It can be hard, as a homeowner, to know that you’re getting quality workmanship and products for your money. Often, the difference between a good installer and a bad one lies in technical know-how that takes an industrial professional to spot. To help sort through these issues, we spoke to John Litsey, of Houston’s Window City. John clued us into some common misconceptions about window installers, and how to research your installer’s background history and expertise. Here’s what he had to say.

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What should homeowners look out for when they’re hiring a window company?

I sell a window for two or three hundred dollars, while other people might sell a window that’s 90 percent of the quality of that one for $2,000 dollars. The only difference is just profit and overhead. When you sell such an expensive product that’s so much higher than something else, you have to come up with some way to differentiate the windows. But the reality is that most of these windows—at least a wide swath of the premium window segment—are all pretty close. They have to come up with some kind of justification for why their prices are so high. And they generally try to make their window appear to be unique.

So they’ll tell the homeowner that they manufacture their windows, so therefore they’re the only ones that can offer that window. But if a windows salesman tells you that they manufacture their own window, there’s a high likelihood that they’re not telling the complete truth.

Secondly, you have a group of companies that sell a composite window and a fiberglass window. These windows can be three times the price of a good quality vinyl window, so the companies have to come up with a reason why their windows are so expensive. They try to convince the homeowner of the problems with vinyl—that it won’t last, or that it’ll warp.

But the fact of the matter is that you don’t need anything stronger than vinyl. The vinyl windows are all tested by AAMA [American Architectural Manufacturers Association]. They go through rigorous structural testing. And all they do is sit in the window opening. They don’t hold up anything. They don’t need to be stronger.

So how frequently would you say a homeowner actually does need to replace their windows?

Probably about once in a lifetime.

How can you tell that you do need to replace them? If you have an older home, or so forth?

If you can feel leaks in the windows. One of the advantages of replacement windows is that they seal up the home more so you have a more quiet environment. The noise that comes through aluminum windows won’t get through vinyl windows. It buffers a lot of that outside noise.

A window replacement also makes your house more aesthetically pleasing, so it adds to the resale value. Plus, it makes the house more comfortable, because you don’t have a wide discrepancy in the temperature. For example, a homeowner recently told me, “I have one room in the house that will get really hot, because it’s right where the sun is shining in through the windows.” This affects the overall environment of the whole home. But with new windows, you have a more consistent temperature throughout the house. And that means your central AC unit doesn’t have to run as much, so you end up saving money. It’s more energy-efficient, and just provides a lot of comfort.

What specific things do you recommend for homeowners who want to improve their energy efficiency?

The most important thing is the low-E coating on the glass. They’re pretty much required now [in Houston] because of the energy codes.

But one of the biggest things that affects the overall performance and reliability of the window is what’s called a spacer system. It provides the seal between the two panes of glass. The best spacers are not metallic. They’re a rubber or foam type material. Most companies use a metal spacer. But with metal, you get a lot of expansion and contraction, and it has a tendency to force the glass out to where you get a seal failure, which results in moisture in between the panes.

That’s probably one of the most overlooked and most important parts of a window. Because it’s on the inside of a window, it’s not anything that a homeowner can see. The only way they would know about it is if someone told them about it. And if somebody sells a window with a metal spacer system, they’re not going to be forthcoming with that.

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How can homeowners tell a good installer or window seller from a bad one?

Always check with the Better Business Bureau. If the companies that you’re talking to are not registered with the Better Business Bureau, then that’s a huge red flag.

You should also look at online reviews. Search that company and find different review sites like Yelp and Google. Also, the Better Business Bureau now has a review section on their website, so homeowners that work with a particular company can go give their review of the project. If a company has 50 or 60 complaints with the Better Business Bureau, that’s a pretty bad sign. That’s because if somebody files a complaint with the BBB, it tends to be their last resort to get any type of resolution to the problem. And the Better Business Bureau will make that company attempt to solve that problem. If a homeowner submits a complaint, the BBB will contact that company so that they have the opportunity to respond to that complaint. And then the homeowner has the ability to either accept or reject their solution to the problem.

If the vendor doesn’t put forth a solution that the homeowner agrees with, then the Better Business Bureau can force the company into arbitration. And if the company doesn’t reply to the complaint, they’ll be expelled from the BBB. People who are members of the Better Business Bureau are more cognizant of that—they don’t want bad reviews, so they don’t put their company in a position where they would get one.

It only costs $550 to become a member of the Better Business Bureau. So the only reason someone could have for not wanting to become a member is to say it costs too much. But if you don’t have that $500 to give a homeowner peace of mind, then that’s a red flag. It makes you question the company motives. If they’re not a member of the Better Business Bureau, why? Maybe they used to be and they got booted out.

It definitely doesn’t seem like a good sign. Thank you for talking with us today, John!

Thank you for having me!