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Your Home’s Exterior: Comparing Paint and Siding

With advances in paint and siding, how to color and protect your home is a many-sided equation. David Lucas, founder and president of Details of Sonoma, Inc., contractors in the northern Bay Area in California, strips it down. “The job of siding is to protect the structure,” Lucas says. “The job of paint and caulk is to protect the siding.”

Types of Siding
Although many homeowners consider paint and siding an either-or consideration, all houses have siding. Some types of siding need paint, others not much or not at all.



Installing wood siding.
Installing wood siding.

Wood siding—planks, shakes, shingles or clapboard—is still the most common type and is generally thought of as the most sophisticated look for higher-end or historic homes. Depending on how it’s forested, wood can be a renewable resource, too, and therefore a good “green” option. But wood is also the most vulnerable to insects, moisture and the elements. Swings in temperature and humidity levels can warp wood, sunlight bakes it and depletes its resins, and water perhaps damages wood the most. Damaged wood leads to bubbling, crumbling and cracking paint, which is why many exterior paint jobs don’t last more than a few years.

Other types of siding include plastic (vinyl or weatherboard), metal (aluminum or steel), masonry (brick, stone, stone veneer and stucco) and fiber cement (a laminate made from a mixture of cement, fiberboard, sand and other materials). The least expensive options, vinyl and aluminum, aren’t as vulnerable to the elements as wood, but their color and condition will deteriorate over time, too, requiring paint or replacement. Vinyl, in particular, tends to bend, crack and fade. Aluminum fares better and has the added advantage of being recyclable.

Many people choose vinyl and aluminum siding to save on painting their homes, however, this siding still needs maintenanceit should be washed once a year with a simple, biodegrable detergent and a power washer or scrub brush, says Bob Manion of Manion Decorating in the Chicago area. And vinyl or aluminum can be painted if the color fades or if an owner wants a fresh look, painters say.

Like laminate flooring, laminate siding and trim provide the look of wood but with more hardiness and longevity. Fiber cement siding is strong as well as insect-, fire-, moisture- and impact-resistant, which allows paint jobs to last as long as 20 years, whether or not the boards are factory painted. Fiber cement siding is an expensive option, although, like other non-wood siding, it saves on maintenance. “It’s immutable; it’s concrete,” Lucas says. "Paint it, and you’re done.”

Fiber cement products are being allowed in historic districts and developments with aesthetic rules and regulations that previously allowed only wood siding.

Paint Options
“Forty years ago, lead-based paints were the ideal,” says James Bucci, of Bucci Painting in Greenville, N.Y. As far as longevity, there was nothing better.” With the discovery that lead is a toxin that damages major bodily systems, including brain and kidney functions, and of paint as the major source of lead poisoning, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned lead-based paint in 1978. The CPSC writes regulations to protect people from “unreasonable risk of injury or death” from 15,000 consumer products, including paint and coatings.

“Then came oil-based paint,” Bucci says. “It’s kind of like an Oldsmobile. It’s solid; it runs forever. But because it doesn’t flex and doesn’t breathe so well, it tends to alligator and crack.”

The good news is that chemists at paint companies have developed coatings that adhere and last like lead without damaging the environment or human health. “Latex and waterborne paints have much more flexibility with expansion and contraction,” Manion says. “In places like Chicago and New England, that’s especially important for the longevity of the paint job. The biggest problem with any paint failure is poor prep—not priming properly and not cleaning properly.”

Preparing the Exterior for Siding or Paint
Assessing a home’s condition is essential to deciding what must be done to all sides, according to contractors, painters and siding experts. Although a common practice, throwing up aluminum or vinyl siding over existing wood siding is not a good idea. “You’ll see mold, mildew,” warns Bucci.



Before adding primer or paint, painters from Bucci Painting in upstate New York takes this home's siding to bare wood.
Before adding primer or paint, painters from Bucci Painting in upstate New York takes this home’s siding to bare wood.

If you have wood siding, step one is to see if it can be re-painted. “If you pull off a paint chip and you see there’s wood attached or the wood grain is etched to the paint chip, it’s actually let go of its main ‘skin,’ " says Terry Stamman, a former painter who is president of Twin Cities Siding Professionals in St. Paul, Minn., which sells James Hardie siding. Unless you strip and power sand, that’s not going to hold paint. If you can sink your fingernail into the wood surface, it’s old.”

A good paint job will protect the house. But if your home has wood siding that is too far gone to withstand the proper scraping, sanding, cleaning, caulking, priming and painting a good job requires, re-siding is your best bet.

Even if vinyl or aluminum siding looks faded and old, you may not need to replace it. Many of the new paints adhere so well that they can go over faded vinyl or aluminum siding, as long as it’s clean, say painting experts. Sherwin Williams offers a direct-to-metal primer, Stamman says. “I would tint that to approximate the top coat color.”


Painters with Bucci Painting use paint that will withstand the rain, snow and other elements of the climate in upstate New York.
Painters with Bucci Painting use paint that will withstand the rain, snow and other elements of the climate in upstate New York.

Only high-performing (and more expensive) paints, like high-end options by Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore, work on aluminum or vinyl because they are able to expand or contract in the heat as much as those the sidings do, Manion and Bucci say.

Stucco, an older form of cement siding, is one type that can be re-sided over. And it can be painted if it’s in good enough condition to be power-washed and dried, Stamman said. If it’s already been painted and that’s peeling or if it was whitewashed—a popular option in the 1950s—stripping is required.

“That creates a huge mess,” Stamman says. “The power-wash blows millions of chips into your yard. I would just get siding then. But if it just has streaks, that’s easily done: You can power-wash, dry and use a masonry primer.” If particles fall when you run your finger over stucco, a masonry conditioner binds it together to make a paintable surface, ready for a top coat of brick paint or elastomeric, a thick, highly expandable acrylic paint that covers the pocked, uneven surfaces of masonry siding well, Stamman says.

Finally, as you contemplate painting or siding your home, keep in mind that not all sides are created equal, say the experts. If there are parts of your house more affected by sun, rain or snow, for example, you can re-side that section, matching the style and color to the rest of the building.

Credit: Renovate Your World