Many of us are working hard just to keep a roof over our heads -- but how good is that roof? With April showers on the way, it might pay you to find out.

If you are in the market for a house, remember there's more to a dream home than a stunning floor plan. Replacing a roof can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the roof and the style of materials you select. A leaking roof also can lead to messy and costly water damage.

The National Roofing Contractors Association says asphalt shingles remain the overwhelming roofing choice for U.S. homes. The shingles come with warranties ranging from about 20 to 40 years. However, Dave Flickinger, the NRCA's technical services manager, says the warranties "are not indicative of service life. The warranty covers material only. It has to be installed correctly." He says certain things will void a warranty, "such as hail and high winds." Flickinger also points out that 40-year shingles are relatively new and have not yet stood the test of time. In addition, warranties may not be transferable to new owners.

According to Flickinger, when you're sizing up a roof, "general appearance is the first clue." He warns you could be headed for problems "if you see shingles that are buckled, curled (turning up at the edges), or clawing (turning down at the edges)." A lot of shingle granules in your gutters is another bad sign.

The Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association says sooner or later, every roof will need to be replaced, usually because of weathering. It suggests that if a residential roof is more than 20 years old, it is a "prime candidate" for re-roofing.

When buying a new home, getting a routine home inspection is no guarantee you won't have trouble down the road. Flickinger says an inspector "standing at curbside and looking up" may not spot some major problems, such as penetrations that could cause leaks. In Flickinger's words, "you must walk the roof" to determine its condition, and "it's doubtful they'll walk it."

In fact, the American Society of Home Inspectors says in its Standards of Practice that inspectors are not required to walk on the roofing or inspect areas that are not "readily accessible."

If you already own a home, the NRCA recommends you check your roof each spring and fall to spot potential problems early. Its web site includes a chart to record your inspection. The site also contains some ladder safety tips and a safety video.

Should you need to replace your roof, asphalt shingles fall into two categories, based on their reinforcement -- organic or fiberglass. Generally, fiberglass-reinforced shingles are classified as more fire resistant.

For years, the flat, three-tab asphalt shingle has been the industry standard, but Flickinger says there is a growing market for what are known as dimensional, architectural or laminate shingles. While they don't offer a construction advantage, Flickinger says they give a roof a rougher appearance which is "aesthetically a bit nicer looking."

Shingles also come in a variety of colors. "Lighter colors are very popular down south," according to Flickinger. "The hope is going with lighter material can reduce energy load." While shingle color can make some difference, Flickinger says studies of temperature data have not found a huge difference.

If you do find yourself in need of a new roof, the NRCA recommends you do your homework before hiring a roofing contractor.

-- Check for a contractor's permanent place of business, telephone and tax identification number.

  • Check references from prior customers.
  • Ask for proof of insurance (liability and worker's compensation). Get copies for your records.
  • Ask the contractor about material and workmanship warranties. Get copies for your records.

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

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