Ask the Builder: Vinyl siding: Should I use it?
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Ask the Builder: Vinyl siding: Should I use it?

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This new house is being covered with vinyl siding.

Q: I’m going to be building a new home, and I have to make a decision about the siding. I can afford wood shakes and love the look, but I am concerned about long-term maintenance. Vinyl siding seems to have so many advantages, but it just doesn’t look like wood to me. How would you go about making this decision if you were me? What are all the things I should consider? Would you install vinyl siding on your own home? —Margo S., Nashville

A: Choosing between two or three building materials is a common quandary. It could be laminate floor vs. real hardwood. Or you might struggle between treated lumber vs. composite decking. So many products try to mimic the look and feel of wood because manufacturers know we humans have a very deep connection to real wood.

My advice is pretty straightforward, but it takes a little work and honesty. I feel the best way to solve these issues is to make a checklist of pros and cons on a sheet of paper. When you write down an honest comparison this way, you can see the facts in front of your eyes. All too often, if you do this in your mind, one positive or negative thought may unduly influence the decision.

Here are some considerations that might help. Positive attributes of real wood siding include: It’s the real deal. Wood is a slightly better insulator than vinyl. Wood shakes have a rich legacy of protecting structures in harsh environments.

Now, let’s look at the flip side of wood. If you want the wood to last and look great — this is subjective! — then you need to maintain it. Some love the weathered look of wood shakes and do no maintenance. Shakes require expert installation and the use of high-quality nails, preferably stainless steel. High-quality shakes can be expensive.

It’s quite possible you haven’t seen the latest version of vinyl siding shakes. Just two years ago I was in Downeast Maine visiting builders, and I toured a home that I was positive was covered with real wood shakes. It wasn’t until I was nearing the front porch that I realized they were, in fact, vinyl. They were so realistic that I feel most homeowners would never realize they weren’t wood.

These vinyl shakes are expensive and time-consuming to install, but the fact remains that Margo may have found the Holy Grail she’s looking for in this product. Each of the pieces of siding is individual like true wood shakes. They interlock to make a weatherproof barrier.

That said, let’s consider traditional vinyl siding that comes in bigger pieces. You can get any number of designs that mimic wood shakes. Vinyl requires no maintenance unless you live in an urban area, where it may require periodic washing to remove dirt and diesel truck exhaust soot. This siding installs so fast that an experienced crew can side an entire house in just a few days. Some smaller houses they might do in less than two days.

The only negatives I can come up with when it comes to traditional vinyl siding, even the lower-cost shake imitators, is they just don’t look like real wood up close. You can short circuit this issue to a degree if you use a special window, door and corner trim that has a built-in J channel that hides the open end of the vinyl siding. This trim really looks like traditional painted wood trim and gets rid of the traditional bulky J-channel that makes most wince.

Would I install vinyl on my home? The answer is an unequivocal yes. As with many building products, vinyl siding is far enough down the development timeline that many of the bugs have been worked out. I would choose the shake vinyl siding I saw two years ago.

Years ago, I would have answered no for a number of reasons. I had more energy back then and I was not in love with the look of vinyl. But now I’m older and I have the same concerns about maintenance. You should be concerned about maintenance too. The primary reason I feel is the steadily declining trend of finding excellent tradespeople that will do the work for you.

Here’s a fact. There are great craftsmen and -women in the residential construction industry. These individuals get up each day to feed their passion and treat what they do as a vocation, not just a job. However, each day there are fewer of these much-needed individuals. It’s easy to come to this conclusion if you read the scads of frightening requests for help I get each week on my AsktheBuilder.com website.

My advice to you is to lobby your public school system and do what you can to bring back vocational schools. We need to begin to foster that desire to build things well in young adults before they succumb to perfume and gasoline fumes.

(Subscribe to Tim’s FREE newsletter and listen to his new podcasts. Go to: AsktheBuilder.com.)

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