When any old roof won't do

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer

Have you ever seen a historic house that looked absolutely gorgeous, except for one little thing? Well, make that one big thing: the roof. It isn't all that unusual to see an older home with perfectly preserved fiber cement siding, well-maintained woodwork or meticulous period details that have obviously been cared for over many generations. But when the roof that tops that is very obviously a brand-new composite shingle, it can create a jarring visual effect that detracts from the beauty of the restoration.

But what can homeowners do when faced with the very real prospect of an ancient roof on its last years? When dealing with a historic home, even the National Park Service has an opinion, stating that the new roof "must be compatible with historic materials in appearance."

Wood shakes and shingles look great on old houses, as do some weathered metal roofs. But what do you do when the modern materials don't fit in with the way your house was designed to look, and you simply can't afford the materials that are closest to the original? Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Asphalt shingles

There are many lines of asphalt shingles created to look like wood shakes. They are much cheaper than the "real thing" and easy to install. The warranties are usually good and the durability is superb. The problem? They look like wood only from a distance. When you get up close, you can tell they are of a composite material.

Molded shingles

These engineered shingles are made of a wide variety of materials, including recycled plastics, rubber or resin. They are available in a wide variety of colors, have durability akin to that of asphalt shingles and good warranties. But you do sacrifice that gorgeous silver patina that comes from aged wood, as molded shingles are fade-resistant.

Metal roof

A metal roof offers incredible durability. It is fire-resistant, impervious to rot or insects, installs easily and can be had in a multitude of colors. Metal shingles can be coated to resemble wood and other materials. If you are looking for something that is a true throwback to the good ol' days, a standing seam metal roof can look right at home on your historic house.

Concrete tiles

Concrete tiles can be surprisingly lightweight, yet incredibly durable. They last for decades and offer excellent resistance to fire, wind, rot and insects. However, a powerful hailstorm could damage the tiles by cracking, leading to regular repair work. They might look at home on some historic houses, but not all.

Stone and clay

Finally, don't forget the materials that have been in use for centuries: clay and stone. Many old homes still have slate tiles on the roof -- in fact, one of the most lovely old mansions I have ever seen still has its original slate roof over 100 years later. Clay can offer the same longevity, as well as plenty of character. Sometimes that character can be a bit much for a historic home, as clay roofs are often part of the overall design. If your old house wasn't originally planned with a clay roof, it might not be a good idea to put one on it now.

If your heart is truly set on wood shakes or shingles, be sure to go with the treated version in order to help reduce the risk of fire. If your budget simply doesn't allow for this, many of these options could do the trick.