It's an expense homeowners must face eventually, however tight the household budget: Roof replacement.

Those who find themselves needing new shingles this roofing season may be surprised to find prices rising even though the home-renovation market has slowed and petroleum costs less than it did last summer.

The price of asphalt shingles, which cover the vast majority of houses in the United States, rose 57.5 per cent from March 2008 to this past March, according to the U.S. federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Producer Price Index. This year, it went up 3.8 per cent from February to March alone.

Soaring petroleum prices last summer accounted for much of the rise in asphalt shingle costs then. Asphalt is derived from crude oil.

But this year, there may be a surprising factor at play: Asphalt is most in demand for roadwork, and government attempts to revive the struggling economy include an infusion of money for roads.

Manufacturers said roofing-shingle prices rose in March “due to the shortage of asphalt, and asphalt, it’s a little hard to come by. They’re expecting a big rush on the asphalt because of the stimulus package and roadwork,” said Bob Kersch, co-owner of Brothers Roofing Supply in New York City.

Last year’s high petroleum prices are having a lingering impact on asphalt shingle prices, said James Baker, spokesman for the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association.

“It takes time for things to readjust back down,” he said. In addition, hurricanes, hail and other roof-damaging weather can drive demand for shingles up rapidly.

The bottom line is that homeowners shouldn’t expect bargains on new roofs, even as home values and the overall demand for housing renovations have plummeted.

“We’re not foreseeing any big price increases” in coming months, said Bill Good, executive vice-president of the National Roofing Contractors Assocation. “But we’re also not seeing any big price drops.”

That is true across all roofing product lines, not just asphalt shingles, Good said. It is possible, though, that the federal economic stimulus package will pump up demand for road asphalt and lead to additional increases in asphalt shingle prices, he said.

Material and labour costs can vary widely, regionally and contractor to contractor, Good said. Though new-home construction is down dramatically in the United States, the roof replacement/repair market overall is fairly steady, he said.

“What we’re seeing is homeowners deferring as long as they can on a buying decision, which is certainly understandable in the economic environment today,” Good said.

Here’s one recommendation from Good and others if you do need to have your roof replaced:

• Make sure the contractor has a licence — if required — and proof of insurance. You can also check with regulators to find out if a contractor is licensed and insured.

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