to be paid only when the job is completed and all job-related debris is cleaned up.

(3) When the windows are delivered to your house, do NOT let them start tearing out your existing windows until you have a chance to inspect the new windows.  Demand that the installer unwrap each window enough so you can personally examine them.  Even though you are supposed to get one when the job is done, ask to see the manufacturer’s invoices beforehand and verify the serial numbers and approximate measurements of each one to the labels that are on the glass, as well as one that is usually located on the side of one of the sliding sashes… that one usually has the serial number.  Then look at the outside of each frame… if there is a nailing fin, or if there is a scar running the length of two or more sides where a nailing fin used to be but has been cut off, then they are most likely “new construction” windows and you need to reject them immediately.  (Note: there is one rare exception: if a window opening measures precisely the same as a new construction window and it will fit just as well as a replacement window, and the retailer recommends this option to you up front, this is a way you can save a few dollars; just make sure that is spelled out on your contract ahead of time and that it applies only to that window.)

Windows (Part 3) — Beware of deceptive advertising and sales tactics, such as the ones described here

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If you shop around for windows there are a couple of other windows advertising catch-phrases you’ll run across that are deliberately deceptive:

(1) “Our windows stand up to hurricane-force winds.”  The implication is that these windows are safe in a hurricane, or even that they meet the standards to be actual “hurricane code windows”.

Do not take that at face value.  The fact is that most (not all) new windows (even low-end new construction and single-pane with single-strength glass) are tested to withstand winds of at least 75 MPH, and the higher quality windows are tested to 110 MPH.  But these tests are simply giant fans blowing air directly at the windows, which does NOT duplicate the reality of being in a hurricane and does NOT qualify as “hurricane code”.  Why?  Because hurricane-related window damage is very rarely caused ONLY by the wind…. almost ALL of the damage is caused by DEBRIS that is being carried around BY the wind.

Just because a window has been tested to 110 MPH does not mean it will withstand a hurricane.  If you really want, and are willing to pay for, a true “hurricane-proof” window, you have to get a special window that is made to meet significantly higher standards for areas that are at higher risk for storms.  A window that is qualified for “hurricane code” means it has passed a very special impact test: a 2 X 4 is repeatedly shot at the window so that the end of the board hits the glass at 60 MPH.  And the window qualifies as hurricane code ONLY if both the glass and frame can withstand the impact.  These windows are more expensive, usually 50% to 200% above the cost of the same size standard replacement window.  Also,  coastal residents who have these hurricane windows are still required to board up, or have storm shutters on, every window in their house because in a strong hurricane there will likely be debris flying around at speeds significantly greater than 60 MPH.  So remember, standard replacement windows are NOT certified as hurricane code, and if a salesman represents them that way, ask him to point out the certification on the window, which will appear on the EPA label on the glass and the smaller label on the sides of the moveable sashes.


(2) “We’ll install 10 windows (any size) for $**** ” or “We’ll install these vinyl windows for just $*** each” 

Most window dealers can put together a package like this, but way too often such promises are remarkably transparent (but commonly used) misdirection and deception.  It works because it sounds true and simple, and it simplifies the cost question enough to get attention, and often that is all the enticement needed to get people to call and schedule an appointment so the salesman can get his foot into your door.  Then, the game really begins.  In most cases the salesman’s job is to “up-sell” you to get you to buy more features and services, or upgrade to a “better” window, or do a “bait and switch”.

Both of those simplified pitches are often different ways of saying the same thing.  Often the prices are for their lower-end windows, and are usually drastically scaled-down windows (often “new construction”) that do not meet Texas energy requirements.  They DON’T tell you that many required items (such as Low-E glass, argon gas, etc.) and optional items (such as grids, obscured glass, etc.), are NOT included in the price.  Plus, some windows are required by law to be the more expensive tempered glass, and oversized or geometric windows cost even more, so window prices are not uniform and those supposedly “fixed” advertised prices cannot be guaranteed.  Once the salesman tacks on the costs to make the windows legal, the final price will NOT be the advertised price… it will be significantly higher.

We have also found some companies’ “installed” price does NOT include the removal of the old window or the cleaning, repair and preparation of the wood frame to receive the new window.  Unless you have the tools needed to cut the fins off your old windows and remove them yourself, there is going to be an additional hefty charge for each window THEY have to remove, and they may not tell you until long after you have paid them your non-refundable deposit.

There is one other issue that has the very real potential to be very destructive to your home.  As explained in our previous articles, “replacement” windows must be attached directly to the load-bearing frame (the studs) inside the wall in order to hold it in place and properly seal it against leaks.  In most cases the installer is required to do what is called a “cut-back”, which means he has to trim off a little bit of the sill and/or the drywall or wood that is around the window inside the house in order to expose the load-bearing wood underneath, which is then cleaned and repaired.  The new window is then set into the wall from the outside so it can fit snugly against the studs and the edge of the interior drywall and sill that were cut back can butt up cleanly against the frame.  The installer then carefully caulks and touches-up around the window so the “cut-back” areas are completely unnoticeable and securely sealed against water and air infiltration.

But some companies try to save money by NOT doing the cut-back.  Instead, the salesman (not the installer) is the only person who measures your window openings and he measures only the interior surface dimensions, so the window he orders will be sized to sit ON TOP of the drywall and sill, leaving a layer of drywall squeezed between the new window and the load bearing wood.  This has serious and destructive consequences.  No matter how much foam and caulk is used around the outside of the window, the edge of the drywall is going to be exposed to the weather and will slowly absorb water.  And you know what happens to drywall when it gets wet… it wicks water into the rest of your wall and then it crumbles.  As a result, your windows will become loose and will no longer fit within the opening, and water will have infiltrated your walls and probably damaged the load-bearing wood.

Remember, many times when dealers offer bargains like this, they recover their profit by cutting back somewhere else, often in ways that will hit you hard in the pocketbook in the very near future.  Be careful, and use the information above to make sure you are getting a quality product and quality installation.

I’m getting quotes to install Hardie siding. Why is there such a difference in each company’s price?

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Answering this question is often awkward because its hard not to sound self-serving, but I’ll give it my best shot.  The simple answer is that in most cases the salesman is making a guess as to how much you’re willing to pay.  If he sees you as someone who is on a tight budget, he’ll drop his price a little, but if the salesman thinks you’re doing real well and money isn’t the biggest issue, he’ll pad his price a little higher.

Why?  In almost every construction-related job, salesman get either a commission or a share of the profit.  So, the higher the profit margin he can sell the job for, the more he makes when the job is done.  There’s nothing wrong with the sales rep making a living and the contracting company making a fair profit so they can stay in business, but unfortunately any business transaction can be taken to excess.

A good example is what often happens when a homeowner calls us for an estimate for some exterior home remodeling.  We will invest our time and money to drive to their homes, carefully measure and inspect, and then sit down with them and do our best to give them an honest quote for the work they want to have done.  Then, this homeowner will probably get three or four more quotes that will often range from very high to ridiculously low with several somewhere in the middle of the pack.

What often happens is that the homeowner will choose one of the lowest bids, which more often than not turns into a nightmare.  Several times a homeowner who did not hire my company (usually they chose a lower bid) emailed me a few weeks later to tell me of the poor experiences that they had with the contractor they DID hire.  Other times I have personally gone back to a house when I was in their area to look at the jobs I didn’t get that were finished by another company, and many times to my trained eye it was obvious where the contractor had done shoddy work.  Those homeowners would often come to the sad realization that they got what they paid for.

Why are some companies bidding so low?

Every once in a while business slows down for a lot of reasons, and this can cause contractors to panic because their cash flow is reduced while bills keep coming in, suppliers want to be paid, crews need to be kept working, office staff needs to be paid, etc.  During times like this, the contractor will tell his estimators to bid the jobs close to cost just to get some jobs going.  And in times of severe distress, they may even quote jobs below cost.  But a company that is that desperate for business is usually a very poor risk.  Ask yourself if it is possible they may not be around much longer… are they going to pay for their supplies or will they choose to skip out on their suppliers and let you handle the problem after they don’t finish?  Are they going to use the same brand name products they promised they’d use or will they try to sneak in some cheap generics or second-hand materials in the hope that you won’t notice?  Its a real simple principle… very low bids usually mean lower quality work.

Don’t let any of them tell you that they get their materials at a discount!!!

A lot of our competitors try to explain why they quote so low by saying that they are high-volume and have purchased so much material from their supplier that they have a special price that is far lower than his competition.  This is baloney… suppliers all over this country have been repeatedly asked to confirm this claim ad nauseum, and if you compare the material costs at all of the large supply yards, there is very little difference in wholesale prices.  So, if someone tells you they are getting their materials at a big discount that is not available to other companies, and if his quote is far lower than the other companies’, there are only three possible explanations: (1) They could be using inexperienced day labor and/or simply under-paying their crews because they are low-skilled; or (2) They are cutting many corners and substituting material, especially in areas you won’t be able to see right away, but will become noticeable in a few years as the job ages.  (3) They could be using stolen material… this was a big issue in this area for several years but after 2008 the construction industry slowed down due to the bad economy, so there were fewer construction sites and therefore less material available to steal.  If you remember, in May 2007 the Houston Police broke up several “chop shops” (places that bought stolen construction materials and resold very cheap) around the city after a long sting operation.  Now that new home construction has picked up again, the theft of materials has too, even though most construction companies are getting better at securing the materials that are left at job sites after hours.

I say all this to get to this one very important point: the lowest bid is almost never your best bid.  If you want a quality job, most consumer protection organizations say you should get at least 3-5 quotes, eliminate the lowest and the highest bids, and pick one of the companies in the middle.  Companies that bid very low are able to do so because they are cutting back somewhere to increase their profits, which means you are not getting the quality you thought you were getting.

Some of the contractors want a big deposit up front before the work begins. Should I agree?

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The short answer is JUST SAY NO… most of the time.

Here’s the issue: for the average minor construction job (like siding or roof replacement) or other common general remodeling or repair jobs that take only a few days to complete, there is NO good reason for a contractor to demand up-front money.  In fact, you should not have to pay anything until that part of the job is complete and you are satisfied with the quality of the work, and that assurance should be written clearly in the job contract.

There are a couple of legitimate exceptions, but usually contractors who ask for money up front are poor risks.  Here’s why: the most common reason they need up-front money is that they have bad credit with their suppliers, including (but not limited to) a record of skipping out on their debts and not paying for their supplies.  Or they may skip the supplier altogether and just disappear with your money.  Either way the result is bad… whether they have bad credit or no credit, if they have any intention to actually buy supplies, they have to pay their supplier up-front for the materials they will need for your job.

The better companies (the ones that actually pay their bills on time) don’t have that problem, because having good credit means they have worked out deals with their suppliers where they don’t have to pay for their materials until several days (or even a few weeks) after the materials are delivered, so they can afford to wait a few days for you to pay them.  If they are able to complete their job in less than a week or two, there should be no need for working capital to fund it.

Now, lets look at those two exceptions to this rule that you need to keep in mind:

(1) If you are buying a customized product that has to be special ordered with non-standard specifications (such as replacement windows, custom doors, cabinetry, shelving, blinds, etc.), then the contractor is required to put down a deposit to his supplier just to order the product, and that comes straight out of his pocket.  In that case, contractors have the right to protect their investment by asking for some form of deposit from you for those special order items, and you can usually provide adequate security with a credit card or a deposit of no more than 30% of the value of the items.  In rare cases, some high-end suppliers may require a larger deposit, but the contractor should be willing to provide documentation from the supplier to justify the request.

(2) If your job is going to take longer than 10-14 days, then it is okay to pay a little as the job progresses so the contractor can pay his bills. But be careful to maintain the upper hand and not pay too much.  For example, if the job is 50% complete, you can give the contractor no more than 30% of the contract price of the job, but only if you are happy with the work so far.  For large jobs that will go longer than a month, a payment schedule should be negotiated beforehand, but NEVER agree to pay the full contracted price before the entire task is finished, including cleaning up and hauling away all job-related debris.  Always leave the last 20-30% of the contract price to be paid only after everything is done and you are satisfied with the quality of the work.

Remember, the more you pay before the job is totally complete, the less power you have to make sure the job is completed to your satisfaction.