Roofing Basics

Though homeowners actually see it infrequently, the roof's exterior is one of the most important (and vulnerable) parts of a house.T he essential nature of a properly cared-for roof for a safe and efficient house make roofing work a prime example of when it can be best to call in a pro. Here's what you need to consider.

Though homeowners actually see it infrequently, the roof’s exterior is one of the most important—and vulnerable—parts of a house. That’s why keeping a roof clean and tidy requires professional attention. There are certainly projects involving roof maintenance and repair that a homeowner can tackle solo, but the dangerous nature of working high above the ground, and the essential nature of a properly cared-for roof for a safe and efficient house make roofing work a prime example of when it can be best to call in a pro.Here's what you need to consider.

What Does a Roof Do?

It may seem like a simple question, but to understand everything that goes into roofing, it’s important to know the purpose of a roof. Plain and simple, a roof is the top of a house, but it’s much more than that.

A roof’s primary function is to protect the interior of the house from everything and anything on the exterior of the house, especially when it comes to threats from above. This most often includes rain, snow and other weather elements, but also protects the house’s upper interior from falling branches, dead leaves and the accumulation of other airborne detritus. A properly constructed roof will also keep pests and animal nuisances — squirrels, bats, roof rats, wasps, and more — from invading an attic and taking up an unwelcome residence.

A roof not only keeps unwanted items and critters out, it also keeps things in. A solid, well-constructed roof is essential for a properly insulated home, helping regulate hot and cool air both in the attic and in the main structure of a house. Leaks in a roof can lead to a serious increase in expense from an HVAC standpoint.

And of course, a roof also offers aesthetic value to a house. It’s important for the color, style and structure to match the exterior of the house for peace of mind, but to preserve property value and appear attractive to potential tenants or homebuyers, if that’s of concern.

What Are the Primary Causes of Roof Damage?

Barring unforeseen disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like — the main threat to a roof is none other than time itself. By definition, a roof is exposed to the elements so that nothing else in your home is, meaning that the regular wear and tear of sun exposure, rain, snow, frost, and other changes in seasonal temperature affect the roof.

In addition, falling branches can cause damage to a roof, as can invasive animal species. And another potential damaging agent is the accumulation of leaves and other natural items on a roof; as leaves sit atop a roof and collect moisture, they can decompose and actually turn to soil on top of a roof, trapping moisture that will soak into the structure of a house.

How Often Should I Replace My Roof?

Though this is one of the most frequently asked questions in roofing, it is also one of the most difficult to answer. The true answer is, “Whenever it’s necessary, and not until then.” Once you start to notice missing shingles or leaks and holes not caused by a specific problem (like a falling branch), it’s time for a new roof. That said, if you are certain of the last time a roof was installed, a new roof shouldn’t be necessary for a minimum of 20 years, and up to 45 to 50 years depending on the material and weather conditions where you live. A moderate roof replacement job can take as few as three days, or up to a full week.

Tips for DIY Roof Repairs

While much of roofing work is best left to the professionals, there is a good amount of work that can be done by a homeowner eager to maintain the roof. The simplest activity involves regular maintenance and vigilance, and clearing a roof of any object that may have fallen on the roof. All that’s needed for this is a tall ladder, sturdy shoes and a rake or leaf blower. Beyond basic maintenance, though, hire a professional.

Varieties of Roofing Materials

The wide choices available for roofing can be overwhelming, but often the choice comes down to aesthetic preferences and stylistic preferences. However, there may be geographic considerations to take into account depending on the part of the country your home’s located in, as well as any pertinent local laws or regulations and restrictions. Some of the most popular materials include:

Asphalt/Fiberglass Composition Shingles—The most affordable modern option, these shingles are also time-consuming to install. However, they are the most versatile when dealing with a variety of roof pitches (the angle of the roof).

Wood Shake Shingles—Though wood shake offers an attractive option, it can be as time consuming as asphalt shingles to install, and is significantly more expensive.

Metal—Metal roofs are also an option. Don’t think of old-time corrugated tin, though there’s something romantic about the sound of rain on that kind of roof. Today’s metal roofs are substantially more sophisticated, and come in five common options: aluminum (lightweight and less expensive, but needs coating, the most common residential roof material), steel (sturdy, often coated in zinc), stainless steel (very strong, anti-corrosive, but expensive), copper (aesthetically pleasing, but very expensive), and alloy, a combination of other metals that can find a balance between lifespan and expense. Specialist roofers may be necessary.

Concrete—Though common in more industrial-style housing and apartment buildings, concrete roofing provides an advantage of structural integrity, as slab roofs up to 7 inches thick can protect up to hurricane-level winds. Concrete roofs also remove concerns of rot and termites, but can cost up to two to four times a traditional roof.

Tile—Terra cotta tiles are often regionally specific and work well with only a few architectural styles.


Regardless of material, there will be seams in a roof, which is why an underlayment is required. This can be rubberized asphalt, asphalt-saturated building paper or synthetic fiberglass. Ask your roofer what works best in your climate and with your chosen roofing material.

Advantages of Hiring a Roofing Professional

As roofing is a dangerous and important task, look for roofers who have the following qualities:

Will provide written estimate: This is important to understand the scope of the job, and to protect your investment.

Licenses: Different states and cities have different regulations; check with your local government or Better Business Bureau.

Insurance: You’ll want a roofing professional who carries both General Liability Insurance and Workman’s Comp Insurance. The former is important because it protects against damage to your property, while the latter protects against injuries to those working on your property. Hiring a contractor without insurance exposes a homeowner to significant risk in the case of accidents.

Warrantied: When purchasing roofing services from a roofing contractor, are sure the roof purchase comes with a warranty. The most common asphalt shingled roofs should carry a warranty of 20 or 25 years minimum.

Contingency plans for inclement weather: The fact of the matter is that no one can control or even predict the weather. A roofer should know exactly how to act if bad weather approaches, and be prepared with tarps and plastic guards to protect your home’s interior. The optimal roofing system is late spring to early fall for most parts of the country.

Disposal plans: A professional roofer should know exactly what they plan to do with the old materials on your roof as they remove the old to add the new.

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