Roofing materials: buyer’s guide to choosing a roof type

Ben Zientara

By Ben Zientara

October 15, 2020

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There are as many types of roofing materials available as there are opinions about what looks good on a roof. From tried-and-true asphalt shingles to long-lasting metal roofing and refined slate tiles, your roof can be as understated or as elegant as you want it to be.

If you’re looking to explore your options for roofing material, this is the guide for you. Whether you want a good-looking inexpensive roof, a long-lasting roof that withstands the elements, or a durable roof that will last for generations, we’ll help you find what you’re looking for.

On this page:

Different kinds of roofing materials

Whether you’re looking for a new roof to replace existing shingles or tiles that have seen better days or choosing materials for new construction, you’ve got options. You’re limited only by how much you want to spend, the style of your home, and your preferences.

The vast majority of American homes have asphalt shingles on their roofs, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow the crowd. Whatever you choose, you or the next owner of your home will be stuck with it for between 25 and 50 years, so don’t make this choice lightly!

Asphalt shingles

Asphalt shingles on a house

Known for: Popularity, color options, ease of installation

Cons: Low-cost options not very durable, susceptible to mildew over time

Best for: Budget installations or people looking for mid- to high-quality options that look great on any roof

Lifespan:12-40+ years, depending on options

Top brands: GAF, CertainTeed, Owens Corning

Cost: $-$$$

Asphalt shingles are like the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of roofing options: almost universally enjoyed, dependable, and kinda ordinary. Just like the sandwich, when it comes to shingles, you can choose the stock standard version or customize them and make them your own with various options.

Asphalt shingles are typically made up of thin fiberglass mats covered in asphalt, into which is embedded a layer of ceramic granules. The “stock standard” version of asphalt shingles is called 3-tab shingles or strip shingles. This is because each one is a 36x12-inch strip with the bottom half divided into three 12-inch wide tabs with small gaps between them.

3-tab shingles are laid out on a roof in long rows, with each successive row offset just enough so the middle of the higher tab falls where the split of the lower tab is, as seen in the image below.

3-tab asphalt shingles from CertainTeed

Source: CertainTeed

3-tab shingles come in few colors, mostly grey, black, and brown (although white, green, and red options exist), and are generally not designed to last very long—maybe 12 to 15 years at most.

If you want to get fancy, you can choose what’s called architectural shingles (also referred to as dimensional shingles), which are made up of two or more layers of asphalt-and-granule-covered fiberglass, bonded together and cut with overlapping tabs that provide a three-dimensional look meant to imitate the look of wood shake shingles, but with greater durability and style options.

Architectural asphalt shingles from GAF

Source: GAF

Architectural style shingles come in a wide variety of colors and can last 25 to 40 years depending on climate and quality of the shingles.

Those are the basics, but there’s much more to learn. Check out our full article about asphalt shingles.

Metal roofing materials

Metal roofing materials

Known for: Durable and long-lasting, environmentally-friendly, fire-resistant

Cons: Relatively high cost, can be noisy without additional insulation, color fades over several decades

Best for: Eco-conscious people who want to spend a little extra for a durable and extremely long-lasting roof

Lifespan: 40-70 years

Top brands: CertainTeed, Interlock, EDCO, Classic Metal Roofing Systems

Cost: $$-$$$$

Today’s metal roofing products are among the longest-lasting roofing materials on the market, and contrary to what you might think, they don’t all look like flat sheets of painted metal anymore. With styles that mimic slate and clay tiles as well as metal shingles that are far more dimensional than architectural asphalt shingles, the metal roof category contains enough variety to satisfy almost everyone.

Because they’re made from metal that is often recycled and can be recycled again, metal roofs are far more eco-friendly than other types of roofing. Metal is also much more energy-efficient than other roof types, because even when finished with matte coatings, metal roofs reflect a large amount of the sun’s radiation, keeping your home cool during the summer.

Corrugated, crimped, and standing-seam metal roofs

Standing-seam metal roof on a house

This category of metal roofing consists of long panels of thin steel or aluminum sheeting that have been shaped into a variety of profiles by roll forming machines, which turn giant spindles of coated sheet metal called coils into panels of any desired length.

Panels made using the roll forming technique can be sized to fit the roof they’ll be installed on. When laid vertically side-by-side across a surface, these panels result in a very uniform roof made of extremely durable metal. Standing seam varieties have the added benefit of eliminating visible roof penetrations, which results in excellent water-tightness.

Specific advantages of this kind of metal roof include that water-tightness (which makes metal a good choice for flat roof installations), a great variety of coatings and colors, and the ability to withstand all kinds of abuse. A tree limb that might tear through a standard asphalt shingle will have a much harder time puncturing a steel panel. And because of their relatively simple manufacturing process, this is the least expensive metal roof option.

Despite these advantages, many people feel sheet metal roofing products don’t have the curb appeal of other roof types. For better or worse, this type of roofing is visually unique and not designed to resemble traditional tiles or shakes. Due to its flatness, this type of metal roofing will more easily show dents if hit by large hailstones or wind-blown debris, and replacing dented panels years after initial installation can result in a color mismatch as the coating fades even slightly due to long years of sun exposure.

Metal shingle roofs

Classic metal rustic aluminum shingle

Source: Classic Metal Roofing

Metal shingles are made from long rolls of coated sheet metal, but instead of being formed in long sections by a machine as the metal rolls through, the shingles are cut and stamped individually to make them look like slate, clay tiles, or wood shakes.

One advantage of this process is a significant improvement in aesthetics without giving up much water-tightness. The machine that stamps out the shingles also creates folded edges, and the best metal shingles on the market clip together on all four sides, ensuring a good seal. Additionally, the texture of stamped metal shingles allows them to “hide” evidence of hail impacts much better than flatter types of metal roofing.

The drawback of metal shingles is that they’re more complicated to manufacture and install than roll-formed metal roofing, and therefore more costly to install on a roof.

Metal tiles

A house with a metal tile roof

Source: Vu Anh

The next step up in cost and quality is metal tile roofing, a category that ranges from stamped-out panels that look like clay tiles at the low end to truly unique and luxurious copper tiles that can make your home look like a European castle. Of course, that opulence comes with increased cost.

Metal tiles that mimic Spanish clay tiles are not expensive, though, especially compared to the style of roofing they imitate. They also have an advantage in durability and can come in basically any color.

Tile roofing materials

Slate and clay roofing tiles

Known for: Durable and long-lasting, aesthetically appealing, fire-resistant

Cons: High cost, increased weight on the roof

Best for: Eco-conscious people who want to spend a little extra for a durable and extremely long-lasting roof

Lifespan: 70-100+ years

Top brands: MCA, Santafé Clay, Ludovici, American Slate

Cost: $$$-$$$$$

Roofing tiles have been around since humans first moved away from using thatched grass above their heads, and remain a tried-and-true roof design thanks to their unique benefits. Many tile roofs are made from endlessly renewable materials, and their construction makes it easy to replace one or more if they become damaged. Because of this, well-constructed tile roofs can last for over 100 years without needing complete replacement.

Clay tiles and concrete tiles

Clay tiles on a roof

Source: Paul Brennan

Using kiln-fired clay to make tiles has worked in high-temperature areas around the world for thousands of years. Perfected in the Mediterranean region and Iberian peninsula, clay tile arrived in the United States when it was used in building Spanish settlements, and so is commonly called Spanish Tile. Many clay tiles are still made using age-old techniques, but recent developments have led to concrete tiles that look and perform almost as well as true clay tiles.

This type of roof has maintained popularity throughout the ages – and with good reason. Its materials are readily available, not too expensive, fire-resistant, and do an excellent job of keeping your home cool in the warmer months. Each piece of tile can be individually replaced if it becomes cracked, and the whole thing can spend a century or more providing shade and comfort.

One downside of clay tiles is their fragility. They commonly chip or crack from relatively light impacts from falling branches, people walking on them, or wind-blown debris. Luckily, individual tiles can be replaced as needed, making repairs a fairly simple matter.

In addition to their fragility, clay tiles tend to be more expensive than metal and asphalt (at least initially). They are also quite heavy and must be installed on pitched roofs to ensure they can protect the interior of the house from water. The final drawback of these tiles is that they generally come in only a couple of colors.

Slate tiles

Slate tiles on a roof

Source: Gaby Stein

Do you want the nicest roof in the neighborhood, using the most refined materials, with the best look, and the highest price per square foot? Choose slate tiles. There’s a reason the most premium asphalt and metal roofing products aspire to look like slate tiles, but if you’re the type to accept no substitutes, you need the real thing. Nothing can quite match the beauty and longevity of true, high-quality natural slate.

Like clay tile roofs, properly constructed slate roofs can last for more than a century. Slate is also extremely fire resistant and environmentally friendly. After all, if you’re not replacing a roof more than once in a hundred years, you don’t create a lot of waste.

Unfortunately, slate tiles aren’t extremely durable. They’ll certainly do better than clay for everyday impacts from debris, but if a worker who doesn’t know slate roofing happens to walk across a few, you’re in for a few hundred dollars of repairs.

Wood shingles (shake)

Wood shake shingles

Source: Reinhard Thrainer

For some people, nothing beats the look of a classic wood roof. If you’re the type who prefers a thin curl of smoke rising above a tree-lined hilltop in the forest to a stately Colonial in a well-kept neighborhood, wood shake shingles are second-to-none when it comes to a beautiful roof.

A wood roof has the advantages of being beautiful and long-lasting, with natural resistance to insects because of the type of wood used. Cedar shingles are very popular and beautiful, but shakes can also be made of redwood, cypress, or pine. Unpainted wood shingles look very nice covering the side of a house or as an accent on a painted exterior wall, as well.

The drawbacks of a wooden roof are increased cost over architectural asphalt shingles made to resemble wood, as well as worse fire rating. Wood shingles need more attention than an asphalt roof, and although some come pre-treated with chemicals that help the shingles resist moss, mold, and insects, even these will eventually require treatment to ensure they last a long time.

EPDM rubber membranes and other flat roofing materials

An EPDM membrane on the flat roof of an apartment building

Known for: Water-tightness, fire-resistance, stands up to high winds

Cons: Relatively high cost, thinner varieties can puncture easily, isn’t going to win any beauty contests

Best for: People with very low-slope roofs that want a completely watertight surface, people looking for a green commercial roof

Lifespan: 20-30 years

Top brands: Johns Manville, Firestone, Carlisle SynTec

Cost: $$-$$$$

If you have a flat roof, you’ve got to make sure it’s 100% watertight. Actually, in the roofing industry, there is no such thing as a flat roof, because water always needs somewhere to go. Instead, we call these low slope roofs. Low slope roofs aren’t often seen in residential roofing, instead mostly being employed in commercial buildings.

A “rubber roof” made from EPDM material (which stands for Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer) is the gold standard for low-slope roofs because it provides excellent waterproofing and insulation. An EPDM roof system is so watertight it can be used as the base for a green roof, in which a coarse “drainage layer” of material sits on top of the rubber, and a filter layer and soil are placed on top to grow vegetation.

EPDM has very good qualities of fire and wind resistance and can survive temperature extremes very well. An optional top coat of white material can be added that makes this one of the best roofing materials from the perspective of reflecting heat away from the building.

A rubber roof does have some drawbacks. The cost of installation is relatively expensive, and there is a high possibility of puncturing when the roof is hit by falling debris. On top of that, a flat black or white rubber coating on your roof is just not very pretty.

The bottom line: which roofing material is right for you?

Homeowners of America, the choice is yours! Whether you’re simply re-roofing an aging asphalt roof or deciding on premium materials for your dream home, you can use the information above to guide your decision about the right materials for your roof.

When it comes time to choose a roofing contractor, you’ll be armed with the knowledge of your options and the pros and cons of each. This article is a great primer, but if you want in-depth knowledge, be sure to check out our articles about underlayment, warranty coverage, and roof shapes for residential roofs.

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