New or replacement windows can change the look of your house, but they're expensive. Here are the top five problems with old windows, and how you can solve them.
Photo by iStockphoto.com/Eric Vega; iStockphoto.com/forca
On a windy or cold day, move a smoking incense stick along the perimeter of your “drafty” windows to detect either incoming or outgoing airflows. Make sure to note whether leakage occurs around the window sash itself or around the trim.
If your house feels cool and drafty in the winter, chances are you have leaky windows. Turning up the thermostat and putting on a sweater won’t always bring comfort, especially on a windy day.
New windows will solve this problem instantly. When properly installed, they are virtually airtight. You’ll immediately feel the difference. Your house will be snug and free of most drafts. Depending on the air leakage of your old windows, you could also see a 10 to 30 percent reduction in your heating (or cooling) bills, because old windows often account for up to one-third of a home’s energy loss.
Be sure new windows are the answer
Drafts may seem like they’re coming from windows even when they’re not. Often air leaks occur around the trim rather than around the sash, for example. You can usually fix this yourself by removing trim and insulating. (See “Stop Window Drafts.” )
If the leaks occur only around a few, frequently opened windows, you maybe able to fix them with new weatherstripping, latches or closers. (See next section.) Or call a window repair specialist for an estimate. The cost of professional window repair might seem high, but it may be much less than the cost of new windows.
Probe exposed wood corners annually with a screwdriver or other sharp tool, looking for soft spots that indicate rot. Check the lower edges of wood trim as well.
It’s frustrating when you have to struggle to open or close a window because the sash sticks or won’t stay up, the crank won’t turn, the sash won’t latch or the hinges are broken. Installers tell us that they see these problems in homes only 10 years old. The original windows in many homes are not top quality.
On the other hand, new windows, especially those of a major brand, will operate smoothly and easily, and should give you years of trouble-free service.
Fix or replace?
Should you fix the windows or replace them? To answer this question, first inspect all your windows for signs of wear. Common problems include binding sashes, hardware that’s not working, cracks in vinyl, and wood rot. Installers tell us that most of the mechanical parts on lower-quality windows tend to fail at about the same time.
If only a few windows have problems, have a window repair specialist give you a bid. Then compare it with the cost of complete replacement. You can replace most types of hardware yourself. This is a good strategy if only a few windows have hardware problems. The trick is to find identical replacement parts. Finding replacement parts for major brand windows (Andersen, Marvin, Jeld-Wen, Pella and Weather Shield, for example) is fairly easy.
First look for a manufacturer label on the top, bottom or edges of the sash, or at the corner of the glass. Then call the manufacturer and ask about parts sources. If you can’t find the manufacturer’s name, check local hardware stores and home centers for identical replacement hardware. Or search online for “window repair parts” or “window weather stripping replacement.” (Two good sources are www.truth.com and www.blainehardware.com)
Up to a point, you can also fix wood rot. First, eliminate the source of moisture if you can; for example, a leaking gutter or ineffective flashing. Dig out the rot and fill with epoxy or other fillers, caulk and repaint. ( See “How to Use Epoxy.”) Replace rotting trim. If you can’t repair the rotted area, you’ll have to replace the window.
If your windows have maintenance-free exteriors (aluminum or vinyl-covered), be vigilant as well. Stains running down the siding below windows sometimes indicate a seal failure and the beginning of rot behind the cladding. Look for open joints and flaking or peeling caulk. Clean the bad joints and recaulk.
Low-maintenance exteriors on new windows eliminate the painting chore and allow cleaning from the inside. Nice!
If your sick and tired of scraping and painting wood windows every few years, it may be time for a change. New windows with maintenance-free exteriors will eliminate those time-consuming chores. All vinyl or composite windows, and windows with vinyl or aluminum exterior cladding, won’t rot and don’t need painting. The double-pane glass eliminates the need for storm windows. And new window mechanisms allow you to rotate the sashes and wash your windows from the inside; no more climbing ladders.
If your old windows are basically in good condition and you’re not up for the maintenance chores, hire a professional painter or home maintenance pro to service and clean your windows annually. It’ll take about a day every year. If you want to keep your old windows in working order for as long as possible, it’s a good investment.
High-efficiency glass reduces energy loss and will make your home more comfortable. It’s a good investment when it comes time to buy new windows.
Tight-fitting storm windows will reduce drafts from leaky double-hung or sliding windows.
New high-efficiency windows will cut your heating and cooling costs. Unfortunately, this alone is generally not a good reason to replace windows. Stopping air leaks, especially by thorough exterior caulking and sealing attic bypasses, is the most important step toward energy efficiency. (See “How to Seal Attic Air Leaks.” ) The energy savings from new windows alone is unlikely to cover their costs, even with a federal tax credit. An energy audit will show you the most cost-effective improvements, and the auditor can assess your windows at the same time.
However, if you have to replace your windows anyway, buy the most energy efficient ones you can afford. They’ll cost a little more (10 to 20 percent), but the additional savings will usually pay you back in the long run.
Other options for saving energy
Many less-expensive strategies will bring significant savings. For example, to tighten drafty double-hung and slider windows, you can add exterior storms.
Another lower-cost option is to mount storms on the inside. (To help you locate this option, search online for “interior storm windows.”) Or you can simply cover windows with heavy drapes at night to cut drafts and reduce heat loss.
If your existing windows look shabby, whether it’s from many layers of paint, permanent water stains, or general wear and tear, consider new windows. New windows will vastly improve the appearance of a room and will add to the market value of your home.
It’s possible to refurbish old windows—chemically strip and refinish both sash and trim, restain or paint, reputty, install new glass and/or replace hardware—but it’s time consuming, and usually more expensive than replacement if you have to hire pros. Two exceptions are windows that have historic value and windows that are unique and can’t be duplicated at a reasonable price.
Don't assume you have to replace all your windows at the same time. Windows sheltered from sun and rain or those on the north side of your home may be in much better shape than unsheltered, south-facing windows.