Choosing an Exterior Door.

You should understand the pros and cons of steel, fiberglass, and wood exterior doors before choosing the one that's right for you.

Replacing your front door can pay for itself or even turn a profit by increasing your home's value, according to Remodeling Magazine's annual Cost vs. Value Report.

What's more, if you choose an energy-efficient exterior door, you may qualify for a tax credit that can offset 30% of the purchase price as well as trim up to 10% off your energy bills. With utility bills averaging $2,200 annually, that's a savings of as much as $220.

But how do you know which door is right for you? Make your decision by comparing the three main materials available for exterior doors: steel, fiberglass, and wood.

 

Steel

If you're looking to save money, a steel door may be a good choice, particularly if you have the skills to hang it yourself. A simple, unadorned steel door can sell for as little as $150 (not including hardware, lock set, paint, or labor) and typically runs as much as $400 at big-box retailers.

Steel offers the strongest barrier against intruders, although its advantage over fiberglass and wood in this area is slight. Even better, replacing your entry door with a steel model actually reaps a profit in added home value.

Remodeling Magazine estimates the total project cost of installing a 20-gauge steel door at about $1,200-and the project, on average, returns about 129% of cost or $1,400. Still, the attractive cost of a steel door comes with an important caveat: Its typical life span under duress is shorter than either fiberglass or wood.

A steel door exposed to salt air or heavy rains may last only five to seven years, according to Bob Bossard, general manager of 84 Lumber in Clarksville, Del. Despite steel's reputation for toughness, it actually didn't perform well in Consumer Reports testing against wood and fiberglass for normal wear and tear.

With heavy use, it may dent, and the damage can be difficult and expensive to repair. If your door will be heavily exposed to traffic or the elements, you may be better off choosing a different material.

 

Fiberglass

Fiberglass doors come in an immense variety of styles, many of which accurately mimic the look of real wood. And if limited upkeep is your ideal, fiberglass may be your best bet. "Nothing is maintenance-free," Bossard says, "but fiberglass is pretty close.

And it lasts twice as long as wood or steel." Fiberglass doesn't expand or contract appreciably as the weather changes. Therefore, in a reasonably protected location, a fiberglass entry door can go for years without needing a paint or stain touch-up and can last 15 to 20 years overall.

Although it feels light to the touch, fiberglass has a very stout coating that's difficult for an intruder to breach; and its foam core offers considerable insulation. Fiberglass generally falls between steel and wood in price; models sold at big-box stores range from about $150 to $600.

Remodeling Magazine lists the cost of a fiberglass entry-door replacement project at around $3,500. Although a fiberglass door doesn't generate as high a return as a steel door, it recoups about 65% in home value.

 

Wood

Wood is considered the go-to choice for high-end projects; its luxe look and substantial weight can't be flawlessly duplicated by fiberglass or steel, though high-end fiberglass products are getting close.

If your home calls for a stunning entry statement with a handcrafted touch, wood may be the best material for you. Wood is usually the most expensive choice of the three-roughly $500 to $2,000, excluding custom jobs-and requires the most maintenance, although it's easier to repair scratches on a wood door than dents in steel or fiberglass.

Wood doors should be repainted or refinished every year or two to prevent splitting and warping. (Remodeling Magazine's 2009-2010 Cost vs. Value Report doesn't include a wood entry-door replacement project.) If you're concerned about the environmental impact of your door as well as its energy efficiency, you can purchase a solid wood door certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which assures you that the wood was sustainably grown and harvested.

Tracing the environmental impact of a particular door-from manufacturing process to shipping distance to how much recycled/recyclable content it contains-is quite complicated and probably beyond the average homeowner, notes LEED-certified green designer Victoria Schomer. But FSC-certified wood and an Energy Star rating are an excellent start.

A final note on choosing a door based on energy efficiency: Because efficiency depends on a number of factors besides the material a door is made of-including its framework and whether it has windows-look for the Energy Star label to help you compare doors. To qualify for the federal tax credit, look for solar heat gain coefficient and U-factor values less than 0.3.

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