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If you can’t keep the weather out, that fancy new carpet won’t help

We’re told: “If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75 per cent of the world.”

We, the lucky 25 per cent, spend a lot of time considering the esthetic details of our homes; taking great care to get the right trim, windows, paint colour, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, among hundreds of other considerations.

But how much time do we generally spend considering the details of that “roof over your head”? (Although little else will matter if it doesn’t keep us dry and safe from the elements.)

What’s your best bet for a roof that will keep you warm and dry, while still looking good and meeting your budget? What’s new out there?

Let’s look at the process of choosing the best type of roof—and some criteria for finding the right roofing professionals for the job. Both considerations are of equal importance.

How do you start?

New products and improvements, or variations on these, are introduced to the market at a dizzying rate. It is sometimes a challenge for even roofing contractors to keep up, and they often hear of new products first from consumers who have found them on the Internet.

Some general factors you will need to consider are:

  • The life of the material, including warranty.
  • Whether the structure of the house will support the material.
  • Whether the material suits the architectural style of your home.
  • And, of course, the price!

What material is best?

Metal roofing options include aluminum, steel, copper and lead.

Aluminum is very light and comes in sheets or shingles. It can be installed relatively quickly, and has very good durability, though it is moderately expensive.

Steel is typically long lived and is moderately light, and also installs relatively quickly. It can come galvanized or painted in a rainbow of colours, and in sheets or shingles. Steel ranges from moderately priced to very expensive and may require specialised tools to install.

Copper and lead are traditional materials and can be very expensive, requiring a specialized installer. Both are very long lived and can be seen on many historical buildings around the world. Obviously, metal roofs are extremely fire resistant.

Metal roofs range in price. They can be installed relatively quickly and are typically long lived.

Clay tiles are not typical in northern climes, but perfect if you are looking for a Spanish or Mediterranean style. They are natural, and can be very long lived with little maintenance, but they’re very expensive and require extensive reinforcing of the structure due to the weight. Finding a professional installer for clay tiles will be a challenge in our part of the world.

Slate is a beautiful, natural choice for a traditional building. There are many examples of slate roofs hundreds of years old. As you can imagine, slate is very heavy and requires a reinforced roof structure. It’s extremely fire resistant, but also very expensive. Slate roofing companies are not common hereabouts, but a few can be found online with beautiful galleries of their work. Slate roofs also require a specialized installer.

Wood shingles are another traditional choice, usually made of cedar or redwood, but there are other choices such as treated pine. While wood gives a very specific look, it doesn’t have the lifespan of other choices or the fire resistance that some others offer. Installation is not straightforward either, so you may require experienced installers. All of this leads to a higher than average cost. However, if you have a cedar log or timberframe home, wood shingles can complete the look.

Concrete tiles are relatively new but are gaining some popularity. They can give the look of clay tiles or slate, and they come in many natural colours. Concrete tiles are fairly easily recycled but are moderately expensive. Low maintenance and fire resistant, they do require a heavy roof structure for adequate support, as well as specialized installers.

Built-up roofs made with layers of asphalt, gravel tar and various other materials are typically limited to flat roof construction, and must be installed by a qualified contractor due to the need for very specialized equipment and training. They are often torched in place to ensure a seal between components. This method has been used for many years but is typically limited to commercial installations due to the high cost.

Asphalt shingles remain by far the most popular roof choice today mainly due to their lower cost and ease of installation. There are hundreds of choices in shape, size, colour and texture—but they do vary widely in terms of quality. They are constructed of a heavy paper or fibreglass core which is first soaked and coated with asphalt and then topped with different colours of grit or sand granules. Asphalt shingles are not as long lived as some other choices, but their cost and the number of options keeps them at the top.

One caveat to note about asphalt shingles is that due to their popularity many companies now manufacture them, but not all shingles or their warranties are created equal. Caveat emptor for sure.

Finally, there are man-made, or synthetic, materials in a category with a wide variety of options. They are gaining in popularity as the quality grows and the cost comes down. Some of the choices include synthetic slate and plastic shingles, polymer panels that look like large sections of traditional shakes or shingles but install very quickly, as well as a long list of membranes made of rubber, vinyl, PVC, EPDM and many other proprietary materials from various manufacturers.

Also in this group are a number of elastomeric roll- or spray-on coatings. Many of these choices are popular for flat roofs as they are often seamless and fairly easy to seal or weld flashings into for chimneys or plumbing stacks.

However most of these are not particularly cost effective for residential applications except where required, as in a roof deck or very low slope and flat roof situations. Again, most of these are only able to be installed by qualified contractors, often with extensive factory training and sometimes highly specialized equipment.

Who to hire?

To get the scoop on what to look for in a roofing contractor, I spoke with George McCarthy of McCarthy’s Roofing, a 30-plus year veteran of the roofing industry in Atlantic Canada. I asked George first what he would recommend to consumers who are choosing a contractor for their roofing needs.

To find a trustworthy contractor, and to protect yourself, George suggested the following:

  • Check for liability insurance as well as coverage under Workers’ Compensation in your province.
  • Ask about safety certification in your province. For example, in Nova Scotia, look for certification under the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association.
  • Be sure the company actually subscribes to safe practices while on site. If you see someone working on your roof and they aren’t wearing a full arrest harness, speak up as you could be held liable if someone is injured on your property.

Many homeowners have tried to save a few dollars on work done by under-the-table contractors, only to find themselves liable for any damage or injury on their property.

It’s a big risk.

George also recommends that you check that the warranties offered by your chosen contractor cover both the workmanship and the roofing product you have chosen. Most company warranties are spelled out in detail online, but ask the contractor to explain anything you aren’t sure of. They should be happy to do this and to give you any references. Be sure to follow up and check those references, too.

Finally, George had one last recommendation for consumers who might be feeling some information overload: “Don’t get carried away!” Do some research online and talk with your neighbours and friends. Get as close as you can to deciding what you want, and then get only three or four quotes. When you talk to the potential contractors, fine tune with a few more questions to be sure you are comparing apples and apples, and then you can make the most informed decision possible.

Making decisions about your new roof can be a bit daunting, but with some research and a little patience, you’ll get ‘er done.

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