Next to a picture of Albert Einstein, a newspaper ad for “beautiful vinyl windows” declares: “It doesn’t take a GENIUS... to buy the right windows.”
“RESTORE IT RIGHT!” fires back an ad for a competing firm that installs only wood windows--”the perfect fit for your custom home.” So which replacement windows are really the right choice? Vinyl? Wood? Some other kind? Or none at all?
It may not take an Einstein to decide, but it does take some careful thought. The right choice depends on the style of your house and what you’re expecting from your new windows. And--surprise, surprise--in many cases, replacement isn’t the best choice.
For example, if you’re planning to replace your windows solely to reduce your energy bills, you may be disappointed. In an average home, the vast majority of heat is lost through walls and ceilings, not through windows. Therefore, simpler measures such as heavily insulating your attic and your heating ducts--perhaps even replacing an old and inefficient furnace--will show much more dramatic energy savings than new windows will.
If you have old wood windows that don’t operate properly anymore, replacement still might not be the best solution. Though few people realize it, most older wood windows can be repaired for less than it would cost to replace them with new ones of equal quality. What’s more, replacing basically sound wood windows with vinyl ones may come back to haunt you at resale time, since wood is still considered the premium window material.
Maybe you're hoping that new windows will give your house that elusive “updated look” of magazine lore. But beware once again: Window trends regularly come and go, along with people’s preferences for colors, divided lite patterns, and all the rest. It wasn’t so long ago that putting “modern” aluminum windows in an old Victorian house was considered an improvement. Successive fashions for bright aluminum, bronze-anodized aluminum, and white-painted aluminum windows have all come and gone since then. At the moment vinyl is king, but for how long, no one can say.
Therefore, if you’re still dead set on having new windows, then let the style of your house guide you in choosing replacements. In general, your best course is to replace the originals with a more energy-efficient version of the same material. If your budget won’t allow this, tread carefully among the other choices.
Most traditional homes homes built with wood windows will also look okay with cheaper vinyl replacements, whose thick frames somewhat resemble traditional wood window construction. However, vinyl windows will look bloated and clumsy on postwar homes originally fitted with steel or aluminum windows, because those old windows were intentionally meant to look light, slender and elegant. In this case, stick to using new double-glazed aluminum windows in a finish as close as possible to the original.
Architecturally, the only truly unassailable window choice is one that looks reasonably close to the windows your house was built with. So if you must replace, choose your windows to suit your house, not just to suit current fashion.