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Affordable and maintenance-free: vinyl replacement windows

When it comes to buying replacement windows, vinyl windows remain the most popular choice -- by a wide margin. According to the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA), 73 percent of the replacement windows sold in 2012 were vinyl, compared to 19 percent for wood (including clad-wood), 2 percent for aluminum, and 6 percent other, including fiberglass. That's up substantially from 1996, when vinyl windows accounted for only 45 percent of the replacement market.

There are lots of reasons for vinyl's continuing and growing popularity, an article posted on the AMAA site notes. According to Joe Hums, Quanex Building Products, one is that vinyl has excellent energy efficiency, a plus for those looking to replace drafty old windows. "Consumers also like vinyl windows because they are low maintenance, durable and affordable," he says.

Vinyl windows are the least expensive type you can buy. Prices start at less than $150 per replacement window, and vary depending on size, construction quality, frame style, glass (double- or triple-paned, for example) and other features, plus installation if you don't plan on tackling the project yourself. Most major window manufacturers sell vinyl windows, such as Pella, Andersen and Marvin. Low- to mid-priced windows are available from American Craftsman by Andersen (Home Depot), ReliaBilt (Lowes), and MI Windows and Doors (under the CertainTeed brand).

While cost is a major influencer on why so many homeowners opt for vinyl when buying replacement windows, the other positives are important as well. Vinyl windows are low maintenance, never need painting and are reasonably resistant to damage. Since the color extends through the material rather than just sitting on the surface, should the windows become scratched, those won't be as obvious as with some other materials. In terms of energy efficiency, vinyl replacement windows hold their own with wood, clad-wood and fiberglass, and are clearly superior to aluminum replacement windows. Other factors, such as high-efficiency glass, will make the biggest contribution to your new windows' thermal performance, however.

But vinyl windows have some serious drawbacks as well. Because vinyl isn't as strong as other materials, frames must be made thicker than other types of frames, which will cut down on the glass area. Vinyl is generally durable, but home renovation experts caution that vinyl replacement windows expand and contract more than other types. That could reduce the thermal efficiency of your windows if some basic maintenance is not done. Minneapolis contractor Ryan Carey advises checking caulk and insulation around the window at least periodically to make sure leaks and drafts don't develop. As long as that upkeep is taken care of, however, performance should be fine.

Carey also advises that those in harsher climates stick with a manufacturer's top-grade vinyl windows. "Almost every vinyl window manufacturer has a good, better, and best line," he says. "The 'best' is absolutely an option for our climate, 'better' is not so good for our climate, and 'good' is only good for our fish houses and deer stands."

Vinyl windows come in a wide range of interior and exterior colors, and can be ordered with an interior wood veneer that can be painted or stained. However, be aware that vinyl itself can't be painted very easily, and that colors, especially dark ones, can fade over the years.

There is some debate as to whether or not vinyl replacement windows will increase the value of your home. Some realtors and homeowners say it depends on the age and style of the house, while others, such as's home renovation guide and the editors of say wood or clad-wood replacement windows increase the resale value of a house more than vinyl windows do. As home renovation guide Lee Wallender writes, "Wood replacement windows appeal to home-buyers. There's nothing like the look of a nice clear-coated wood window."

The 2014 Cost vs Value survey by Remodeling magazine paints a mixed picture. It tracks the cost and expected payback when the house is sold for a variety of remodeling projects, including vinyl and clad-wood replacement windows. In general, wood holds a small edge nationwide and in most regions. However, in the mid-Atlantic and New England states, research shows that vinyl windows return more on their investment.

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