What you should know before you replace your windows (© Wilkosz & Way/Corbis)Click to enlarge picture

© Wilkosz & Way/Corbis

If your windows no longer enhance the façade of your home, shield it from the elements or filter 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 eager to keep their installation crews working.

Many dealers have cut markups to the quick, says Susan Selman, who is with Schmidt Windows in suburban Chicago. Plus, the $1,500 tax credit for installing energy-efficient windows in your home, which will help defray some costs, expires at year-end. (Bing: Learn more about the energy-efficiency tax credit)

Just remember that replacing windows is an expensive proposition that includes not only the price of the windows but also the cost of expert installation to ensure that the windows perform as promised.

Replace or repair?
There are two types of replacements. If the original framing is sound and reasonably square, you can install a replacement window into the original opening and replace the sashes, side jambs and trim. If the original frame is rotted or misshapen, you must install a new window, 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.

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Tom Patterson, owner of The Window Man stores in Virginia, says that the top question he asks customers is, "How old is your home?" Until the early 1970s, windows were generally well-made with old-growth wood, whose tight grain resists moisture and decay. Newer homes, he says, may have poorly constructed, builder-grade windows that are already failing because their wood frames are susceptible to moisture.

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"I've put my finger right through the sills of 10-year-old windows," a sure sign of rot, Patterson says. You can test your sills yourself by trying to poke a screwdriver into them. Or ask a window installer, home inspector or contractor to inspect them.

If you have old windows you love and the frames are sound, you could 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 sun's heating and fading effects.

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Patterson says low-E storm windows run $200 to $500, depending on size and options, such as higher-performance laminated glass; these windows may be eligible for the tax credit if they meet certain requirements. Patterson charges $40 to $200 per window to install them.

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Calculate your savings
You'll recoup much of your investment in replacing or repairing windows 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 Remodeling magazine's 2009-2010 "Cost vs. Value Report." 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, Neb. 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 want 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 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.

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Choose the right window
Before you begin to shop, learn the lingo:

  • Double-hung windows open 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 make cleaning easier.
  • Tilt-out windows let you clean the exterior from the inside.