Are Replacement Windows Worth the Cost?

Replacement windows save less energy than improved roof insulation.
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Whether your first home is a mid-century fixer-upper or a wonderful old Victorian, you’ll eventually face the issue of drafty windows and the “thunk” of counterweights hitting bottom in window wells. After a few months of sticky sashes or rusty casements, replacement windows -- “the green alternative!” -- may beckon. Hang on, homeowner. Before taking a second mortgage to replace old windows, examine your options and your budget’s bottom line.


Your parents, remembering the sticky sash, rusty casements or frostbitten aluminum of their childhood, chose vinyl replacement windows, many with double glazing and mullion inserts. These technologies are still available and have been improved, but you can also choose vinyl cladding, low-emissivity (low-e) glass or coatings. You can get replacement components or buy entire new construction windows that rebuild the entire window frame structure, spending a few hundred dollars per window or over a thousand. If your credit is great, you can choose “architectural” replacements that virtually duplicate or at least match the style of the original -- and look like a million bucks.


Your replacement windows might cut down on air infiltration and exfiltration. Coatings may reduce solar heating. Unitary storms and screens will, for sure, cut down on heat loss or gain and time spent cleaning, putting them up, taking them down and storing them. Wash-in-place sashes are a miracle of modern engineering. And, don’t forget, those new windows will save energy and “pay for themselves.”


Before jumping on the replacement bandwagon, consider that any changes you make in your windows will affect the appearance -- real estate people call it “curb appeal” -- of your house. Even though you may improve the value of your home by installing energy-efficient windows, you may offset it by muddling the style of your home. Check with the local plan or preservation commission for regulations about replacement windows. Call your utility company for an energy audit that, if not free, might cost a few hundred dollars. Compared to the thousands new windows cost, an audit is a bargain. Your old windows, built of old growth wood, may insulate better than new wood that is less dense. Even when you install remarkably efficient windows, says old house expert Gordon Bock, it may take 40 years to recoup their cost.


Only you can decide whether it’s worth it to replace your windows with new ones. Figure about $500 for an average replacement window and weigh that against the costs of caulking exterior trim, replacing counterweights with spring balances and sealing the pulley hole, filling window wells with insulation, or re-glazing or adding low-e film to existing panes. Investigate how much storm windows might cost; 2 to 3 inches of air insulates as well as thermal panes, and low-e film lasts longer than argon or other gas used between panes. If you have your heart set on replacement windows and you’ve considered their limitations and the alternatives, make a decision about their practicality for your house and budget.

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