Roofs Matter: Don’t Underrate What’s Above

The top of the house shouldn’t be at the bottom of your list of things to be aware of. Learn about the pros and cons of different kinds of roofs.

October 15, 2012

With buyers getting more demanding about the condition of the houses they purchase, roofs have become one of the major potential deal breakers. If a home’s roof needs major repairs or even total replacement, that’s a cost that could run well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The shape and pitch matter as well, as these qualities can help prevent inclement weather from damaging the home’s interior and exterior. The materials and their configuration make a difference in how cohesive and attractive the roof looks with the home’s style and its colors and textures. And the materials on the exterior and underneath differ greatly in price, ease of installation, and temperature control within the home and by how long the roof will last. (Some may last 15 years, others 150.)

Besides helping sellers and buyers weigh the best choice, you can assist them in understanding the wide variety of options now available. They can start to see many of the choices by touring homes in their neighborhood. Architect James Crisp, AIA, whose firm is based in Millbrook, N.Y., suggests consumers put up samples on their existing roof to study the differences, just as they might do with interior paint samples on walls.

They also need to inquire about warranties for materials, the level of experience of the contractor they’ll use (since some are much more qualified with particular materials and underlayments than others), and how much decking is needed underneath for support. All these decisions influence how long a roof may last, says Stephen L. Patterson, president and director of engineering services with Roof Technical Services Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of Roofing Design and Practices (University of Texas at Arlington, 2007). Finally, home owners should ask about a warranty for workmanship.

Here are quick snapshots of the most popular choices in roofing:

Asphalt or Composite Shingles

These are considered the most prevalent roof material in the country, according to Walt Rossiter, director of technical services with the Roof Consultants Institute in Raleigh, N.C. Made of fiberglass and petroleum-based products, they’re viewed as an economical choice, have been vastly improved over time, and are easiest for most contractors to install, says Chicago architect Allan J. Grant.

The least expensive are a three-tab shingle, which is very thin and requires good insulation, sometimes so much that the price becomes almost too expensive, Crisp says. “You can spend so much that it ends up making more sense to spend more on the shingle itself,” he adds.

The most expensive — and now most popular — versions today reflect varied textures, patterns, and colors. They’re applied in more than one layer for a multidimensional effect, and are known as “architectural” shingles, according to the National Roofing Contractors Association in Rosemont, Ill. These can last decades, says Bradley Marshall, owner of Marshall Roofing in Lake Bluff, Ill.

To work well, asphalt shingles require a good wood-based and resin underlayment or roof deck to act as a secondary weatherproofing barrier. They should be applied to a roof with a certain pitch so water can run off properly; have good flashings to prevent leaks, with corrosion-resistant nails and proper vents; and not go over more than one layer of existing roofing, Patterson says. Home owners who prefer dark shingles should be certain their area permits them since they can decrease energy efficiency. One caveat regarding repairs: Older shingles may be tough to match since they may have faded, according to NRCA.

Clay Tiles and Concrete

More expensive than asphalt shingles — sometimes five to 10 times more costly — these materials require a more built-up roof structure than asphalt since they’re heavier. They also demand a quality underlayment for good waterproofing. Their prime advantage is that they last a long time — up to 100 years or longer. They best suit certain architectural styles, such as Spanish or Mediterranean, or homes constructed from stone or brick. When they wear out, they can be recycled, Crisp says. Major disadvantages are that they’re tougher to install and repair than asphalt shingles and may crack in certain climates, Patterson says.


Metal roofs come in different colors, often because of a coating, in different shapes, thicknesses, and textures, and can look great and even cutting edge on an old farmhouse or period Victorian house, as well as modern designs, Grant says. They’re durable, and often last between 50 and 100 years. On the downside, there’s a possibility of loud noise when it  rains or hails, though that can be compensated for with good sound insulation and solid decking. They require a good waterproof underlayment and are much more expensive than asphalt shingles to buy, install, and repair. Painted steel is the least costly, copper the most, Crisp says.


Many new polymer products have come on the market and are promoted for durability, lighter weight, fire resistance, and simulation of the real McCoy. Patterson cites two downsides: They can be expensive and haven’t been used long enough to truly know their durability. Crisp adds a third: An experienced installer is critical to mix together colors so they look most natural.


Elegant, classic, grand, durable, natural-looking due to their range of colors and textures — the list of pluses goes on and on.  Best of all, a slate roof may come with a 150-year life expectancy if properly installed, says Joseph Jenkins, executive director of the Slate Roofing Contractors Association. As with some other materials, when it wears out, the slate shingles can go back in the ground rather than to a landfill.

The prime downsides of slate are that it can be heavy, it requires a well-built-up structure to support it, it’s among the most expensive choices, and it represents a time-consuming installation and can be an expensive repair. As an alternative, there are lightweight slate-like products available; since they’re less heavy, the structure doesn’t have to be as well supported, Grant says. The main downside is that they can be as pricey as the real thing.

Wood Shakes and Shingles

Rustic-looking, natural, and durable, the flip side of these choices is that they need to be treated to withstand fire. They also can be quite costly and require installation by an experienced contractor, Grant says. The prime difference between these two options is that shingles are smooth and often cut regularly for a more tailored appearance while shakes are more textured and usually thicker and can be irregularly shaped.

Planted Green Roofs

Although this choice is not yet widespread, some home owners with flat roofs and the right modern designs are going green. It’s gotten easier to find options since more companies produce modules that can be installed. The downsides are that they can be expensive, hard to maintain, tough to repair, and possibly heavy, depending on how much dirt is used, how many plants are included, and what kind of waterproofing membrane is used underneath. They also require an expert installer.

Bonus!Solar Panels

Although this isn’t a type of roof, the panels can be applied to many roofs to help cut energy and electric use. Geogenix’s silicone solar cells can help the average home owner in the Northeastern United States save 10,000 kilowatt hours or typically $1,600, says Gaurav Naik, co-owner, and principal of the Old Bridge, N.J.-based firm. Patterson offers a caveat: “Any time you put anything on a roof and penetrate its surface, you create potential leak problems, so be aware of possible maintenance and repair challenges,” he says.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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