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When Toronto lawyer and property manager Sheila Collin first hired a roofer to repair two of her properties, she felt she had done her due diligence.

"The roofer had done work for someone that I have known for many years who said they'd done a spectacularly good job for a reasonable price, and they recommended them wholeheartedly," she said.

Ms. Collin spent close to $75,000 in total roofing costs on an 8,000-square-foot mixed commercial/residential building and another 10,000-square-foot commercial property. After a particularly harsh winter, however, both buildings were suffering significant water leakage. When she attempted to get the roofer to remedy the continuing leak problems, it initially did a mediocre patch job (which didn't hold), then stopped answering her calls. Finally, the company representatives just seemed to disappear.

"What I learned is you might be dealing with someone who was recommended by a previous customer, but by the time you get them they may not even [have] the same crew of people," she said. "They change their company names and phone numbers. You can report them to the Better Business Bureau, but it doesn't do any good."

In the end, Ms. Collin had to employ another roofing company to tear out everything that had been previously done and reroof the buildings, which ended up costing her as much as she'd spent in the first place.

It's the kind of calamity that strikes fear in the hearts of homeowners.

The spectre of leaks and water damage is nerve-racking enough, but with costs that can start at $5,000 and rise to $20,000 or more, a new roof can be a crippling expense.

But there are ways to minimize your risk and keep the roof over your head intact.

The first step in roof maintenance is determining whether you need work done well before you spring a leak. Craig Bennett, deputy executive director of Avenue Road Roofing in Toronto, says that there are some red flags to watch for.

"Observe the appearance of your shingles," he says. "Specifically, look for curling or clawed shingle tabs, look for areas of excessive 'granule' loss [on the surface of the shingles]. In terms of age, a roof that is 15 years old should be inspected."

Homeowners can also check to see if any of the metal flashing on the roof has pulled away or the caulking has dried out. If you have attic access, look for water marks or the appearance of mould (black marks).

Once you've determined that your roof needs work, it's time to find a contractor. Mark Benerowski, a Toronto building inspector for the past 10 years, says that references from friends and family are a good way to start, but it's important to get at least three quotes – he suggests getting 10 – before deciding on a contractor.

"Sometimes the larger companies can be good to go with, but a company is only as good as its installer. Ask if they've expanded a lot in the last couple years. How much experience do your installers have? How many installers can I expect to be on the job?"

Because a roofing job should last 15 years or more, look for a roofer who is going to stay in business. Mr. Bennett says that although many consumers won't require it, it's wise to look for companies that are bonded, which demonstrates that the contractor has had to withstand stringent business scrutiny.

"Also, look for roofing contractors who have been certified by the product manufacturer to install their products," he says. "Ask to view a job in progress and speak with several past clients, particularly those who required warranty service."

Other essential elements to watch for are safety and insurance, Mr. Bennett says. Consumers should ask to see a company's health and safety policy, and ensure they have adequate insurance for the job at hand.

To further protect yourself, Mr. Benerowski advises that specifications be included in any contract or quote. "Don't let them just put down three-tab shingle installation," he says. "You want specifications as to flashing, the brand name and warranty of your shingle, the underlayment that will be used, how much ice shield, how high the ice shield is going to be." (If the terms and details of roofing seems daunting to a layperson, you can get consumer info on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s website.) "If you can specify in the contract, that's half the battle."

As for the cost, Mr. Bennett says his company's statistics have shown that the average price for a complete shingle replacement within the Greater Toronto Area is about 2 per cent of the property value. But prices can vary widely depending on how complicated the job is and where it is located.

As well, your choice of materials will affect your final price. At the low end of the scale, there's paper asphalt or fibreglass shingle (increasingly the most popular choice, according to Mr. Bennett). Metal is typically double the price, cedar triple and slate, three to four times the cost.

Once the job begins, if you're concerned about the work being done, you can hire a building inspector to assess it, both during the project and after completion. For a one-time inspection, Mr. Benerowski charges between $200 and $300. For a more thorough, phased inspection report, it can cost between $500 and $600, based on 2,000-square-foot home.

If you do your homework before hiring your contractor, Mr. Bennett says, you should end up with a roof job that will stand the test of time.

Watch for these red flags

Building inspector Mark Benerowski identifies common mistakes to watch for.

Roofers trying to work too fast: Ensure your roofing company will be providing you with an experienced installer and enough manpower to do the job properly (at least two or three workers). "It's a seasonal type of business, so roofers can get very busy in the summers," Mr. Benerowski says. "If a roofer is working too fast and hasn't set his pneumatic gun properly, that nail head could be driven too hard with too much pressure. You've cracked the shingle and now you have a potential for leakage."

Laying new shingles over old: Specify the full removal of the old shingles – if you don't, the roofers may lay new ones over the old ones, which can trap moisture and lead to premature deterioration of the new surface.

Not removing old nails from the roof: Leaving old nails is like trapping "a bunch of needles underneath the new shingles. When you strip a roof, it has to be fully stripped."

Poor ventilation: Be sure your roofing contractor will be addressing ventilation issues and is up-to-date on current ventilation techniques and products. "If you don't have any ventilation at all, in the summer the attic gets very hot and you end up baking your shingles and they don't last as long."

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