Every good tract builder — even the most parsimonious — will usually spring for a good-quality door and lockset at the front entrance of their new homes. Why? Because marketing studies have demonstrated that a good solid-feeling front door leaves an impression of quality that carries over throughout the house. Builders refer to this sometimes illusory impression of quality as "perceived value."
The same trick can work for your own home. You may not be able to afford hardwood panel doors or first-quality locksets throughout your house, which could run to hundreds of dollars per door. But chances are you can afford a good-quality front door and, even more important, a first-rate entrance lockset.
Many prewar homes have beautiful front doors equipped with really substantial locksets. If you’re lucky enough to still have yours, don’t replace it. A decent finish carpenter can repair a sagging or scraping front door fairly easily. Likewise, a balky lockset can be taken to a locksmith for repair.
On the other hand, if your front door is flimsy, uninteresting or truly beyond repair, consider replacement. The choice of door designs (and price ranges) is vast. However, most entrance doors fall into one of three basic categories: steel, fiberglass and wood. The price variations between common versions of each are surprisingly small, so choose them on merit, not cost.
Steel doors won’t warp — the main reason they’re marketed for residential use. Many also have good insulative value. On the downside, they can rust and dent, and many are embossed with grossly exaggerated wood grain patterns that aren’t very convincing on close inspection.
Fiberglass doors combine the warp resistance of steel with excellent insulative value and a much more realistic wood grain look. They can be planed and sanded, and are designed to accept either paint or stain (although the staining procedure is different than for wood). A carefully finished fiberglass door presents a fairly convincing copy of wood, while requiring less maintenance over time.
Still, nothing has quite the heft of a solid wood door. Genuine wood presents a look and feel of quality that neither steel nor fiberglass can match — one reason the latter products are so anxious to imitate it. Yet wood doors do have drawbacks, including susceptibility to warpage and rot, so-so energy efficiency, and a need for vigilant maintenance.
Once you’ve found a door that suits you, think about a good-quality entrance lockset. There are lots of manufacturers to choose from, but only a handful make truly first-class products. Look for high-quality locksets at better hardware and lumber dealers, and ask a sales assistant for help.
Many styles of lockset are available with matching door knockers, doorbell escutcheons, and the like. Because not all finishes are in stock, you may have to order a few weeks in advance. And be prepared to pay several hundred dollars for a decent-quality entrance lockset, and more for paired doors.
At these prices, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a cheaper lockset that "looks just the same." But it won’t feel the same or last the same. Remember what builders have known for decades: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.