Ask the Builder

Ask the Builder: Questions to Ask Roofers Before Contracting

By Tim Carter
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Q: DEAR TIM: I'm flummoxed trying to choose between all the roofing contractors in my town. I've heard nothing but horror stories about poor workmanship, leaks and rip-offs. How can I make sure that I hire the best roofing contractor for the money? What should I look for when I meet with a residential roofing contractor? I feel so vulnerable and can't afford to make a mistake hiring a slick salesperson. -- Rebekah H., Quaddick, Conn.

A: DEAR REBEKAH: Many homeowners share your anxiety, if my e-mail in-box is any indication. I attribute this apprehension to the fact that most homeowners don't really understand how roofing systems work. They don't know how shingles are installed, the purpose of flashings, and so forth, in part because they've never set foot on a roof. If you fit this description, you probably don't know the right questions to ask and can't tell if a roofing contractor is pulling the wool over your eyes in a sales presentation.

Your first step should be to spend some time educating yourself about roofs. Do it before you ask roof contractors to look at your house. You can save lots of time if you select the roofing material you intend to use before speaking with any contractors. I recommend visiting a business that sells roofing materials about mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when they are usually not too busy. Speak with the general manager or the owner. Ask which shingle or roofing product they think would work best on your home and represents the best value for your money.

Once you have selected a roofing material, obtain from the manufacturer the written installation instructions for that product. In most cases, you can find these by visiting the manufacturer's Web site. You'll discover while reading the instructions that certain accessory materials are required to install the roof correctly. Remember, the contractor you hire must do all the things listed in the instructions to ensure you end up with a valid warranty.

This may seem boring, but it's absolutely necessary. You must understand the roofing system so you can ask the right questions when you interview the different roofing contractors that may come to your home.

Here's an example of what you might ask. Many asphalt shingles require felt paper or other approved underlayment be put over the wood sheathing. The instructions often specify the type of underlayment. Ask the roofers to describe the layers of material they will install, but don't mention the underlayment by name. See if they describe it accurately. You can also ask questions about the nails or fasteners that they plan to use. The written instructions also should clearly specify the type and length of the fasteners needed.

You should also ask about the contractor's license. Your state may require a specific roofer's license. You can consult your local building department or check state Web sites that carry information on contractor licensing.

As you start to obtain written estimates, make sure the contractors' bids cover the same material and the same conditions. If you intend to strip off all of the old shingles, be sure all contractors' bids state they will do this. The same goes for any flashings, vents or other materials on the roof. Communicate to all contractors that they all must install new flashings or reuse existing ones only if in excellent shape. Each roofing contractor will give you an assessment about the flashings after they come down from the roof. Ask each roofer for an assessment of your roof system. See if they will take photos for you of the existing roof if you can't get up to look at it yourself.

Make sure you get copies of all insurance documentation with each bid. The roofers must have general liability and workman's compensation insurance. Professional contractors will readily supply you with a certificate of insurance showing that the premiums have been paid in advance.

Tim Carter can be contacted via his Web site,

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