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The Best Selections in Siding

When you give someone directions to your home, you usually throw in a description, but you probably don't describe the windows or the security system. You describe the exterior walls — usually the most notable part of any home.

Siding is in fact the biggest exterior component of almost any home, usually covering more square feet of surface area than the roof, windows and doors combined. It performs a variety of important functions, some physical and some aesthetic.

On the physical level, your home's siding acts as a shield to keep insects and water from getting to the house's sheathing and framing. The frame of your house is typically plain, untreated wood, and the sheathing might be plywood or some time of fiberboard — all of which are easily damaged by contact with water and also make a tasty treat for termites and some species of ants and beetles.

All siding is designed to channel rain out and away from the building, down over the foundation and safely into the ground, where it should follow the slope of the terrain and flow away from the house. Ideally, the siding design and installation technique will allow for the possibility that water will get behind the siding and make provisions to channel that water back to the exterior.

You might think there's an easy solution to the water problem — you could just wrap the house in an airtight, watertight plastic covering. Unfortunately, a house built like that would rot away in very short order.

That's because another important function of siding is to allow the house to breathe. Water vapor in the house's indoor air, generated by showers, cooking, plants, pets and humans, tends to diffuse and travel into the walls, though all the layers of paint, gypsum, insulation and wood, and escape into the great outdoors. If you stop that vapor inside the wall and don't let it out, it will re-concentrate into water drops, and the wall will get soaked and start to rot. Your siding needs to provide a pathway for water vapor to get out of the wall, but still keep actual raindrops from coming in.

On the aesthetic front, siding defines your house in a way that few architectural details do. From the bold, horizontal lines of wide clapboards to the intricate details and patterns of brick work, siding provides texture to what would otherwise be a fairly boring, flat plane.

The way your siding is integrated with the look of your neighborhood and the landscape of your yard also contributes to the "curb appeal" the house possesses. When you eventually want to sell your home, the real estate people will tell you that this first impression is very important to making a sale.

When you are choosing siding for a new home, or thinking about replacing the siding on your present home, keep these points in mind:

* Traditional, painted-wood clapboards give a home a classic look, but probably require the greatest commitment to maintenance, cleaning and painting.

* The purportedly maintenance-free versions of clapboard usually need an occasional wash-down with either a hose or a pressure washer to stay looking good.

* Installing siding is a huge job for which you'll probably want to hire a professional. Doing it yourself could save you about half the cost of the project, but the cost of frustration could be much higher.

* Look around your neighborhood to get an idea of the popular siding options in your area. You might even approach some homeowners to find out who did the work and find out whether they're recommended.

So, it's time to think about siding or re-siding your house. What material should you choose? Here are some of your options, from old to new:

Stucco. Conventional stucco is a three-coat system that leaves a weather- and pest-resistant concrete coating on your home. The layers are a mix of portland cement and sand and are applied over wire mesh, if the house is sheathed with plywood, or troweled directly over concrete block. One tremendous advantage to stucco is that the color, if you choose something other than white, is mixed into the final layer of concrete before it is applied, so it can't peel off.

Stucco is also a very durable siding choice, and looks great on several types of architecture. Stucco adapts well to odd shapes and curving walls, too, so it's a good choice for more adventurous building styles. Because the surface hardens into a rigid, almost structural coating, small hairline cracks usually show up at some point. This happens sooner, often with larger cracks, when the installation isn't professionally done. Before you hire a stucco contractor, try to visit a job that they did a couple of years ago to see how it is holding up.

Acrylic stucco. There are some alternative to the traditional, three-coat stucco approach, and these synthetic or acrylic stucco products are usually simpler to apply because they go on in one coat. The portland cement in these products is replaced with acrylic resins. One type is called Exterior Insulated Finish Systems (EIFS, pronounced effs, to rhyme with reefs).

This system got a lot of bad press in recent years due to some installations that failed because of water infiltration, so research your contractor carefully, visit past jobs and pay attention to the warranty information if you decide to go this route.

EIFS is a very durable coating and has a good thermal performance. Both EIFS and traditional stucco are on the moderate to expensive end of the cost spectrum, but that can vary a lot, depending on your location.

Wood. The term "wood siding" covers a lot of sub-categories, including plain clapboards, panels, shingles, hardwood, and horizontal and vertical boards with and without battens covering the joints.

Solid-wood siding, sawn into beveled clapboards, is a traditional choice and is very durable when properly cared for. There are several types of wood used to make siding:

* Redwood: This is possibly one of the most beautiful wood siding options available. Redwood is durable, but it shouldn't be left unfinished when used as siding. It needs regular sealing or staining.

* Cedar: Cedar is just as tough as redwood, arguably as attractive and requires the same level of care. Regular sealing, staining or painting will prolong the life of cedar siding tremendously.

* Southern yellow pine: This type of pine works well when painted, or you can stain it to look like cedar or redwood.

* White pine: White pine isn't as tough as redwood or cedar, but it is significantly cheaper in most parts of the country, and looks good when painted or stained.

Cedar and redwood can be naturally resistant to rot and insects, making them a particularly good choice in moist climates. They come in different grades, as well. Better grades have fewer knots and cost more. You can order cedar and redwood with vertical grain, which means that the tree's growth rings are perpendicular to the wide face of the siding, which improves the wood's ability to hold paint.

Solid-wood siding usually needs a new coat of sealer, stain or paint every three to seven years. If you choose cedar or redwood shingles, you can leave them unfinished. The vertical orientation of the grain helps the wood shed water quickly, so its own resistance to rot is enough to ensure long life.

Wood panels are typically made of plywood or hardboard. Panel siding comes either with a smooth finish or rough finish. The plywood is exterior grade and bonded with waterproof glue. The sheets come with long grooves that simulate vertically installed boards. Contractors usually call this type of siding T-1-11, though that number refers to just one pattern made by one company.

Oriented-strand board (OSB) siding is made from small wood chips and pieces oriented in layers and compressed under heat. Like plywood, it comes in sheets, usually 4x8, 4x9, or 4x10. A coating of resin-impregnated paper protects one face of the sheet. Some factories also apply a topcoat or primer. OSB can be painted or stained.

To make hardboard siding, manufacturers orient wood fibers at random and bond them into sheets under heat and pressure. Hardboard is dense and tough and has a smooth surface that takes paint well. But it has also developed a bad reputation since its introduction in the 1950s. In many cases, water infiltration through nail heads, board ends and bad paint has caused the siding to swell and disintegrate, forcing homeowners to repair or replace large areas.

The hardboard siding problem has led to class-action lawsuits against many manufacturers, and the largest maker of hardboard siding, Masonite Corp., is no longer manufacturing it.

Both OSB and hardboard sidings are on the lower end of the cost spectrum. If you are going to use them, pay great attention to detail in the installation, making sure no parts are left unfinished and all joints are weather tight.

Brick. Brick is a very durable siding and is also one of the most expensive options. Though it's usually maintenance-free when installed correctly, it sometimes needs to have efflorescence (light-colored minerals that leach out of the mortar and bricks) scraped off with a stiff brush and a cleaning solution.

Thin-brick siding is a less expensive option. It's made from real bricks, but they are sliced into thinner pieces and attached to the walls with adhesive and grout. This technique is especially useful on remodeling jobs when replacing another type of siding with brick, because the original walls might not have the strength to support a full-sized brick installation.

Again, this type of siding only looks good if it is applied properly, so shop for a contractor with a good reputation and several past jobs to show off.

Aluminum. Aluminum siding is installed horizontally to simulate wood clapboards. It might be smooth or have an embossed surface with a wood grain pattern molded in to enhance the illusion of wood. The colors, board widths and styles are almost limitless, so it can work in almost any setting. The biggest advantage of aluminum siding is that it's virtually maintenance-free. An occasional wipe-down with hose and broom will usually keep it looking good.

Aluminum is also relatively tough, completely rot- and insect-resistant, and on the low end of the cost spectrum. It is susceptible to denting, however, from people, bicycles, baseballs or even hail. The dents don't pop out, and enough of them in the same area make the siding look pretty trashy.

Both aluminum and vinyl siding have a unique characteristic - because they are relatively lightweight, they expand and contract significantly with changes in the weather. A simple installation technique can compensate for this movement, but it is crucial to get it right.

The nail holes on this type of siding are elongated horizontally, like a mail slot in an old-fashioned door. The trick is to drive the nail in the slot carefully and stop before the head touches the board. That way, the siding can slide back and forth on the nails without binding. If the nails are driven home, the siding will buckle and crinkle the first time the sun shines on it.

Some communities require the installer to ground siding to avoid danger from electrical shocks, so check with your local building officials.

Steel. Steel siding won't make your house bulletproof, but it will thwart nature's closest approximation of a bullet - the hailstone. Designed specifically for hail-prone areas like the Midwest, steel siding usually offers the same color choices and embossed grain patterns as aluminum siding.

The steel used is usually 29-gauge sheet steel covered with a PVC finish in the color of your choice. Tough as it is, steel has one drawback - if the PVC coating gets scratched deeply, the exposed steel starts to rust. Hail won't do it, but anything else that bumps your house could leave a potential rust stain.

Steel siding generally costs a little more than aluminum, but prices can vary. Steel siding is another option that definitely requires professional installation.

Vinyl. Vinyl siding is similar to aluminum in looks and longevity, and usually costs just a little more, but it has some advantages over aluminum. Because vinyl is essentially thick plastic, it resists dents well, so it can survive a few bumps and bangs on the way from the box to the wall - something that would probably ruin a piece of aluminum siding. It is also quite flexible, so it's easier to handle and maneuver during installation.

Vinyl siding comes in the same variety of colors, patterns and styles as aluminum, and because the color is mixed in before the siding is formed, it goes all the way through each piece. This means that scratches don't show because the material underneath is the same color as what's on top. Vinyl has the same installation requirements as aluminum - loose nails carefully placed - to avoid problems with expansion and contraction during weather cycles. One disadvantage to vinyl siding shows up during cold weather; a hard impact from anything can crack vinyl that's very cold.

Vinyl siding used to start losing its color after 15 years or so, but modern versions have much better color retention. All types are simple to maintain, but remember that a style with a deeply embossed pattern might require harder scrubbing or even a pressure washer.

Fiber cement . Fiber cement siding is a relatively recent addition to the field, but there are several competing products on the market already. It is a molded product, usually shaped to resemble 12-foot lengths of beveled wood clapboards. Fiber cement siding contains portland cement, sand and cellulose fibers, all mixed with water and molded under pressure. Though the siding is fireproof, it doesn't contain any asbestos.

Fiber cement siding is usually painted, because its natural color is gray, but it holds paint well. Because it is essentially a thin, stable slab of concrete, the siding doesn't absorb any water, so there's no swelling or contracting to undermine the paint.

This type of siding is also completely rot- and insect-resistant, and can even handle the corrosive environment of salt-spray near the ocean. It is available in a smooth or 'rough-sawn' finish in a variety of widths, from six inches up to a foot, and typically comes in twelve-foot lengths.

This heavy siding is fairly easy to install, but cutting it requires some safety precautions. You can cut it with a special blade installed in a circular saw, but the sand content of the siding spews silica dust into the air. This dust presents a health hazard if inhaled over an extended period, so simple precautions to avoid inhalation are usually adequate.

A few tool companies make special saws with integral dust collection systems designed just for cutting fiber cement siding, and there are also powered shears on the market that clip through the stuff with 2-inch-long bites.

Hiring a contractor
Hiring a siding contractor is a serious commitment, so be sure to check them out carefully. The best recommendation you can get is from a friend or neighbor, so ask around a little. Contact a few contractors directly, explain your project, and then ask for a bid and some references. Call your local Better Business Bureau to see if the company has a reputation for problems. Call all the references a contractor provides, and visit any of the homes you can.

Ask to see warranty information on the products involved, and get proof that the company is licensed and provides worker's compensation insurance for its employees.

Read the contract carefully, and make sure that it specifies the material to be used, exactly what is included in the price quoted and a date of completion. If you can get several bids, evaluate each contractor not only on the dollar amount involved but also on the quality of their previous work and how comfortable you feel about working with them.