Roofing Buying Guide

Some home repairs, you can put off indefinitely. A leaky roof is not one of them. Cracked, curled, or missing roof shingles demand immediate attention. If you neglect them, they can lead to severe water damage that can seriously drain your savings account.

At Consumer Reports, we test asphalt shingles because that's what most folks have on their homes. Our test results show that not only does performance vary widely among brands, but also among different product lines from a single manufacturer.

Here’s how to assess whether it’s time to replace your old roof—from gauging the severity of leaks to determining when missing shingles are a problem—and what to look for when you shop for a new one. In this guide we walk you through the common roofing materials, how much they cost, and how long they’re expected to last. 

How to Tell When You Need a New Roof

Water Will Find a Way In
Water marks on a ceiling, or worse, dripping water, may have you worried that your whole roof is in tatters. But just because there’s a leak doesn’t mean your roof will require a massive amount of repairs. Sometimes stopping it is as simple as filling a crack with caulk, replacing a few shingles, or installing some flashing—a membrane or layer of metal that provides a mechanical barrier to redirect water at corners, crevices, gaps, and other spots vulnerable to leaking.

Fallen tree limbs, hail, and even wind can loosen or remove shingles. Damaged flashing is another common culprit. Even rubberized boots around plumbing pipes, or with improperly installed satellite dishes or solar panels can cause isolated leaks. To determine what kind of leak you’ve got on your hands, first try to trace it to its origin. 

Looking for Leaks
It’s easiest to find a leak when it’s raining outside. Remember that water often accumulates at a spot that’s different from where it’s entering—it generally runs down the length of a rafter or stud and only drips once it reaches a low point.

In an unfinished attic, the framing is visible, so simply start at the leak and look along the length of any wood framing that leads to that point, to see if you find a trail of water that originates higher up on your roof. In a finished attic, you’ll need to use a handheld tool called a jab saw to cut away any drywall that obstructs your view. Once you think you’ve found the origin, look at top of the roof (you can do this safely from the ground with a pair of binoculars) to see if you can identify any obvious culprits, like missing shingles, or worn out flashing near a chimney. 

If you can’t locate the leak yourself, a licensed roofing contractor can perform an inspection and make recommendations about whether repair or replacement is needed. Even if you’re able to locate your own leak, you'll want to leave the repair job to a pro—climbing onto your roof with a tall extension ladder is a dangerous job. Most leaks can be stopped if they're limited to a few spots. If, however, you’re experiencing recurring leaks, and your roof is out of warranty, it may be time for a new roof. The money you would spend on multiple short-term fixes is probably better applied to a brand-new roof with a lengthy warranty. 

Other Warning Signs
You don’t have to wait for leaks to appear before you consider repairs to your roof, though. Missing, damaged, or curling shingles can all be signs of leaks to come. And the age of your roof itself can be a guide—homeowner's insurance companies generally assume an asphalt shingle roof will last about 20 years, and some insurers won't provide coverage if your roof is older than that. If your roof was put on by the previous owner of your home, a roofing contractor or a licensed home inspector can generally provide a rough estimate of the age, based upon the condition of the shingles. 

Even without leaks or obvious signs of damage to the roof, it can make sense to replace an out-of-warranty roof that's more than 20 years old. That's because once a leak develops, it can do serious damage to the wood sheathing beneath the shingles. And if that sheathing becomes warped or rotted, replacing it can add several thousand dollars to the overall cost of your new roof when you do get around to replacing it. The illustration below shows the different layers involved in a typical roof. 

Insurance Coverage
Before you hire anyone to work on your roof, call your homeowner’s insurance company to check your deductible and coverage for roof repairs or replacement. You'll want to weigh your out-of-pocket costs against the cost of replacing your roof entirely. Consider any resulting increase in your premium as well—it may make more sense to simply cover the cost yourself.

Generally, homeowner’s insurance policies may cover, or contribute toward, the repair of isolated leaks, but won’t cover the cost of replacement. Most insurers will send an adjuster to provide an estimate for the repair, and policies typically cover repairs to the roof, as well as any damage to the framing, drywall, or flooring that results from a leaking roof. If you do receive a payout from your insurance company, you can use that money to make the specific repairs, or apply it toward the cost of a total replacement.

A roof cross section with identifying names of roofing terms.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

How to Shop for a Roof—and a Roofer

The first step to take when you’re thinking of having a new roof installed is to figure out the type of roofing you want. Asphalt shingles remain far and away the most popular choice because they're inexpensive, easy to install, and come in dozens of colors. But slate, tile, and metal are all good options, too, provided you plan on being in the same house for a long time. All three cost more than asphalt shingles, but last significantly longer, in some cases, as long as 100 years.

As you research shingles, check our comprehensive ratings to see what the best roofing lines are. In CR's roofing tests, we found that some shingles are more than twice as strong as others that cost more. Others provide a beautifully layered look, or come in huge arrays of colors.

Once you've nailed down a few contenders, use the manufacturer's website to find licensed installers in your area, and request bids from at least three pros. Keep in mind that some shingle manufacturers will only honor a warranty if you use a licensed installer they’ve previously vetted. If you have a specific roofer in mind, make sure to confirm that he’s licensed to install the product you want by checking with the manufacturer. You can also ask your roofer for his shingle recommendations and check them against our ratings. 

Comparing Quotes From Roofers
Costs for a job as big as replacing an entire roof can vary widely, even for installing the exact same shingles. Roofing material is priced by the "square"—a 10-foot-by-10-foot section, which is equal to 100 square feet. For asphalt shingles, prices range from $65 per square for the basic 3-tab shingles, all the way up to $350 per square for multilayered architectural shingles. The cost of the shingles themselves should be similar no matter who installs them, but other related costs for labor and materials are what you have to look out for when comparing bids. 

Some roofers may assume you're tearing off everything down to the roofing trusses, which is expensive, because it leads to higher labor costs, and the added expense of new sheathing and roofing felt. While another may plan on putting shingles right on top of the old ones, which is generally much easier and should cost far less.

It's crucial to make sure each bid you receive is not only for the same product, but also the same service. You want a breakdown of all the costs involved: one price for the shingles, one for the labor of removing the old ones and installing the new ones, and a contingency budget that outlines the costs if your roofer discovers the sheathing and roofing felt need to be replaced. Always ask each roofer for references, and ask whether they warranty their work above and beyond the warranty provided by the shingle manufacturer. Few do, but if your roofer does offer coverage, it can be easier to have a repair made down the line if you don't need to file a claim with the roofing manufacturer. 

Watch the Warranty
Don't be wowed by a long coverage period on a roof manufacturer’s warranty—what is actually covered is more important than the time frame. For example, a 20-year warranty that offers to pay for brand new shingles and labor costs on any defects might actually be better than a 50-year warranty that only covers the cost of the shingles.

Check the length of the policy, what's covered, and at what price—many warranties cover only the depreciated value of your roof. That means that the older your roof, the less money the manufacturer will pay toward replacing it.

Make sure to find out if the warranty is transferable. If you sell your home, a roof warranty can be a big perk to a potential buyer. In general, pricier shingles come with longer, more comprehensive warranties. Weigh that consideration, along with performance, before you buy. 

What if I Add Solar Panels?
Solar panels have grown in popularity, and if you're considering adding them to your roof, check the warranty of any roofing shingle you're considering before adding the panels, to make sure they won't void the warranty. You should also check for coverage from the solar panel company, too. Wish you could just replace your roof's shingles with solar roofing shingles, like Tesla's Solar Roof? You'll likely have to wait, as they still aren't widely available in most parts of the country. 

Types of Roofing

Asphalt shingles are popular because they blend looks, longevity, and a reasonable price, and they’re typically the easiest to install, saving you money on labor costs as well. Specialty roofing materials like slate, tile, or metal tend to cost more—ten times as much or more in some cases—but they can also last much longer and they look nicer.

Tile roofing remains popular in the Southwest and Florida because it reflects heat and matches Mediterranean-style houses, while slate roofing is a more popular pick in the Northeast, where Victorian and Gothic houses from the 1800s are still quite common. Metal roofing can be found across the country. The performance of these options on your roof really depends upon the skill of the installer. A metal roof can last 50 years, while slate roofs can last more than 100, with diligent upkeep.

CR tests only asphalt shingles, but below we also offer information about faux slate and composite tile. These two alternatives give the upscale look of slate and tile, respectively, but they're easier to install and cost significantly less than the genuine versions. For comparison, a true slate roof can cost $1,500 per square, plus at least that much to have a skilled mason install it, leaving you with a total bill of $50,000–$100,000.

Asphalt roofing shingles.

Asphalt Roofing Shingles

Price: $65–$350 per square

Asphalt shingles are made of fiberglass sandwiched between asphalt and ceramic granules. The fiberglass provides the strength, while the asphalt, often mixed with minerals, is waterproof. The ceramic granules give shingles their color and also help deflect UV light, and its damaging effects. Relatively light, inexpensive, and easy to install, asphalt shingles are the best choice for most houses. They come in sheets that are layered on a roof to give the illusion of more expensive single shingles, such as cedar or slate, that are installed one shingle at a time. Asphalt shingles fall into three basic categories. Standard, entry-level 3-tab shingles are the cheapest and thinnest. Architectural shingles are a step up from 3-tab shingles. They're slightly thicker and made to resemble more expensive wood shakes. Multilayered architectural shingles are the most expensive and thickest of the group, and give a similar look to wood shakes. Only 3-tab shingles can be installed over a single layer of existing shingles, but check with the manufacturers to ensure you'll be entitled to the full warranty before you do. 

Asphalt Shingles Ratings
Faux slate roofing shingles.

Faux Slate Roofing Shingles

Price: $310–$500 per square

This composite material looks like the real thing, even close up, but costs a lot less. And it weighs about the same as asphalt, so there's no need to beef up the roof structure, as you would have to do with slate. Made of a variety of compositions, including plastic/polymer, clay, rubber or asphalt, fake slate is more slippery than real slate—if you live in a snowy climate, consider installing snow guards to prevent sheets of ice from sliding down and hurting someone. Some faux slate may fade or crack under impact. Because it's a manufactured product, with a nailing strip, most roofing contractors can install it (only a skilled mason can install real slate). The warranties on faux slate roofing are generally comparable to asphalt shingles—expect them to last anywhere from 20–50 years. 

 

Metal roofing.

Metal Roofing

Price: $850–$1,140 per square (for steel)

Metal roofing comes in steel, aluminum, copper, and alloy strips, and in various shapes and textures. Copper is especially expensive. Over time, copper acquires a greenish patina that some people find attractive. Metal roofing can be slick, just like slate, so consider snow guards in cold climates, to prevent sheets of ice from sliding off and hurting someone. A metal roof can be noisy during a rainstorm as drops of water ping against it. In the past, we've tested steel roofing and found that it can dent fairly easily, but options with a textured surface tend to mask small dents and dings quite well. Metal roofing effectively reflects the sun's rays, so it keeps your home cooler in summer—a benefit in hot climates. Make sure you hire a contractor who is familiar with the material as it’s a very different job from putting on asphalt shingles. A metal roof can last anywhere from 50–100 years.

Roofing Brands That Matter

 

 

GAF manufactures asphalt shingles and is one of the only brands to sell their products at home centers including Home Depot and Lowe's.
Owens Corning makes many tiers of roofing shingles and is one of the few brands that offers a lifetime warranty on certain lines, provided you use one of their licensed installers.
Certainteed makes asphalt shingles as well as more premium metal and faux-slate roofing.
Atlas Roofing makes all three types of asphalt shingle, and more premium lines incorporate Scotchguard to resist mold and mildew.
Ondura manufactures corrugated roofing panels popular among do-it-yourselfers.
Interlock roofing is one of the largest manufacturers of metal roofing, with options primarily made from aluminum and steel.
Tamko roofing makes primarily asphalt shingles for residential projects.
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