Ask an Expert: The Benefits of Using an Independent Contractor for Window Replacements

When you decide to install new windows, you have tons of companies to choose from. But most of the time those offerings break down into two kinds: large window dealers and independent installers. Today we talk to Billy Vaughan, the co-owner of B&B Custom Renovations in Fairfax, Virginia, about the benefits of relying on a local contractor for your windows replacement project.

Workers installing new windows

We’ll start at the beginning. How can a homeowner tell that it’s time to replace their windows?

A really obvious sign is that the windows become foggy, because the seals have failed. Or if you still only have single pane windows, then it’s definitely a good time to replace them. Usually, the best indication is if the windows start to become foggy or get condensation between the panes. That’s a sign that the seals are gone, and that usually means that they’re old windows that should probably be replaced anyway.

If your windows are ten years old, it’s time to upgrade, because there’s better, more efficient technology. New windows are one of the best investments you can make in terms of being more energy efficient for your house.

How about when it comes time to choose a contractor? How can homeowners tell they’ve picked a good one?

You should look for someone who doesn’t work for one specific window manufacturer. They’re more salesmen as opposed to installers. It’s good to find an independent contractor who will help you find the best window at a good price point.

A window dealer is trying to make money by selling you a window. A contractor, on the other hand, doesn’t make money selling windows, but by installing them. For instance, I’m a contractor and I’d help you find the best windows that fit your budget, whereas a window dealer or a siding company—someone who’s not necessarily a window contractor—will usually have deals with distributors for certain windows. So they’re trying to make money not just installing the window but selling you a more expensive window that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a better product. Plus, when you choose an independent contractor you can feel good about supporting a local business.

The only problem is that sometimes smaller contractors are untried. What do you think homeowners should look for when they’re choosing between smaller installers?

Do your research. First of all, do they have a website? Do they look like they’re reputable? We get most of our work from people who tell their friends and neighbors. So just ask for recommendations. That’s a really good thing, too, because then you have somebody who’s already worked with somebody you know.

Find someone with information that clearly displays their state license number, and shows that they’re bonded and insured. Those are usually indications that they do quality work because they’re publically releasing all of this information that makes them easy to track down. Always make sure that you’re using people who are licensed, bonded and insured—at least that’s how it is in Virginia.

Speaking of insurance, what kinds of things could go wrong during a window replacement?

If the window isn’t properly mated back to the siding, if it’s not properly flashed and caulked and sealed. The biggest enemy is always water. Water destroys your stuff faster than anything else, so if the installer doesn’t properly seal back up to the siding material, water can start getting in. It’s incredible how quickly things can be ruined just from getting rot in the structural parts of your house, like mold in your insulation.

A window that isn’t properly insulated is also a problem. But the worst thing is when water leaks in. Usually by the time you see it on the inside, it’s so much worse inside the wall. You start noticing your drywall’s looking a little funky, and usually by then, there’s all kinds of damage inside.

Have you ever had to enlarge the opening for a window?

I’ve had lots of customers ask if they could add an existing window where there’s no window, but they always seem incredibly shocked by how much it’s going to cost and what’s involved with creating a hole where one doesn’t already exist.

I think a lot of people imagine you’re just cutting a square in the wall. But you have to take all the drywall down. And unless your window is less than twelve inches, you’re going to have to start cutting into studs—which is a huge deal. So it’s very important that your contractor knows how to measure properly, in order to get the right size window. If it’s too big or too small, you’ll need to adjust siding, too, and there again, the worst problem could happen: water infiltration.

If it’s properly measured, and it fits nicely in against the siding, it’s easy to seal it and ensure that you won’t have any water leakage into your home. The best rule of thumb is, unless you’re having the siding done at the same time, to get windows that fit where the old windows were.

morning sunshine on the bed

What about energy efficiency? How can customers improve their home’s energy profile with the windows they choose?

I would absolutely recommend getting Low-E treated glass to help with heat transfer through the window. It also protects from UV, so at the very least, it’s not fading your carpet or your floor.

You also want to get double pane, argon-gas-filled windows, because it’s much better at not transferring energy through the window.

I personally like vinyl windows as opposed to wood. Because with the vinyl window, you’re not worried about it rotting. But with the wood window, if you don’t maintain regular upkeep and make sure the sill and the outside are painted every year or two, it could start rotting—and there again, you have water getting in.

I like the vinyl, knowing that it’s going to be longer than your lifetime before that breaks down. The old aluminum windows transfer heat too easily, too. The sashes are made out of metal, and the energy is transferring right through there. You know, there’s a reason they make pots and pans out of metal—it’s a great conductor of energy.

Is there anything homeowners can do on their own to make sure their windows stay in good shape?

Be mindful. Open the blinds every now and then and make sure that they’re not getting condensation between the two panes. Notice on cold days, does it feel cold by the window? Do you feel a draft coming through? That’s a dead giveaway that something’s going on.

Make sure you’re always locking your windows when you close them, and check on this regularly. Most modern windows have locks, and that lock is what helps seal them. We see it all the time—people who have blinds or curtains on their windows and have no idea that their seals have been bad for about two years. Or perhaps the window is in a back bedroom  that a homeowner doesn’t use often enough to notice.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s in your best interest to install because there’s a chance you might get a state or local tax credit on ENERGY STAR windows. And if you get a local contractor, they usually know your local climate, so they’ll know what windows are best—as opposed to a big window dealer that just pumps windows out and has a local installer go out to put them in.

You can’t beat a local for regional knowledge—thanks for talking with us today, Billy!

Thank you for having me!

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