Everything you need to know about choosing a great roofer.
How do you find a good roofing company nowadays? What should you look for, and what makes them special? Check out our 10 “insider” tips on finding a contractor you’ll feel good about, and get the service you deserve from someone who says they’re the best.
Everybody knows how to pick a good roofing contractor, right? You check the years they’ve been in business, make sure they have insurance, check out their references, and call the BBB. However, when it comes to quality home improvement in general, these are just minimum standards - the “price of entry.” They don’t necessarily separate the good guys from the bad. Or even the mediocre.
They’re important of course, especially years in business – the average new business lasts only four years. Ernie Smith & Sons Roofing has been around for over 20 years. (Read our story here.) Mature roofing companies carry the least risk. They’ve had time to “prove their stuff” and acquire a good track record. From years in the trenches they can spot potential problems and minimize surprises – and even absorb the costs of some minor ones from time to time.
Some roofing contractors advertise their “combined years of experience,” which isn’t exactly the same. And some roofers have been roofing all their lives – and changed their name several times!
Though credentials and association memberships can be helpful in your search for a good roofing company, keep in mind here in Texas you don’t need to be licensed. Anybody is free to put a roof on your home. (Being bonded isn’t the same as being licensed and insured.) And ‘certified’ simply means a roofer’s been trained in the application of a particular product. (Which is good.) So to find a good roofing company in Texas, focus on character as well as credentials.
Composition shingles make up the majority of roofs on homes in the U.S. (Read about composition shingles here.) They look better than ever nowadays, and they’re easier to install. The popular Timberline or ‘Prestique’ style composition shingles look great from the street, and even make a bad roof job look good. Unless you can inspect things up close, (and know what you’re looking for), don’t let the way a roof looks disproportionately affect your decision to use, or not use, a particular roofing company.
The average homeowner buys a new roof just once in their lifetime. It’s uncharted territory for most. (Unfortunately people in the Dallas area and along the Gulf Coast aren’t very average.) And obviously a new roof’s not the most exciting thing to spend your money (or your time) on. So we’ve put together some information to make the process a little easier – not only about finding a good roofing company, but also some ‘insider’ tips on the way they do business and some key questions you should ask
A good roofing company knows what you really want. They want the same thing. Besides a great job, you want the most uneventful and pain-free shopping experience and roof job possible.
If you’ve scoured the internet on finding a good roofer you’ve probably encountered a popular theme - how much does it cost for a new roof nowadays? Although it depends (that’s the popular answer) that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about money. We can do that right now. More specifically, we can talk about what some homebuilders humorously refer to as the “high cost of the lowest bid.” Also known as the “low-ball” bid. So, without further adieu, here’s...
Tip #1. Choosing the right roofer usually means not choosing the cheapest bid – most of the time. Occasionally the better roofing contractor does have the lowest price, for whatever reason. (Maybe one of the in-laws needs a new roof.) But it’s really the exception to the rule. For example, sometimes accidents happen, like maybe a sales person mistakenly measures a roof too small – and then a homeowner is the beneficiary of a price that’s too small.
There’s a reason why cheap companies are cheap. They may be just starting out. To make up for shortfalls, it’s tempting to take shortcuts (like neglecting rotted wood). A cheaper roofer may use inferior materials, not pay their workers enough (or not at all), or ask for more money when the job’s under way. It’s no fun working for nothing – and that frustration may be reflected in the roofing company’s quality of work. The novice is learning at your expense. Though everybody has to start somewhere, you don’t need to feel guilty for not being the guinea pig.
A roofing trade journal says this: “Chances are, unless there’s a really big price discrepancy, for a quality roof with the least amount of headache, your best bet is to go with the highest bid. More than likely, that’s the roofing company that bid enough in to reflect the real cost of the job.”
Rest assured though, that a good roofing company is very aware of how important price is, especially nowadays, and is usually trying hard to get you the best possible deal.
Prices for a new roof can vary a lot, but generally the reputable and established roofing companies are usually all in about the same range - all other things being equal. (That is, “apples to apples.”) If estimates differ by a really big margin, call the roofers and ask why.
Good roofing companies know they have to be competitive to stay in business. But they want the job done right - their reputation follows them. City permits (so your job won’t get shut down), proper training, safety measures, equipment maintenance and insurance – they all cost money. And how do you put a price on worker loyalty and years of shared wisdom and experience?
A low bid on a new roof can be tempting, especially if you’re tight on funds. Or even if you’re not! Some folks just cross their fingers and hope for the best. But usually you get what you’re willing to pay for. Remember, the best roof is one you can forget about. (At least as far as function goes.) Thankfully, most honest and trustworthy roofing contractors just want to pay their bills, like everybody else. Everybody loves a deal. We do too. (Know of any used trucks with low highway mileage?) But if it sounds too good to be true...
By the way, if you’re building something brand new, you can still use your own roofer. Tell your builder who you want. A quality roofer will guarantee quality materials are used plus they’ll give you a warranty. It doesn’t cost that much more to use someone you trust. Unfortunately some builders and general contractors favor part-time or unknown roofers. (We’ve gone behind plenty of new ‘finished’ roofs and done touch-up work and repairs.).
Also if you’re building something new, including commercial construction, consider metal (there’s all types nowadays) or lightweight tile. Call Ernie Smith & Sons for information about these lifetime roofs, especially if you’re close to the water.
Tip # 2. Use a roofing company that’s “local,” especially after a bad storm. A quality roofer that’s familiar with your area will get the right permits. They’ll be familiar with local roofing installation codes and procedures, including homeowner association regulations. And they’ll also know about local trends in roof styles and products, and building materials in general.
In our hurricane prone Houston/Galveston area for example it’s important to know (and contact) the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. All coastal counties are required to have all new roofs inspected by either a qualified engineer or TDI inspector (Texas Department of Insurance - click here for info). These inspectors ensure that roofing products are installed per manufacturer’s guidelines, particularly for high wind areas.
There’s no happy way of getting around this – you won’t get insurance, and non-compliance can affect your mortgage and other things. Sometimes the only remedy for failure to comply is to re-do the roof all over again (unfortunately that’s not uncommon). Don’t hesitate to ask a roofing company up front if they can (and will) take care of this for you.
Local roofers know local weather patterns also – that’s important! Also, local area roofers (good ones) have strong affiliations with local suppliers and insurance agents which means faster and better service - priceless when a ravaging storm blows through. And of course, local companies will still be around to honor their warranty when the storm-chasers go back home.
Tip # 3. Look for a roofing company that carries the owner’s name, preferably a company that’s “multi-generational.” These roofing companies are usually well-known, have a good reputation, and obviously have been around a while. We’re a little biased here. That’s because we’re Ernie Smith and Sons Roofing Company. If you’re lucky enough to find one or two of these gems, (even if we do say so ourselves), and if they’re the real thing, then you just might be finished shopping - especially if you have a referral or two. (See tip # 10.)
But it’s true for any business most of the time (not just roofing and remodeling). That is, the risk of soiling the family name makes everybody (usually) try harder. They’re proud of their trade and craft, and repulsed by shoddy work. They have a lot invested in standing behind what they do. With so much at stake with a family business, customer satisfaction will take priority over contractual fine print.
Notwithstanding some exceptions, a well-known family roofing business usually means a good, trustworthy roofing business. They’ll have your best interest at heart and put you at ease with their “eyes to the blind” attitude. (Plus it’s harder for them to hide behind important-sounding titles like Chief Operating Officer, or Chairman of the Bored.)
Tip # 4. A roofing company whose employees have worked “in the field” has a tremendous advantage. Try to find a roofing company with sales people and supervisors, even office personnel, that have hands-on experience. At Ernie Smith & Sons, most of our team is family. We all grew up roofing in the Houston area, in the hot Texas sun. (It was always a good day when promotions came along – like to sales rep, supervisor, or even errand boy.)
Sales reps and supervisors who were once roofers themselves work better with the crew, and keep the crew’s comfort and safety in mind. They know firsthand the scorching heat and humidity on a mid-summer’s day roof – and when to drop by with refreshments to turn a few worn out guys into a more grateful and hydrated crew.
They also understand proper roofing installation. They know the right ventilation for each individual house. They have more than just book knowledge. They know intuitively what the weather’s going to do – they even speak Spanish! (An advantage in Texas.) Having come up through the ranks, they’ve “been there, done that,” and are a tremendous asset to any roofing company.
Tip # 5. A good relationship with suppliers and vendors is a common trait with good roofing companies. (As we’ve previously mentioned.) It’s not a bad idea to talk to the roofer about this. See who they do business with, and how long they’ve been doing it. These vendors will usually be wholesalers like West End Roofing and ABC Supply, as opposed to retailers like Lowe’s or Home Depot. Some homeowners call up roofing suppliers to get a recommendation for a roofer. But you can also call them to further evaluate and substantiate a roofer you may already have in mind.
Well-established roofing companies usually go back a good ways with most of their suppliers, with long-term friendships that transcend traditional business protocol. These relationships are invaluable when you’re in a pinch and need a favor.
Tip # 6. Most reputable roofing companies will get a city permit for your project, where applicable. We try our best to be aware of all the different codes and homeowner association restrictions, plus city permits required. They’re different from place to place, and they’re always changing. It’s like hitting a moving target. (But a lot of these groups do have one thing in common: they all want money.)
Pulling permits is one of the least favorite tasks for a roofer or remodeler, and many companies simply ignore this altogether and just take their chances. It takes up a lot of time. And some roofers don’t get permits because they don’t have proper insurance. Unfortunately, a city can shut down your job (not a good idea if rain clouds are gathering), and even haul everyone on the job to jail!
Because permits cost money, they have a tendency to separate the wheat from the chaff. And again, if you’re on the Gulf Coast, it’s essential to contact the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) - reputable roofers will handle this for you. (See tip # 2.)
Tip # 7. Say no to roofing companies with bad phone manners, regardless of who answers the line. You’ve probably heard that whoever answers the phone is a reflection on the company, and it’s usually true. It’s an indicator sometimes of how your roof project will go. A good company isn’t a drag to work for, and they care about phone etiquette. If your call is an inconvenience to them it’s time to move on.
When you contact the roofing company don’t be surprised if they ask a lot of questions. (That’s another good sign!) Tell them your concerns and whatever’s on your mind. The more info you provide the better they can assist you. Don’t worry about asking stupid questions (there’s no such thing with a good company).
Tip # 8. Speaking of manners, a truly good roofing company will be happy to help you out whether your project is big or small. They’ve been in business long enough to appreciate the fact that every job, even the smallest repair, is important. And a really good roofing company is usually genuinely interested in helping you getting your problem solved - whether it’s offering some free advice over the phone or pointing you in the right direction (maybe you meant to call the local Roto-Rooter). Roofing companies who’ve been around a long time have seen over and over that everything they do could lead to something bigger down the line. Like getting referred for a new roof from someone whose chimney they caulked, or winning a big contract because someone told the boss about them.
Tip # 9. A good roofing company will almost always address the possibility of bad wood before starting your job. From years of experience, a good roofing company can often foresee possible trouble areas on a house with just a cursory look at the surface area of your roof. (And therefore minimize surprises to a degree.) Of course there’s no way to know everything until the roof is peeled off. That’s why most reputable roofing companies usually will insist on removing the old roof, down to the wood, before nailing on the new.
Fortunately, most surprises and problems with bad wood have to do with rotted decking (which sometimes can’t be seen even from inside the attic). Also fortunately, bad decking is easy to fix, and shouldn’t add much to the overall final cost of the roof.
A good roofing company will explain up front exactly how they deal with unexpected bad wood, and how much they charge to fix it. (For example, X amount of dollars per sheet of plywood which includes labor and material.) Discussing things up front helps eliminate misunderstandings and disappointments once a job’s under way. It’s good business practice. Keep in mind that honest and trustworthy roofing companies like surprises about as much as you do – there’s no money in it for them and it only slows things down.
By the way, if a house has been neglected, or is fairly old, it’s definitely a good idea to talk about possible problems – things like termites, out-dated gas exhaust pipes, and metal flashings around chimneys and walls. A competent roofing company will usually mention these things. A preliminary inspection of the attic wouldn’t hurt either.
Also before getting your new roof installed, it’s important to examine and replace any bad fascia boards (pronounced FAYshuh). The fascia is the large outside trim that runs around the perimeter of the roof at the edge. It’s not concealed, so it’s easy to inspect and determine a price before starting the job. You don’t need a carpenter – a good roofer can repair it. (Bad fascia should be replaced with rot-resistant wood, like cedar or redwood, or treated lumber.) If all the fascia needs replacing, ask the roofing company’s opinion about using fiber cement instead of wood, like James Hardie Board.
Tip # 10. Finally, speak the language of a great roofing company. You’ll bring out their best and get the red carpet treatment by mentioning the two things every good roofing company loves to hear.
FIRST, tell the roofing company you’re a referral. Businesses love referrals because that’s where most of their work comes from. Being a referral makes you stand out. Here’s how to become an instant referral: simply call your prospective roofing company and ask them for a reference. Then call the reference and maybe do a ‘drive-by.’ That’s all there is to it. You are now a bona-fide, genuine referral and can tell the roofing company “So and so gave me your name and they said you’re the best.”
Calling as a referral is the single best way to start a relationship or do business with any company. It gives you an edge. If a roofing company isn’t responsive to you when you call as a referral they won’t be responsive when it counts – like when your project’s under way. (Don’t be disappointed if the receptionist isn’t overjoyed when you say you’re a referral.)
Most all great roofing and remodeling companies are built on a solid foundation and reputation from referrals. When our roofing company first started, all our work was by referrals – we didn’t advertise much. A referral was all that most customers needed to make a decision. People go where their friends and family like to go, especially if it’s a new experience. A referral is invaluable – they’ve already tried the roofing company out for you. Buying a new roof for most people is a once-in-a-lifetime thing - it’s important to get it right. And what better way than utilizing the experience of others that you trust?
SECOND, tell your prospective roofing company you’re only getting a few bids. (Hey, getting no more than three bids is recommended by professional home-show hosts! Besides, it’s also good for your sanity.) Just like calling the roofing company as a referral, these are ‘magic words’ that are guaranteed to perk up the ears of any roofing company worth its weight in asphalt. If you’ve done a smidgen of research (see our first four or five tips), you won’t need a lot of estimates to make a decision. Buying a new roof can be like buying a new car. The more you look, the more confusing it can get. By the end of the day you’re ready to make a purchase just to put an end to the misery.
Any roofing company will be elated (or at least glad) that you’re not getting fourteen bids (it happens). They know they have a better chance of winning your business. If you tell the roofer you’re narrowing the field it gives the impression you mean business – you become an instant ‘quality lead.’ Again, if a roofing company’s not too enamored (as in not getting back to you right away) of your admirable resolve to resist calling every roofer in the phone book...then it’s doubtful they’ll be enamored of much of anything. (Unless for some reason you fell through the cracks - which never happens with us of course.)
Speaking of speaking the language of great roofing companies, it’s not a bad idea to write down your thoughts when you’re ready to give them a call. Get a great start and stand out from the crowd with a few simple words: Tell the roofer you want a good roof job for a fair price, from a trustworthy, experienced company (and that’s why you’re calling them). Say you’re getting a few bids and you want to decide. Assure the roofing company they’re in the running, and that you care about quality as well as price. END. These words are guaranteed to be everything a great roofing company could possibly want to hear from a potential new customer.
And now a few closing thoughts about finding the roofer of your dreams. Or at least a company that’s reliable and trustworthy that’s been around for a while.
Most well-known and established roofing companies sell a lot of the popular composition laminates, especially the 30 and 40 year warranty shingles. Composition shingles make up the majority of roofs here in the U.S., and they’re the bread and butter of most residential roofing companies. The 30 and 40 year laminates (also called Timberline, or ‘Prestique’ style) are the most popular and most recognized. They don’t cost that much more than the standard 20 year warranty “3-tabs,” and they’re definitely worth it. A lot of the storm damage after Hurricane Ike was mostly blow-off of these lighter 3-tab shingles.
If you go with a laminate, buy the heaviest you can afford, especially if you live near the coast and you plan on sticking around. There’s even super-heavy life-time laminate composition shingles available. (Regardless of how long composition shingles last, the higher the warranty, the heavier the shingle – and the more peace of mind when a storm heads your way.) Consider also metal and tile, even synthetic. They’re all beautiful and storm-resistant, and made to last a lifetime. (Call Ernie Smith and Sons for info at 409-925-8843, or 281-534-3521.) We also do new construction and flat and commercial roofing.
Don’t wait for a hurricane to replace a bad roof. It’s your home’s first line of defense. If the roof goes, everything goes. If you’re forced to evacuate in a storm, you’ll be leaving most things behind. And what’s left behind will be solely at the mercy of the roof over head. It was a heartbreaking site to see even people with new homes tossing ruined sheetrock, insulation, carpet, even furniture, from two-story windows after Hurricane Ike.
Make sure you use a roofing company that hand-nails their shingles. Some roofing companies have become accustomed to installing shingles with air-guns as opposed to roofing hatchets. (Though they do use real roof nails, and not the notorious staples.) We used these nail-guns here at Ernie Smith & Sons years ago. But they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
Unfortunately, because they’re so fast, it’s hard to keep an eye on the over-all quality of the shingle installation. If the shingles are slightly cool, it’s easy to under-drive the nails, and vice-versa when it’s hot. Often nails go in crooked. There’s also the downside of maintaining costly equipment and transporting big noisy compressors - and it’s easy to trip over tangled air hoses on the roof (or on the ground).
There’s nothing like the real thing, and most workers (and homeowners) prefer the convenience, accuracy, and craftsmanship of installing a product by hand. Probably the biggest drawback though to nail guns here on the Gulf Coast is the frustration windstorm inspectors experience trying to certify these roofs. Guns are fine for installing tar paper underlayment (felt) and wood decking.
If possible, it’s not a bad idea to tell your prospective roofing company when you might be getting the job done – especially if you’re ready right now! They may ask you about this anyway. Offering the roofing company some kind of time frame or approximated desired date for your project gives the impression you’re doing more than just window-shopping; and it sets you apart from others who aren’t quite as sure of their plans.
Once you’ve chosen your roofing company, choose to relax. Let them do their job. That’s why we wrote this, to help you find a good company that won’t cause you worry. If anything goes awry, you’ve got someone that’s solid who’ll stand behind what they do. That’s the main thing. Making money is important to any good contractor, but so is you’re satisfaction. They’ll want you as a referral in the future.
Remember that the best contractors have the best crews. (They like to get paid.) And most of these workers are skilled craftsmen and pros, who care about their work, and are compensated accordingly.
Which brings up one final tip. Roofing crews aren’t accustomed to being treated particularly special. So “random acts of kindness,” like treats, or even a simple smile or hello, can boost morale on the job. When you endear yourself to the crew, it makes your particular house, one of a million, just a bit more special. (A lot of us here at Ernie Smith & Sons remember what it was like.) Besides, they’ve got your roof in their hands – literally.
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