What options do home buyers truly value? What will they pay more to get? Whatever builders think consumers may say, "quality windows" is probably not high on the list.

Anyone who has lived with low quality -- or poorly installed -- windows can attest to the problems they can cause. Walls and floors suffer damage from dampness. Fabrics fade. Energy costs skyrocket. A home built with mediocre windows to shave upfront costs can turn into a big ticket headache for buyers and builders in the long run.

Many buyers don't realize this until after they've moved in. When they're making the decisions that will affect the quality of their home, buyers rarely focus on windows. And the few who do usually don't know how to weigh the added quality against the added cost.

"Traditionally, windows have not been the first thought with home buyers," acknowledges Cameron Snyder, brand public relations manager at Bayport, Minn.'s Andersen Corp. "They're concerned with countertops, faucets, and so on. They don't know that windows affect not only the outside of the house, but the inside."

Selling top-quality windows as an upgrade involves added sales effort, builders concede. "At the consumer level, as with any new technology, it requires some education, but when people learn about it and understand it, it's one of the cost-effective items that they will want in their home," says Joyce Mason, vice president of marketing at Pardee Homes, in Los Angeles.

For many production builders, offering a variety of window choices also opens up a Pandora's box of design modifications many builders would simply rather avoid. But as builders continue to look for ways to raise their customer satisfaction scores, and suppliers improve how windows are made and installed, it appears the quality and features of windows that builders include in new homes are improving.

A Touch of Glass

In turn, builders educating home buyers about recent improvements in windows say they are able to recover the higher cost into the price of the home. The finest windows, properly installed, can cost between 15 percent to as much as twice the price of lower-quality windows, according to suppliers.

Jim Lewis, director of quality assurance at John Laing Homes, in Newport Beach, Calif., notes that higher-quality vinyl windows, installed by specialists, are now the standard in John Laing tract homes. "They are trouble-free," he says. "They operate very well, are easy to keep clean, and all will pop out easily for cleaning." The buyers usually don't question the choice of windows, he says, but he notices the beauty of vinyl-clad wood windows and points out that the heat-fused mitred corners are as good as "welded" into the wall. "There are no seams, which could create problems" with leakage or cracking, he says.

Proper installation is critical. Increasingly, builders are relying on specialty installers who follow the manufacturers' installation instructions to the letter, says John Laing's Lewis. "All these guys do is install windows. And they're good at it."

Marvin Windows and Doors, of Warroad, Minn., offers a one and a half-day training session dealing with its products -- with an emphasis on proper installation techniques.

Another critical factor for builders, according to Mike Jackson, president of MI Home Products, in Gratz, Pa., is delivery cycle time and making sure builders get their window orders precisely when and where they want them.

When it comes to selling windows, matching features with prospective buyers' lifestyles is often overlooked, observes Chris Monroe, marketing vice president at Simonton Windows, in Parkersburg, W.Va. "Double hung windows," he notes, are better suited to families with, or expecting, children, "to gain ventilation from the top while keeping the bottom sash safely closed to prevent accidents." Alternatively, he adds, older buyers often prefer the easy operation of crank-out casement windows.

But some of the best features of fine windows are out of sight and out of mind, says Andersen's Snyder. "If you never think about windows -- you don't feel a draft, never have to think about painting them, then that's a plus," he says. Similarly, the beauty of a window doesn't stand out the way a beautifully painted wall might, says Snyder, adding that "the quality of light from the windows can enhance the living space."

Window Education

According to the NAHB, the average home today has 16 windows, compared to a dozen in 1988. High-end houses with between 4,000 and 5,000 square feet of space boast even more, usually no fewer than 20. Then there are the large windows or skylights in luxury master suites. High energy bills during recent harsh winters and scorching summers have increased buyer awareness of the need to equip their homes with energy-saving appliances -- and energy-saving windows.

In all of Pardee's homes, "low E glass" windows are standard. The "low emissitivity" glass has a metal coating on one side to reduce the transfer of heat or cold through the pane. The insulative coating keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

But again, the burden is on the builder to explain why, and what, the benefits are. At Pardee, according to Mason, "We show one window that has low-E and one that does not. Some people are not aware of the difference. Education is a huge issue."

Furthermore, most buyers are also still relatively unaware of the quality of frames, which varies greatly, so again the burden is on the builder to speak up. "We like to point out to them that we buy a better window," says Lewis.

But, he adds, it is energy savings that resonates with most buyers. "Certainly in the hot areas, in Sacramento and southern California, people can appreciate energy efficiency; it lowers their electric bills. Our power bills are obviously news in California." But how can builders help buyers see that high-quality windows add more value, and are worth paying a lot more for, than the invisible savings, month after month, that don't jump out at the buyer on a fuel bill?

Experience is always a good teacher, but a harsh one. There are two types of home buyers, says Andersen's Snyder. The first have a bit of home owner experience under their belt, so they've witnessed or experienced poor quality windows, or lived with quality windows. "They know the benefits, and they understand why you want quality products in the house," he says. "The other people are willing to sacrifice quality for things like countertops or Jacuzzis, and those are the people who, given enough time, generally will change their way of thinking, because they will experience problems."

Window Treatment

The National Fenestration Rating Council (www.nfrc.org), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide accurate information about the energy performance of windows, doors, and skylights, is trying to help builders capitalize on the rising number of windows in homes and increasing awareness of energy costs. Their research claims:

  • Houses with more windows sell faster.
  • Windows offer natural benefits -- daylight and fresh air.
  • Homes that provide natural light positively affect human performance and moods. Studies show patients in hospitals, for example, recover faster when their rooms are better lit.

Other resources for builders on windows include:

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.