A Roof Over Our Heads

By Valerie Lemke

December 31, 2009 5 min read

When cavemen sought out caves, it was for shelter from the elements. Nothing has changed over the ages. A roof -- whether made of slate, shingle, clay, straw, tar paper, tin or sod -- plays an essential role in human comfort and well-being.

A good roof provides protection from rain, wind, snow and sun. Some can last for more than 200 years. Roofs also can make handsome architectural statements, but for most of us, they are not synonymous with glitz and glamour.

Your roof does, however, deserve a modicum of attention and care, according to James R. Kirby, associate executive director of technical communications for the National Roofing Contractors Association. Established in 1886, the Chicago-based NRCA is the oldest trade association in the United States.

Routine roof checkups in the fall and spring will help diagnose potential problems before they become major, Kirby says. The NRCA recommends you hire a professional roofing contractor to assist you in checking your roof, but if you choose to do it yourself, follow these important tips:

*First and foremost, practice safety when cleaning gutters or inspecting the roof. Make sure your ladder is on solid, level ground and secured at the top to prevent it from slipping.

*When you are on the ladder, look for shingles that are buckling, curling or blistering, as those are indications that they are worn and in need of replacement; loose material or wear around chimneys and pipes; and excessive shingle granules in the gutters. Granules give shingles added weight and protect them from ultraviolet rays. Their accumulation in gutters is an indication of roof wear. These are all telltale signs that you are in need of a licensed roofing contractor, and you should do your homework to find the right one.

"Call your local building department; look in the phone book for roofers with local addresses and a contractor's license number; get references from neighbors; or check with your Better Business Bureau," Kirby says.

And what should you do if you need a new roof? What are your options? Are some roofs better than others? How much does a new roof cost, and how long will it last?

"In terms of different types of roof composition, slate and clay are extremely long-lasting, for example," Kirby says. They last for 50 or 100 years or more. "But they are also extremely expensive. They might be an option for a university building where you only want to replace a roof every 75 years or so."

The most common material for houses' roofs is the asphalt shingle. "It offers the appropriate length of time for most homes and comes in a number of different levels that are graded to last from 25 to 35 years or 40 to 50 years," Kirby says.

"Look at your warranty, if you have one, to determine the reasonable life span of your roof," Kirby advises. "It will have at least some indication of how long the roof should last."

You also need to be aware that most warranties are prorated and will decrease as the useful life of the roof decreases.

One thing that has changed in the past few years is that your warranty can be transferable to a new owner if you sell your home, according to Kirby. A roof is a major investment, and if it is fairly new, this can be an attractive plus. "You need to ask at the time of installation whether the warranty is transferable," he says.

"In terms of roofing materials, you should know that all compositions can be installed in all areas of the country, regardless of climate," he says. "It's how you prepare and finish off the roof that makes the difference when weather is a major consideration."

But from Seattle to Miami, from Boston to San Diego, you can depend on a reputable, licensed contractor to address your special needs.

And how much does a new roof cost? "It's difficult to put a range on it," Kirby says. "But installation is generally the major cost, about double the cost of materials."

For further guidance and information, visit the trade organization's Web site, at http://www.nrca.net.

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