Replace or repair roof? Know when it’s time.

Roofs are expensive. So there’s every incentive to try to make it last as long as you can before replacing it. But sometimes you reach a point of diminishing returns with repairs. Here’s how to know whether to replace or repair your roof.

When a roof tends to leak and repeated repairs don’t clear the problem, that’s a sign the roof has hidden issues. I’ll try to repair a roof once, but repeated repairs that don’t solve the issue is just throwing money away.

Straight talk from a landlord about roof repair

repair or replace roof
On a roof like this one, you may be able to get by with a low bidder. On a shallower-pitched roof, repairs may be more frequent, and more consideration has to go into replacement. Sometimes it’s better to go with a higher bid to get higher quality work.

Not all roofing contractors are created equal. As a landlord who’s owned multiple properties, I can speak from experience on that. Some people think there’s nothing to ripping off the shingles, tearing off the felt paper, putting down new felt paper, then hammering down new shingles. And maybe the majority of the time, you can get by with that kind of a job. There used to be a guy in my area who would put a roof on for a little over half what most other people charged. And on one of my houses, that worked just fine.

I have another house with nice architectural shingles on it. The roof was only a few years old when we bought the house. So we were pretty happy to get a really nice, long-life roof that still had 20-25 years left in it. But ironically, our nicest, highest-quality roof has been the one that’s given us the most problems. We’ve had other roofs with cheap, conventional shingles on them and they’ve needed minor repairs. We did the repairs and they’ve been fine for years.

The nice roof developed a leak after we’d owned it about three years. Of course fixing it was a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t spend $300 to fix a nice, $6,000 roof with 20 years left in it?

But this one didn’t end up being like the others. With the others, it was just one repair. With this one, the problem kept coming back.

Doing the math on roof repairs

A roof typically costs around $6,000 and lasts up to 30 years. If a roof is near the end of its serviceable life, it makes more sense to replace it, rather than spend a few hundred dollars repairing something you’re going to have to replace in a short time anyway.

My problem-child roof put me in a quandary. I’ve repaired the same problem several times now, and the problem usually goes away for a year or two. But it keeps coming back, and I’ve probably spent $1,000 on repairs that didn’t work.

Get multiple bids

My mistake was not getting enough people to come look at it. This time around, we called in someone expensive to look at it. They responded with a bid to replace the roof, stating the existing roof was poorly installed and is beyond repair at this point.

But I got a second bid. On big-ticket repairs I always get multiple bids. People call me a slumlord because I do that, but that’s not the reason I do it. The second bid was actually higher. But the second bid elaborated more. This roof has a shallow pitch, so water doesn’t run off it the way it will on a more typical roof. So the bid included a more expensive underlayment to compensate. The first bid didn’t say anything about a more expensive underlayment. The second bid also observed there was damage to the plywood underneath and some of it would need to be replaced.

We went with the second bid. It was more expensive, but it was clearly the better bid.

In my experience, when you get lots of bids, you’ll always get some outliers. Someone will bid it super cheap, and someone will bid way too high. If you get two bids and they’re pretty close, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get something cheaper without cutting corners. And in this case, I knew from the two bids that the previous owner cutting corners was what got me to this point.

What to do when the bids disagree

In this case the bids disagreed, so I asked the one who provided more detail for additional detail so I could understand the difference. If the disagreement had been larger, with one saying the roof couldn’t be repaired and one saying it could, I’d ask both to elaborate, including telling the one who said it can be fixed that the other said it couldn’t. This can yield more detail that will help you make a more informed decision. And in a case like that I might very well go ahead and get a third bid.

In my case, it was clear both understood the roof had been improperly installed, but one looked like he was going to repeat at least one mistake the previous roofer had made. Future repairs mean expenses down the road but they also mean an unhappy tenant. And I also want to be able to provide assurance to the current tenant that we’re fixing this problem correctly now that we’ve uncovered the heart of the issue.

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