Senior Contributing Editor

Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

Leave Garage Doors to the Experts

Panic ensues when something goes wrong with the garage door

May 23, 2018

Sears does it, and for years was the go-to installing retailer. Today Lowe’s, Menards, and The Home Depot sell and install them as well. We’re talking about a midrange price point exterior remodeling product that most replacement window and door dealers avoid: the garage door, or, as those proficient in installing and repairing the product prefer to call it, the overhead door.

But why shy away?

“It’s a lot easier for an overhead door company to get into windows than it is for a window contractor to get into garage doors,” explains Kevin Cunningham, vice president of Cunningham Door & Window in Louisville, Ky., a company founded by his grandfather over seven decades ago. “We’re dealing with moving things—electronics and springs. It’s a different animal.”

Cunningham also points out that the installation itself is a bit trickier. "If you don’t do it right, the door goes up crooked, or doesn’t come all the way to the ground, or falls on top of the car.”

Because of this, Cunningham's company has different crews for its window jobs and for the overhead door jobs it has long specialized in.

All But Ignored

Garage doors are a multibillion dollar industry, with 80 percent sold in new construction—leaving a relatively small replacement market to the handful of window and door dealers who’ve accepted the challenge of replacing a product that homeowners tend to take for granted. 

“We all come and go through the garage door,” Cunningham points out. He once recorded the number of times someone in his household lifted and lowered the garage door in the course of a day: It was eleven.

Given that people are far more likely to enter their home through the overhead door, it’s no surprise that the front door is often a decorative item used to dress up the exterior. The garage door, on the other hand, is regarded merely as a functional piece of equipment, even though “it’s the largest moving thing in your house,” Cunningham says.

Because homeowners are less concerned about how it looks, the overhead door will usually be ignored until something goes wrong—an occasion that can easily inspire panic.

HomeAdvisor lists the average national cost of a new garage door installation as $1,071, but points out that replacements can range from $500 to $4,000, or more. That squares with what window and door dealers who perform the installations say.

Jim Lett, president of A.B.E. Doors & Windows, in Allentown, Pa., says the price range for replacing a garage door is anywhere from $750 to $4000, though the best garage doors (wooden carriage house doors by high-end manufacturers such as Artisan) can go for as much as $8,000–$10,000, in the same category as high-end entry doors.

Lett, who started selling and servicing garage doors 42 years ago, made sales and service of the product a major component of his business. Along the way he watched overhead doors and the industry evolve from heavy wooden doors, to a far lighter fiberglass/aluminum replacement, to the steel products that prevail in today’s market.

Mechanically Inclined

Contractors who specialize in overhead doors point out the irony of a situation in which a product making up 13  or more of an exterior wall surface—front, side, or rear—gets so little attention from homeowners.

“This is a product people use every day, and depend on,” points out Bob Mikaelian, co-owner of Toms River Door & Window, in Toms River, N.J., which, like A.B.E. and Cunningham Door & Window, displays garage doors in its showroom.

The technician who can do the replacing is not the same kind of person who puts in windows, he and others note—which is why, Mikaelian says, he’s amused when people sometimes balk at a $1,500 cost of replacing both the door and the mechanical opener. “If you’re putting in windows, you need a finish carpenter, and a finish carpenter is not mechanically inclined,” Lett says.

Someone good at installing garage doors, on the other hand, knows his way around motors. He has to be able to assemble the door from components and mount both the motor and fastening brackets, plus springs and cables.

“He’s dealing with a lot of parts and pieces and assembly,” Lett says. “So it’s hard for a carpenter to be a garage door guy and it’s equally difficult for a mechanical guy to become a carpenter. They’re two different trades.”

Operation, Appearance, Environment

At their best, garage doors need to do a few things. For one, they need to operate. Not only because you want to be able to keep your car covered, but also out of security concerns.

Many break-ins are initiated through the garage, and an open garage is an invitation. Even a closed door to an attached garage is considered the weak link of the house by practiced burglars. (Corporate Travel Safety explains how easy it is for thieves to come in, even with the garage door closed.) So, a garage door needs to be fully operational, with locks and security devices included.

Overhead doors also need to look presentable. If the garage is on the front of the house, as is the case in many of the area developments in Cunningham’s market, changing it out for something smart adds glamour and sets the house apart on streets where most homes resemble each other.

And then there’s what Mikaelian calls the environmental factor. In colder climates, a winter garage can be as frigid as any attic. If a bedroom or other living area is above the garage, or adjacent to it, that room will be cold too—a fact that ushered in the insulated garage door, which retains heat and keeps the areas nearby “warmer and quieter,” Lett tells customers when recommending insulated doors.

Your New Garage Door

People replace garage doors for various reasons. Older wood panel doors are subject to rot, unless they’re painted on schedule. Improperly installed doors can malfunction. But overhead door dealers will often gets calls not because the door has had it, but because some part of the mechanism to lift and lower it stops working.

When people can’t get their car out of the garage, or inside it, they call. What happens most often is that the spring is broken. The more times you use the door, the more likely the spring is to break (and sooner). “There’s not a lot of other parts to go bad,” Cunningham says. But if the spring’s shot, the door won’t work.

“When the spring breaks,” Lett says, “the garage door motor can’t lift the door, and you can’t lift it either.” Calls for service in such cases tend to take the tone of an emergency.

For Toms River Door, “the typical call is a broken spring or a rotten door,” Mikaelian says. And when someone from Toms River Door goes out, they’re looking at an opportunity to let the customer know how much they could benefit from a new garage door. "You’ve got to tell ’em to sell ’em,” Mikaelian points out.

A surefire opportunity for overhead door dealers arises (surprisingly often) out of forgetfulness. “The guy forgets the door’s down," Lett says, "puts the car in drive or reverse, then BANG.”

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