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.

 

Rotting Siding (Part 1): Some of my old siding is beginning to rot… how long do I have before I need to replace it?

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To answer your question, it is important to understand exactly what is on your house.  If your siding is rotting, your siding is either wood or a faux-wood pressboard siding.  In Houston, homes built in the 1970s and later almost always had pressboard siding in the non-brick areas.  Pressboard was also often (but not always) used for soffits, fascia, and trim.

So, exactly what is this material? It is a hardwood-pressboard siding that is a combination of wood fiber, wax, and resins, which is fused under heat and pressure, and then laminated on both sides to create a “hardwood” siding finish.  It was originally manufactured by large companies such as Masonite, Louisiana Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, Champion, etc.  (Sometimes it is called “masonite” in the generic sense, but that doesn’t mean your siding was not made by one of the other manufacturers).  The material was initially guaranteed not to rot when it came on the market in the 1970s, but no one gave it an accelerated weathering test back then to see how the siding would hold up under extreme weather conditions, like the heat and humidity of the Gulf coast.    

So, just a few years later, after the siding was exposed to different sources of water (such as rain, splashing from runoff, sprinklers, high humidity, etc.) much of that “lifetime” siding began to swell along the bottom edge of each plank, and the wood fiber-resin-paper combinations began to draw water into the board between the two layers of lamination.  This drawing up of water came to be known as “wicking”.  Gradually, the panels would “wick” the water higher and higher up the wall and feed the water into the siding panel it overlapped with, and then into the space inside the wall.  Unless you were experienced with the product and knew what to look for, you could not tell the wicking process was happening, because the laminated covering hid the fact that the material inside the boards was filling with water and beginning to rot.  Further research showed that the rotting process sometimes went on for 2-3 years before there were any visible signs, but by then it was too late… the boards were already coming apart.  There were at least six lawsuits filed during the 90s that earned class-action status, and the court-ordered fund to compensate homeowners ran out of money around 2003 or 2004, so there is nothing left to be recovered.   Yet, many home builders continued to install the product on their new homes throughout most of the 1990’s, and some didn’t stop using it until 2002, when it was finally (and mercifully) taken off the market, where it is almost universally forbidden to be used as exterior material on any residential construction.

So, what are these signs that your siding is absorbing water?  The pictures below will give you an idea; all of these pictures are “before” shots of jobs Advanced has done.  Usually the first thing you can see is that the bottom edges of panels, particularly along the lower part of the wall closest to the biggest supply of water, begin to swell and the layers of pressboard begin to expand and separate.  As the bottom edges continue to expand and swell, more water is allowed to enter and the rotting process accelerates.  Once that happens, you will see bubbles forming under the laminate finish, and/or pieces of the panels beginning to crumble, and/or nails that were used to install the siding are being pushed out, and/or some extreme warping.

In this example, look at how the bottom edges of each panel have swollen, which indicates that water is wicking up into the panel

Roof run-off areas are particularly hard on siding because the water is being forced downhill across the panels.  Damage to the interior studs and insulation can be significant if the problem is not fixed

So to answer your question, once you start to see visible signs of rotting, that means your siding has been absorbing water for at least 1-3 years, which means that if water has not already seeped into your wall, it will begin to do so very soon.  And then you begin to risk some very significant damage that can be very costly to repair.

In most cases the rotting starts at the bottom of the wall and spreads as more and more panels wick the water farther up the wall

 

Rotting Siding (Part 2): The economy is bad and my budget is tight, so can I replace ONLY the rotten siding and leave the rest?

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This is a question we get a lot.  The simple answer is yes, you can…. it’s your house and technically you can do whatever you want.  Any of us can face tight financial circumstances where it is not feasible to replace all of the siding, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you have SOME siding that has visible water damage and rot, then most of the rest of your old siding has also probably absorbed at least a small amount of water deep inside and is already beginning to rot, so it needs to come off the house as soon as possible before it causes further structural damage.  So, replacing only the siding that is obviously and visibly damaged (what we call a “patchwork” job) can only be justified as long as you realize that this is, at best, a very short-term solution to buy you some time until you are financially able to do the whole job.  But as I am about to explain, you must understand that in doing it this way, you will be spending more in actual out-of-pocket money than if you had done the job all at once.

Unfortunately, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have gone to a home, given the homeowner a quote to replace their rotting siding, and then a few days later they contact me to say that the cost for a full siding replacement was more than they wanted to spend, especially since a lot of the existing siding “seems to be just fine”.  So, they wanted to know what it would cost just to patch it up and leave the stuff that looks “just fine”, figuring it would be cheaper just to replace the bad parts.

This is a very, very bad idea, and there are at least two reasons why.  First of all, since there is a strong likelihood that the pressboard siding that “looks just fine” has absorbed water, it is also likely that the load-bearing wood inside the wall (which the siding is nailed to) and your wall insulation have begun to absorb water as well.  You know what that means… one of the nastiest words a homeowner can hear… MOLD… not to mention rotting studs.  Either one of those issues would drive up the cost of repair, and the longer it is allowed to remain untreated, the more expensive it will be to fix.

Second, because all the pressboard manufacturers were sued and the product is no longer on the market, there is nothing available to exactly match its appearance.  So, if you want to replace only the bad parts, you are going to have to find something else that will blend in as much as possible with the rest of the siding that will remain on your wall.  There are only a few products that come in similar sizes, and which even slightly resemble the old pressboard siding (such as HardiePlank, etc.) which you can buy in individual planks and panels in different exposures.  So, some people get the idea that they can replace just the rotting siding with this other material and no one will know the difference.

Well, guess what? When you see the new material at the lumber yard it may appear that they resemble each other, but as soon as you put them on the wall side-by-side, the difference becomes obvious and anyone can tell that the wall was patched.  This happens because the old masonite is retaining water, which causes the surface to swell and its surface texture to change.  This means it is less porous and cannot hold paint as well as the new material, so the resulting color and texture difference can be clearly seen, even from a distance.

When homeowners see that there really aren’t very many good options, I often hear one more question: “Then why not just buy some time by painting the old rotting siding?”  That’s a BIG mistake… HUGE!  And here’s why: when you paint the new areas of siding you’ll quickly notice the difference in how it looks compared to the old siding you did NOT replace, so you’ll probably want to paint the rest of the old pressboard siding with the same paint so it will all match as closely as possible.  However, if you paint pressboard siding that has already begun to absorb water (even if it looks “just fine”), the paint seals the siding and traps the moisture between the front and back laminating layers.  As a result, the rotting process inside the siding begins to accelerate, especially as the weather gets hotter, so you will find that the time to replace it has come much sooner than you expected, and you will still end up having to replace your old siding, and probably some (or all) of the new stuff you used as patchwork, and the paint job on the old siding will be completely wasted.  That’s a lot of money to just flush away for a very short-term gain.

Notice the how the water is absorbed into the pressboard panels starting at the bottom of the wall, and how the panels are discolored even through the laminate finish.  Even the best paint won't be able to hide that, so the only solution is to replace all of the siding on the wall.