Replacing your roof is "like going to war with your house," says Jeffrey Fick, of Fick Brothers Roofing. You heard it here first: Dust, debris, and noise will invade your life, and your landscaping will likely get a bit, um, trampled.

Storing things in your attic? Those old baseball cards are probably going to be covered in dust by the end of this thing. Think about it. The homestead's helmet, the lid that has protected you, your paint, your plaster, your belongings, and your wiring through rain, snow, wind, and sun, is going to be torn off, completely exposing your ceilings for hours at a time. Once that lid is ripped off, the roofer may discover rotted lumber or a myriad of other problems, adding unpredictability to the situation (as well as mounting costs). No easy walk in the park, this business of replacing your roof.

Thoroughly depressed? There is good news: With advances in the roofing industry, there's no time like the present to replace your roof, especially if you've been balking at the pricetag to replace your current slate roof with the same authentic slate.

Slate, the lovely-looking material on many older homes in the Baltimore area, imparts a historic look, but is also expensive. With the variety of shingles on the market, there are plenty of options for replacing your natural slate roof with a material that looks like slate, but costs less.

If your neighborhood has historic requirements, you will likely have to stick with slate, although some communities have approved slate look-alikes. If slate it is, there are high- and low-quality slates. Poor quality slate breaks easily under pressure (such as being walked on by your gutter-cleaning guy) and is readily affected by environmental conditions. In the winter, it can absorb water, freeze, and crack, so aim for the best slate you can fit into your budget, but figure on the job costing $30,000 to $50,000 for an average-sized four-bedroom Colonial, for instance.

Though slate can be cut to any thickness, it varies in color and quality, depending on which quarry it was mined in and the location of that quarry. According to Don Katzenberger of S&K Roofing, a mid-range slate will run about $1,200 a "square" installed (roofing materials are sold by the square, with one square equal to 100 square feet), and depending on quality, slate roofs can last from 60-200 years. However, even with high-quality slate, there is a likelihood of cracking under the weight of a fallen tree branch, or from environmental conditions. Katzenberger says his minimum for slate repairs is $600, so maintenance of slate can be costly.

No community restrictions? This is where your choices really open up.

Traditional "three-tab" asphalt shingles are not expensive, but are falling out of favor, according to Ted Marcopolus, of GAF Materials Corp. Taking their place are fiberglass asphalt shingles, which can mimic the woodshake look, and synthetic designer shingles that look like slate. Composed of an inner core of fiberglass that holds the shingle together, and an outer layer of asphalt that provides waterproofing, these shingles are then covered in colored ceramic mineral granules. The slate-like look of the product is obtained through the combination of the granules, the layering and thickness of the shingle, and the style in which the shingle is cut. Like slate, fiberglass asphalt shingles come in a variety of thicknesses, with the higher-end shingles cut thicker.

GAF Materials Corp., for instance, has a high-end line of fiberglass asphalt shingles that range in cut and color. Their high-end Camelot product has an irregular cut and special shadowing to look like slate, while the Country Mansion is scalloped, offering a choice of looks for your roof.

Another major supplier, CertainTeed Corporation, carries an asphalt shingle line that ranges from their high-end Luxury Shingle to their Traditional Shingle lines. Grand Manor, part of the Luxury Shingle line, costs about $400 per square installed, according to Katzenberger, while Landmark Premium, which is still in the Luxury line and has a "great architectural look," runs about $300 per square, an enormous savings over natural slate. Fiberglass asphalt shingles can also resemble wood.

But one of the newest and hottest products is Symphony, also from CertainTeed. It looks and feels like a thin, lightweight, sturdy piece of plastic, yet resembles slate even more closely than, well, some slate. The result of years of research and testing, it's made of an "innovative composite material," says Tim Seidl, of CertainTeed. To obtain a look as close to slate as possible, the product engineer for Symphony went into quarries and picked out three slates he thought were perfect, and then created the model for Symphony.

"Symphony is a new product but becoming very popular," says Wayne Roland, president of Roland Slate, which is one of the few firms in the area that has completed projects with it. Roland, which does a lot of roofing work on the older housing stock in Baltimore's top neighborhoods, also frequently uses the Tapco Group's Inspire, a green-building-approved product made from recyclable resins, when clients want the look of real slate without the cost.

Symphony carries a 75-year warranty, is light-weight, has extreme storm durability, has high wind-lift resistance, is fire-proof, and won't crack when walked on or hit by falling tree limbs, says Roland. With CertainTeed's "proven track record," Roland sees Symphony as a future market leader, and it has another advantage: It is much lighter than many other types of shingles—225 pounds per square versus 425 pounds for CertainTeed's heretofore popular Grand Manor fiberglass shingle. And that means it can be uesd on newer houses with the less substantial joists that are common to modern construction.

Katzenberger says the cost for putting Symphony on a home is about $750 a square, more than asphalt shingles, yet a considerable cost savings from natural slate for a product that is the closest to resembling slate.

Industry standards for shingles include that they be fireproof, withstand certain wind strengths, and meet tear and nail-withdrawal tests. Many manufacturers have their products certified by Underwriters Laboratories, so keep an eye out for that.

Replacing your roof may be like going to war with your home, but once the dust has settled and the noise of metal ladders, pounding hammers, and power tools has subsided, you'll eventually end up the winner. All the inconvenience will pay off with a long-lasting, terrific-looking new roof.