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doorWhen it comes to curb appeal, your front door is front and center. Although replacing a worn door is a quick improvement that can dramatically improve your home's look, it can also be an expensive project, with many wood models costing more than $5,000, including installation. And it'll be an unnecessarily expensive project if you choose a high-priced supplier: Checkbook.org's undercover shoppers found some area companies charge prices that are more than $2,000 higher than their competitors' to supply and install the exact same door.

In the good ol' days, if you wanted to replace a door your choice was limited to wood. Nowadays, your options are wide open—not just of choice of material but size, function, style, hardware, security, and more. Where to start? What are the pros and cons of each choice? Where to buy? How to avoid spending way too much? Here are some tips.

Pre-hung vs. simple replacement.

If the door's frame is in good shape, and you don't want to change the size of the opening, you can buy just a replacement door—usually called a "slab" or "blank"—and swap out the old with the new. But you'll find there are few style and size options available, and, if you're replacing an old, worn door, its frame also is probably old and needs replacement. For these reasons, most homeowners buy pre-hung doors, which come ready to roll, pre-hung in a frame, sized to fit the threshold, encircled by weather stripping, with jamb, hinges, and finish hardware already in place—and an endless array of options.

Materials.

There are several options, each with its own pros and cons:

  • Wood looks great and offers thousands of style options, and as many finish options as there are stain and paint colors. Although new wood doors resist the elements better than what was available 30 years ago, they can still warp and crack and periodically need fresh coats of stain or paint. If your entry doesn't have a porch or a protective overhang, don't install a wood door without an accompanying storm door—sunlight and moisture will take a quick toll on even the best all-wood models.
  • Steel doors are framed in either wood or steel with a core that's filled with foam insulation, all wrapped in heavy-gauge galvanized steel. Most steel doors are embossed with a wood-grain pattern so that they look like wood—and on most models that fake wood looks pretty fakey. Some higher-priced units have a real-wood veneer laminated onto the steel. You can also order steel doors covered in a smooth skin that you can paint and repaint. Although steel requires less maintenance than wood, steel doors don't last forever. Steel can rust, and it's dent-able.
  • Fiberglass doors are usually wood frames stuffed with foam insulation and clad in fiberglass. Unlike steel, they won't rust or dent. But like steel, it's hard for manufacturers to make them look like wood.
  • Aluminum doors are usually the least expensive and almost completely maintenance-free—many come with 20- to 30-year warranties—but most models dent easily. Consider aluminum if you're looking to replace a side or rear door, where appearance matters less and kids won't make them a pocked mess.

Styles.

After even a cursory review of a few catalogs, you might feel overwhelmed by the number of options. A good way to start is to determine the size of the opening you have now or that you want to build—this will narrow your choices to a more manageable field. Of course, you'll want to pick a style that matches your home's architecture. Also consider available decorative hardware.

Energy efficiency.

Well-made doors that are weatherstripped aren't energy wasters. But to maximize energy savings, look for Energy Star-certified models.

Quality and durability.

When shopping, ask for samples (called "corner pieces") to see how different materials look and to experiment with different stains and paints. For steel and fiberglass doors, make sure wood-look graining runs across the rails (horizontal parts of the door) and up and down the stiles (vertical parts). And check that any metal doors you're considering have a thermal break to prevent cold and heat from being conducted through the skin.

While, unfortunately, you can't easily judge how well various models will hold up, most modern doors are pretty sturdy. Keep in mind that the more wood in a door, the more maintenance it will need. Compare warranties: It's reasonable to assume that a longer warranty indicates a more durable door. Because most door failures occur first in the jamb, look for a long-term jamb guarantee.

Security.

Except for hollow wood doors, which are easily defeated, most properly installed doors offer adequate security against being kicked in by a bad guy. Doors should fit snugly within the door frame, with no more than a 1/16-inch gap on either side. Your best defense is to install good locks on all exterior doors. Our articles and ratings on home security companies and locksmiths provide much advice on securing your home's vulnerable spots.

If you want a door with built-in windows, make sure an intruder can't break one to reach in and unlock the door. Otherwise, buy a deadbolt lock that must be operated with a key from inside the home. But keep in mind that difficult-to-unlock doors pose hazards in the event of fire.

The last word in door security is a heavy-duty steel door in a steel frame with a high-security lock. A less costly step down is a metal bar door installed a few inches outside an existing door. When set into a brick or concrete-block structure, defeating them generally takes a lot of time and makes a lot of noise. The simplest kinds of metal bar doors, which are usually installed along with bars over the windows, make your place look like a prison. But some fabricators make attractive decorative ones, and a few custom-build them as individual pieces of art.

Where to buy.

Start by reviewing the ratings of door installers at Checkbook.org. Because most window installers also install doors, and because we receive many more ratings of window companies than door installers, we suggest you also check out customer reviews in that section. You'll notice that, for the most part, door installers receive favorable ratings from their customers. On the other hand, problems have been reported, most often by customers who bought their doors at the big home-center chains.

Shop around.

You'll find big-time price variation from company to company for the exact same doors and installation work. Our undercover shoppers requested price quotes from a sample of area companies to supply and install one entry door and two storm doors. The price quotes we obtained are listed on the table below. For the entry door, we received prices ranging from less than $1,900 to $3,470. Clearly, getting prices from multiple companies is time well spent.

Keep in mind that because the big chains offer exclusive product lines for doors, we couldn't compare prices between independents and Home Depot and Lowe's. We also found that independents offered a much better selection than the big chains.

Get a contract.

The installer should come out to take final measurements and provide a written contract that specifies door model, schedule, fixed price, and any warranties and guarantees. Because most doors are custom-ordered, it's reasonable for installers to require a small down payment, but arrange for the smallest one possible.

Can you DIY this thing?

Maybe…but installing doors is probably harder than you think, especially in older houses that have settled a bit. It's often tricky to adjust the door so it's level, plumb, and square. Also, installing a pre-hung door usually involves a fair amount of carpentry and replacing exterior and interior trim, and installing a storm door usually first requires that someone assemble it from what our editor estimates are 5,000 poorly-labeled parts. On the other hand, because most companies charge more than $500 per door for installation work, you'll save a lot by doing the job yourself.

Prices Quoted by Companies
to Supply and Install
Illustrative Door Models*

ProVia Legacy #400DCIG steel door Therma-Tru Fiber Classic #FC23 fiberglass door Jeld-Wen Custom Wood #401 solid wood door Larson First Impressions #3149-04 aluminum storm door ProVia Deluxe #397 aluminum storm door
Allied the Window Center, Annandale, VA, 703-256-0600 $2,595       $645
American Home Center, Beltsville, MD, 301-220-1144 $1,500       $680
Case Design/Remodeling, Bethesda, MD, 301-229-4600     $6,817 $1,505 $2,157
Century Siding, Chantilly, VA, 703-263-1933 $2,226       $722
Design by Lightfoot, Montgomery Village, MD, 240-447-2986 $2,400 $2,250   $750 $900
Designer Windows & Siding, Burke, VA, 703-250-3010 $1,960       $650
Home Exteriors Energy Consultants, Vienna, VA, 703-242-1750 $2,350       $800
House of Doors, Alexandria, VA, 703-751-9000 $3,560       $1,321
National Remodelers Specialists, Beltsville, MD, 301-254-6996 $2,300       $1,499
Penwin Windows & Doors, Clinton, MD, 301-296-8444 $2,526     $500  
Platinum Glass & Mirror, Remington, VA, 571-205-8643 $1,235 $1,035   $360 $500
Premier Window & Building, Owings Mills, MD, 410-654-1711 $2,200-$2,400       $800
Rockville Window & Door Co, Gaithersburg, MD, 301-208-3580   $2,248     $815
Wheaton Door & Window, Beltsville, MD, 301-949-8951 $2,825       $1,115
Window & Door Showplace, McLean, VA, 703-506-3650 $3,230   $5,880   $708
* All doors are pre-hung doors measuring 36" x 80". For each door model, companies were given additional, detailed specifications on desired hardware and other facts, such as finish type, window placement, and more. All prices include the door, hardware, installation (including insulating and caulking), and removal and disposal of old door.