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Exterior Home Siding: A Buyer's Guide

by Gabby Hyman

Is it time to spruce up the old homestead?

A fresh exterior for your home can make it seem new again, while offering energy savings and other benefits. While paint may chip and fade, many new siding materials are guaranteed for fifty years or more and rarely, if ever, need repair of any kind. Choosing the right siding can add value and charm to your home for years to come, but there are many options to consider. Learn the advantages--and potential drawbacks--of the most popular siding materials available on the market today.

When looking to upgrade your home with new siding consider the following four questions:

  • Are you remaining in your home or putting it on the market? 
  • What is the right siding for your climate?
  • What type of home do you have?  Aesthetics and design may limit your siding choices.
  • What are your insulation needs? Some types offer improved insulation... some don't.

Sure, these are basic questions, but your answers can dramatically impact your return on investment. Improperly installed or unsightly siding can actually decrease your home's value. When it's done right, however, you can enjoy the benefits of living in an attractive home with increased value and curb appeal, enhanced protection from the environment and savings in energy costs.

Siding is available in a range of materials, including vinyl, wood, stucco, and fiber cement. Today's modern siding can also be easy to maintain and durable. For example, the life expectancy of exterior paint, under ideal conditions, is much shorter than siding.

Most siding materials are easily cleaned, maintained and repaired. The ultimate success of any siding option depends on the workmanship of the experts who install it, along with your choice in materials, colors, and patterns.

Evaluating Siding Materials...

Let's have a look at four major siding choices, their relative costs, and their potential benefits and drawbacks:

1) Vinyl Siding

Vinyl siding is manufactured from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and has been installed on homes since the '60's.  Less expensive than wood siding, it never chips, blisters or flakes. It comes in a wide range of styles and colors and is applied to your home in horizontal or vertical panels that never require painting. Prices range from the $2/square foot panels you install yourself, to the $5-$8 panels that contractors use. Panels range from .035 to .055 inches thick, with the better grade of materials in the .040 to .048 inch range. Once installed, vinyl doesn't fade over time, doesn't crack and resists insects. The cost can often be recouped when you sell your home because potential buyers recognize vinyl's low maintenance and long life. Because vinyl siding expands and contracts significantly under heat, proper installation is critical to prevent buckling or warping.   Vinyl is not a natural insulator, so it is typically installed over a solid or flexible insulating material.  Some newer vinyl siding products have insulation attached, saving the installer a step.

2) Wood siding... Is All Good with Wood?

Wood siding is often the choice for homeowners concerned about restoration of historical homes or maintaining the value of upscale homes. It's one of the costliest types of siding (next to masonry), but can pay dividends when your home is on the market in "curb appeal"! Siding comes in clapboard, shakes and shingles in a wide selection of wood materials. It can last many decades, but requires regular maintenance--sealing, staining, and repainting to prevent water damage, sun damage and rot.

Unlike vinyl, wood can be dented or broken by flying objects, which can weaken its insulating and protective qualities. With proper protection, however, both engineered and genuine wood can be excellent investments for any homeowner.

3) Fiber Cement Siding

Fiber cement siding is exceptionally durable and looks and feels like wood once installed. It's fireproof, bug proof, and doesn't warp. Fiber cement also resists heat and cold extremely well, which can help keep your home cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Fiber cement siding can be purchased primed or completely finished.  Though it is a painted product, the paint lasts much longer than on wood because the siding does not allow moisture to pass through, which is the primary cause of exterior paint failure (aside from poor preparation).

If you decide to go this route, keep in mind that fiber cement siding is very heavy, can be more expensive than vinyl and requires expert installation, which can be dusty, noisy, and costly. Nevertheless, fiber cement siding offers a number of attractive styles such as beveled, shake, shingle, or stucco patterns.

4) Stucco

Stucco siding has been around for centuries. It can be a good choice for Spanish, Italian, or Mission-style homes. Installers cover your walls with metal screens or wire and then a mixture of cement, water, and sand. It's also possible to have pre-poured panels affixed to your walls.

While stucco is durable, it can crack from poor workmanship, weather and can puncture from impact. Cracks need to be patched to prevent interior water damage and the surface requires routine painting. Stucco installation is very labor-intensive so it is expensive to install.

Pluses and Minuses of each siding type...

Here's a quick look at each of the choices...

  • Vinyl
    Pluses: attractive, cost effective, requires the least amount of maintenance, and resistant to blisters, rust and insects
    Drawbacks: easily dented, cannot be repaired (except through panel replacement) and warps if installed incorrectly
  • Wood
    Pluses: attractive, natural, and adds value
    Drawbacks: high maintenance costs and susceptibility to fire, mold, insects and weather damage
  • Cement
    Pluses: attractive style and finish choices, has a tough surface that is difficult to damage, fire and insect-proof
    Drawbacks: expensive installation, reacts to fluctuations in temperature, needs painting
  • Stucco
    Pluses: energy efficiency, excellent appearance, and moderate maintenance
    Drawbacks: costly, vulnerable to damage, and easily discolored

Installation Costs

Installation costs vary considerably depending on your choice of siding materials. Vinyl consistently comes in as the least-expensive option in both materials and installation expense. Here's a breakdown...

  • Vinyl: approximately $2.50 per square foot
  • Fiber cement: approximately $4.00 per square foot
  • Cedar wood: approximately $7.00 per square foot
  • Stucco: approximately $9.00 per square foot

In addition to materials and installation costs, it's a great idea to add upkeep, durability, time-to-replacement, and warranties for the work. You can find as much as a 50-year warranty for fiber cement. Vinyl siding companies often offer lifetime warranties that can be transferred to new owners if you sell you home. You can add the siding warranty into the overall price for the home.

Alternatives to Installing New Siding...

If you're looking over all possible alternatives, consider paint! Painted exterior walls offer the best selection in colors, but the overall condition of your existing walls and finishes may make this option a poor choice. While paint is less expensive than siding, you can expect to spend time and money preparing the surface to be painted. If you don't scrape, prime and apply paint correctly, expect to be doing it again soon, since preparation is the most important factor in a quality and lasting paint job!

Some siding professionals offer spray-on vinyl siding too. Reviews are not always positive for this product and poor application can result in damage, so be sure your contractor has damage coverage if you go this route. Contractors also offer liquid stucco and liquid ceramic. Both options can be quite expensive alternatives.

Masonry siding using real or manufactured brick or stone is easily the most expensive of all options.  While masonry-style siding can offer durability over other choices, you can end up paying more than you expected in supplies and labor. To add aesthetic value at a lower cost, many homeowners use brick or stone siding as an "accent" to personalize their home or emphasize an architectural feature.

Getting a price for your Siding Job...

If you're ready to take the next step and price siding for your home, here are some tips:

  • Calculate total square feet
  • Consider initial cost, durability and replacing or repairing it when there's damage
  • For vinyl, be sure of your color choice because it cannot be altered once installed.
  • Always get several estimates
  • Price siding through manufacturers and installers for the best options. Often you can get a better price from your contractor.

Do your homework and you can end up with the siding that's the most appropriate option for your home and budget. This can also be an opportune time to consider new doors or hardware, shutters, gutters or window trim to complete the look. Suppliers can add optional columns and decorative wainscoting.

Done right, your new siding adds insulation, protection from the elements, style, and value to your home.

About the Author: Gabby Hyman has created online strategies and written content for Fortune 500 companies including eToys,, Siebel Systems, Microsoft Encarta, Avaya, and Nissan UK.