Real estate agents call it curb appeal. It's how a house looks to visitors as they arrive by car. Curb appeal was, is, and will be important to homeowners, whether or not they're planning to sell. And while factors ranging from landscaping to paint color influence curb appeal, there's no more immediate facade facelift than a new front door. Thanks to the advent of pre-hung doors, installation has only gotten easier. But according to contractor, author, and old house expert Scott Sidler, owner of Austin Home Restorations, the job still comes with some complexities. Here, Scott shares what to keep in mind.
Most entry doors that you can pick up at The Home Depot-they're pre-hung, right? What is a pre-hung door, anyway?
Scott: A pre-hung door comes with the jamb, the hinges, and the door itself. It's a fully functional door; it's just not installed. If it were not pre-hung, you would have to cut out hinge mortises and fit that door into an existing jamb. But with a pre-hung, you just order the doors you need, you set it in the rough opening-the framing between the studs, with the header above it. Then the door gets leveled, plumbed, shimmed, and fastened into place, and finally the trim goes over. Unless it's a custom situation, pre-hung doors are used almost exclusively. It's been a big step forward, I think. Everything is already assembled, and you just install it into the building.
If pre-hung doors have made entry door installation so much more forgiving, what's the most difficult part now?
Scott: When you're installing a door, you're working with three planes: The door needs to be plumb, it needs to be level, and it needs to be square. It's easy to miss some of the alignment issues. If you shim it a little too much on one side, you may put the jamb out of square, and as a consequence, the door may not close properly. But in new construction-if your framer did a good job, and you've got a well-framed opening-it's fairly easy, so long as you take your measurements properly. With remodeling, it's another world. In an older house that may have settled a bit, you need to make adjustments to account for any sagging. If the level, plumb, and square are not perfect, the door isn't going to perform as it should. It's not going to stay open when it's open. It's not going to to stay closed when it's closed.
You live and work in the South. Are there any regional considerations you take into account when installing a door?
Scott: If we're installing a pre-hung-or even if we're building a jamb on-site-I like there to be plenty of space in the jamb. That's why I use larger shims. They allow me to make sure there's extra space in there, and that's important because we get so much sun. Winters here, the temperature ranges from the 30s to 50s, so the wood contracts quite a bit. And in the summer, when it's 95 degrees and 100% humidity, and it's raining, that wood is going to swell. You want to make sure that there's a little extra gap around the door that you can fill with weatherstripping, which can take that large expansion and contraction we get here. I think that's fairly common in a lot of the country, but with wood doors here, the effect is extreme. You don't have those issues with fiberglass or steel doors.
Do you think that's a reason other contractors should think about shying away from wood doors in the South?
Scott: In new construction down here, and also in standard remodels, it sure feels like most of the exterior doors are fiberglass or steel, except on the high end, where the clients want something really special. In the South, fiberglass and steel tend to hold up better than wood. We also run across rotten jamb bottoms. The legs of the jamb start to rot out, because no matter what material the door is, you've likely still got a wooden jamb. With all the rain we get, that wood is going to rot out eventually. That's why some jambs today have PVC bottoms. Just that bottom foot and a half or so being PVC… it makes a huge difference.
A new door ought to suit the style of the house. How do you go about choosing the right door for a project you're working on?
Scott: It really depends on what the client wants. A lot of our clients say, “I want something that's true to the style of the house,” what was there originally. So we can do a little research and see if we can find out. But usually we choose based on the home's architectural style. Colonial-style doors are going to be the standard four- or six-panel doors. Mission-style doors are typically composed of thick, vertical boards tied together under an arched top, with a peek hole and wrought iron hardware. It's about staying true to the architectural style of the house, whether this is an 1800 Queen Anne Victorian or a newer house in the local vernacular. Just try and stay true to that, so it doesn't look terribly anachronistic and way out of place. Choose for the scale and style of the building.
Editor's note: If you need help selecting a door, don't hesitate to check out the Masonite Max configurator offered jointly by The Home Depot and Masonite. Easy and actually quite fun to use, the Masonite Max tool guides you through the process of designing and purchasing the perfect door for your project. Based in Tampa, Florida, Masonite has continually operated since its founding in 1925. Today, the company manufactures steel, wood, and fiberglass doors in an array of styles to suit any preference. Plus, at The Home Depot, Masonite fiberglass and steel doors carry a limited lifetime warranty!
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