Magazine

Your Home | Design Refresher

Replace your roof? Patch it? Wait a year? Here’s how to decide.

Now that the drought is over and winter is a few months away, it’s time for New England homeowners to get serious about what’s overhead.

Roof repairs, worker with yellow gloves replacing red tiles or shingles on house with blue sky as background and copy space.
Associated Press

It’s good news for the state as a whole that the approximately 2 feet of rainfall we’ve had since January has officially ended the drought that started last summer. The bad news for many homeowners is that the otherwise welcome rain may be exposing a problem they didn’t know they had: roof damage. “It’s a busy time in the roofing business,” says Mark Graham, vice president of technical services at the National Roofing Contractors Association, headquartered in Rosemont, Illinois. “It’s basically precipitation driven, and this year most contractors are pretty busy.”

Even if you don’t have damage but are thinking of replacing your roof before it wears out, now’s the time to start calling around so the work can be done before the really bad weather hits. “A small repair can turn into a huge problem in winter,” says J. Ryan DeCourcey, vice president of John DeCourcey Roofing in Stoneham. “When materials contract in cold weather, they start to crack and break. Asphalt becomes more brittle. And if you have ice on top of it, with the freeze-and-thaw effect, the ice can make its way into the roof.”

While contractors can work into the winter if necessary, cold-weather opportunities are “day by day,” according to DeCourcey, which means that many roofers will limit jobs to repairs necessitated by tree falls or other catastrophic events. You may be able to get a better price in the late fall, when companies have fewer jobs to juggle, but only if you can find someone to come out. “The weather gets a little more tricky,” DeCourcey says, “and on top of that some products don’t adhere as well in temperatures below 20 degrees.” Also, says Kevin Camponescki, project manager at Uni-Ply Roofing in Middleton, “some of the guys who will cut their price to do the job might not come back and fix it if there’s an issue.”

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Here’s what to think about if your roof needs repair.

PATCHING THINGS UP

If you have a localized problem, you may be able to delay replacing the roof by having it patched. On flat roofs, this could be a DIY job, with the help of some roofing cement and a sheet of rubber membrane, but for a high or steeply sloping roof, call a professional. “Falling off the roof and hurting yourself isn’t worth it,” says Graham. “It’s a long-term recovery — if you’re able to recover.”

The only problem is that many roofers refuse to do patches. “It’s just a business philosophy,” says Louis Silver, president of the North East Roofing Contractors Association and owner of Silver Roofing in Garnerville, New York. “It’s not a practical roofing matter.” Unless he happens to be working next door to you, schlepping a ladder to your house and getting up on the roof may not be worth a roofer’s time when a bigger job beckons.

If you do find someone, be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars just for the service call, and a few hundred more, into the low thousands, for the work. The “field,” or wide expanse, of a roof rarely leaks out of nowhere; usually the problem is around flashing (a waterproof layer used at junction points like roof hips and valleys) or another detail. Make sure it’s fixed properly by insisting that the job consist of removing old roofing cement, or “tar,” and replacing the section of flashing or shingles in question — never by simply applying more tar to the hole or sticking a sheet of ice and water shield over it. “Who’s telling you the right thing versus who’s giving you a good price are often two different things,” says Silver.

And Graham points out that it’s always better to fix the leak than to let it go another season, “but have realistic expectations of that,” he says. “If you have a patched roof, realize you will probably be reroofing in the near future.”

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If you can afford to, it might be better to just bite the bullet and do the whole thing this year.

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FINDING A CONTRACTOR

As with any home repair, it’s important to check the credentials of contractors — perhaps even more so with a roof, because most homeowners have no way of knowing whether the work was done right. “The inspector won’t come and check it after we’re done,” says Camponescki. “Contractors can hide things, make old flashing look new, reuse vents and pipe collars. There’s a million ways to skimp on roofing, because no one can see what we do up there.”

As always, get three or four names by asking friends and neighbors or stopping by jobs in progress, and check online ratings sites. Before even scheduling an estimate, ask about insurance. “At absolute minimum,” says Graham, “[workers’] comp. And then you might want to see general liability coverage, which will protect the house if there’s a problem” — say, water damage from a flash thunderstorm in mid-job. If the contractor balks at your request, it’s a red flag.

“Make sure he has a license,” says Camponescki. “And don’t just call his references; go by their house. It’s a huge investment, and you should do a little research before you sign anything.” Camponescki even recommends contacting a roofer’s suppliers because “they know how long he’s been around, and if he’s a good guy or a scumbag.” All of our experts say not to hire anyone without at least seven to 10 years’ experience, since fly-by-night operations are not uncommon. “And always ask, ‘What kind of warranty are you going to give me?’ ” says DeCourcey. “Always. Always.” Most materials are warrantied for 20 years or so, and full-service warranties cover labor as well if there’s a problem.

COSTS

A new roof can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the season, whether your roof is flat or sloped, the degree of slope, the material, the height of your home, the amount of detail — dormers, gables, skylights, turrets, and other architectural flourishes mean extra labor and staging costs — whether you choose to go over the existing roof or do a “tear-off,” and any ancillary work, such as asbestos removal. If parts of the “deck,” or plywood underlay, turn out to need replacing once the old shingles are removed, that costs extra, as do gutters, rigid foam insulation, soffit or ridge vents, and other jobs that can and often should be done simultaneously.

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“Seldom on an older house is there just a problem with the roof,” says Graham. “Chances are the chimney needs pointing or the skylight needs to be replaced. So when you’re getting multiple bids, make sure they’re looking at the same thing.”

To make sure your bidders are comparing apples to apples, ask for a detailed “scope sheet” that outlines flashing materials and depth, ice and water shield use, installation of drip edges — which guide water off the roof and into the gutter, but which shady operators sometimes skip — and any other underlay, such as tar paper. “I recommend ice and water shield over the whole roof,” says DeCourcey. “If the roof costs $10,000 to do and you’re looking at spending an extra $500 to make sure it’s 100 percent tight, it’s worth it. It’s a huge difference in quality.”

One way to save money is to skip removing your old roof and simply install the new materials over it. Most building inspectors will allow up to two layers of asphalt shingles on a roof, though the roof collapses during the winter of 2015 may have tightened some restrictions; check with your city or town. Even if it is allowed, Camponescki doesn’t recommend it. “We don’t do that because it can cause load-bearing problems, and when you’re trying to get flashing around side walls, chimneys, et cetera, you’re making more headaches by burying issues that shouldn’t be buried,” he says. “It’s just so much better to rip it off. It works better and lasts longer.”

MATERIALS

For many homeowners, the look of the finished product is the most important factor when choosing a roofing material. Your home’s roof accounts for up to 40 percent of its curb appeal, according to Better Homes & Gardens. Lighter-colored materials are said to keep the roof cooler than dark ones by reflecting, rather than absorbing, sunlight, but according to Camponescki, the difference is minimal, especially with modern insulation practices. “Your attic will still be 110 degrees no matter what color shingle,” he says, adding that darker grays and tans “seem to be popular” right now. To help you choose, many websites offer “roofing visualizer” tools that allow you to upload a picture of your house or choose a sample picture and try out various options. The more individualized programs require some skill with drawing software, but a few will do the complicated stuff for you for a fee.

Beyond color, there’s a lot to consider. Roofing jobs are usually priced per “square,” or 10-by-10-foot section, which includes materials and labor.

  Paper shingles coated with granulated, waterproof, petroleum-based asphalt are the most popular roofing material, probably because they’re the least expensive. Not only are the shingles themselves relatively cheap, but they’re easy to install, so labor costs are lower; the whole job can be done in one day at a cost of $400 to $700 a square. One drawback to asphalt shingles is that they don’t last as long as other materials, with an approximate lifespan of only 15 to 30 years; another is that because they are an oil-based product, their carbon footprint is on the high side — though still within federal and state regulations for green building.

  Metal roofs have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Standing-seam designs are what most people envision when they think of metal roofs, with clean-looking vertical lines stretching from ridge to eaves, but metal shingles have also hit the market, and like their sheet-metal counterpart, they are lighter than asphalt, noncombustible, and energy-efficient, since they reflect the sun. Both materials cost more than asphalt shingles and are more complicated to install, so using them on a typical house with few details may take up to a week to finish and cost 20 to 30 percent more than asphalt shingles. But the higher cost comes with a 50-plus-year lifespan, so if you plan to stay in the house for many years, you should never have to reroof, and if you don’t plan to stay, says DeCourcey, metal is “definitely a selling point.”

  Ceramic tile roofs typically cost $700 to $800 per square. They’re environmentally friendly both in their reflection of heat and in their manufacture from natural materials, and most have a warranty of 50 years, though they’ve been known to last several centuries. They are rarely used in New England, simply because other looks have defined the region’s style for centuries.

  Machine-cut wood shingles and thicker, hand-cut wood shakes, on the other hand, are often seen on Cape Cod-style homes. They have a rustic, natural look, weathering over the years to a soft gray, and are biodegradable and sustainable if you choose Forest Stewardship Council-certified white cedar. Wood shingles can be comparable in cost to asphalt shingles and have a similar lifespan, while shakes are pricier, at $600 to $900 a square, but can last 30 to 50 years.

  Slate, often quarried in Vermont, is another popular roofing material in New England, most commonly used on historic homes or by the well-heeled. It’s among the heaviest roofing materials and because it’s tricky to install — tiles can be as small as 12 by 6 inches, and each is set separately using two copper nails — can run as much as $2,500 a square. On the upside, it lasts about 200 years.

  Synthetic roofing materials came on the market in the late 1990s and are available in two basic categories. Recycled rubber shingles are about $500 to $800 a square, while composite polymers, at about $1,000 a square, are also recycled and recyclable. Both come with a 50-year warranty and are made to resemble traditional materials like cedar shingles and slate.

  Tesla, better known for high-end electric cars, recently started taking orders for solar tiles that promise to collect the sun’s energy for 24/7 use. They cost around $2,200 per square — plus approximately $7,000 for a “Powerwall,” where energy can be stored — and currently come in textured and smooth versions, with faux slate and ceramic due out next year.

GETTING READY

Whew. You’ve gotten your estimates, found your contractor, and selected your materials. But don’t think you can sit back and relax. Before the roofer arrives, protect any furniture or keepsakes stored in your attic from debris that could rain down when the old roof is removed and the underlay shaken by hammering. At the very least, move everything into one corner and cover it with tarp or plastic, though “it’s best to take everything out and put it downstairs till we’re done,” says DeCourcey.

Similarly, though nets and tarps are used to catch everything that falls during demolition, clear your lawn of any furniture or other items that could be broken. Move vehicles that might be in the way, and make sure the company puts planks under its dumpsters to protect your driveway or yard. Remove window boxes and potted plants, and talk to the roofer in advance about how he plans to protect gardens; if you’re still nervous, you can construct protective boxes with 2-by-4s or sawhorses and plywood. As a courtesy, you might want to warn your neighbors that the roofers will be coming so that they can prepare any areas that may be affected. Because Boston-area houses are often tightly packed, roofers may need to access your roof through an adjoining yard, and it’s legal for them to do so.

Finally, plan to be out of the house while the roofers are working. Nets protecting doors and windows may prevent you from leaving, and even if they don’t, the racket will echo through the whole house. And don’t forget to book a sitter for your pet: according to Camponescki, “the noise can really freak out dogs and cats.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.