• Asphalt shingles, such as these from CertainTeed, dominate new home construction and even the reroofing market because they are economical, easy to install, and last about 20 years. 
    Asphalt shingles, such as these from CertainTeed, dominate new home construction and even the reroofing market because they are economical, easy to install, and last about 20 years. 

If you were to ask a sampling of production builders what is the best roofing material on the market, they’re likely to tell you asphalt. The average residential architect, on the other hand, would probably say metal is the real deal. Heaven only knows what a home buyer or custom home client will choose—slate, clay, concrete—or if they’ll even care.

The roof is arguably the most important surface in a home, perhaps even more essential than the exterior walls. As the most exposed plane, the roof has a mammoth task. It’s under constant assault from the sun and rain, and, if leaky, could result in thousands of dollars worth of direct repair as well as ancillary damage. Still, a roof is one of those things that many consumers don’t think about until there is a blizzard, hail storm, or rainstorm.

So what accounts for the discrepancy in material tastes? That builders, architects, and home buyers have opposing views of roofing material is telling, but their preferences speak to individual agendas as much as it speaks to the materials.

Most home buyers, for example, care mostly about price and don’t care as much about material as long as the roof functions properly and for the foreseeable future. Production builders care about looks and function, too, but affordability is top of mind. And architects want a roof to function well, but they are concerned that it be aesthetically pleasing.

Naturally, the asphalt industry says its product is the best roofing you can buy. “Asphalt roofing is easy to find, easy to install, and easy to maintain,” the Washington, D.C.-based Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association says. “It's also incredibly easy on the eye. And let's not forget, it's easy on the wallet, too!”

Indeed, asphalt is easy to install and produces a decent-looking roof, but most architects and builders say the product is popular mainly because it’s economical.

Depending on the product line, shingles come with warranties lasting anywhere from 20 to 30 years, though builders in the field say the numbers are often shorter depending on the location of the country and maintenance.

The asphalt roofing industry makes a good case for its product being No. 1 because its product is No. 1. Industry estimates claim four out of five roofs are covered with asphalt, though if you drive around most subdivisions—new or established—that number seems woefully low.

Asphalt’s market share notwithstanding, the metal people say their product is much better. According to the Metal Roofing Alliance in Belfair, Wash., “Longevity is one of the top reasons consumers report choosing metal roofing for their homes.” The group says “metal roofing can last as long as 50 years or more, requiring very little maintenance and looking beautiful all the while.”

When HUD’s Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing launched the Concept Home program some years ago, the group’s mission was to use the best available materials, products, and technology for the homes it builds. The group settled on metal roofing for its subsequent homes in Omaha, Neb., and Charleston, S.C., because of the looks and the longevity—benefits that architects often cite as their reason for choosing the material. They are mesmerized by the crisp, contemporary look; that it lasts forever is gravy.

But longevity and good looks come with a very high price, one that turns off even ardent admirers of metal. “I use asphalt on all my projects,” says Texas-based builder Robert Aiken. “Metal is a better roof, but it costs three times as much.”

So where does that leave you? The tradeoffs are not so simple. Both materials are versatile, offering a variety of looks. But is it enough to specify an asphalt roof that should last 20 years or more? Or is it worth it to pay three times as much for metal that could outlive the homeowner and the house? Considering how long the average home buyer stays in a house, the answer may be simple.

Here's a handy guide that outlines the pros and cons of asphalt versus metal roofing. Use it to evaluate the options for your customers, and let us know what you use and why.