The purist’s lament has, of course, always been that vinyl simply looks too much like the plastic that it is. True enough, but with vinyl now claiming 50 percent of the market—as much as all other exteriors combined—perceptions are clearly changing. There are good reasons for vinyl’s growing popularity. Manufacturers have spent 30 years improving its appearance and durability, while we’ve crammed more and more activities and work into each week.
Today, more than ever, we’re inclined to focus on the gift of time that a low-maintenance product represents. And the more we see vinyl being installed, the more acceptable its peculiarities become. To a great many homeowners these days, vinyl is a reasonable response to modern times.
This project was originally published in the December 2000 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.
Step 1: A Vinyl Siding Primer
While still hot, the sheets are formed into siding panel profiles. Manufacturers use additives to improve impact resistance, and to prevent ultraviolet damage and color fading. Color pigments are mixed with the vinyl resin before the plastic is extruded, so vinyl color is full depth, or nearly so. To cut waste and reduce costs, most makers have adopted a co-extrusion process that fuses one layer of vinyl over another. The bottom layer is a combination of new and scrap vinyl, while the top layer is virgin vinyl, containing the flexibility and weatherization additives. The top layer, called cap stock, is typically 30 to 35 percent of the total thickness.
The larger siding manufacturers now warrant their products to the original owner for 50 years or for life. Some warranties can be passed to a second owner, but they may become prorated at this point.
Step 2: Choosing an Installer
When it comes to installers, the best promise of quality is a history of quality. Be cautious of contractors who subcontract. Look for an experienced, on-the-job installer who is eager to show you past work. Keep in mind that properly installed vinyl has a generally loose appearance. Signs of poor work are bulges, warps and separations in the siding, sags in vinyl soffit and ripples in aluminum fascia. Workmanship warranties in construction typically last only one year, and most installation problems will become apparent during that year. Still, a three- or five-year workmanship guarantee is better.
Many of the installers we spoke with offer lifetime warranties that match the product warranties. If you expect to move within a few years, basic siding and the low bid can make sense. If you plan to stay, premium siding and a careful crew is a better investment. Vinyl siding contractors are usually replacement window and gutter contractors, too, so you can order a fairly extensive exterior overhaul. While prices vary regionally, we found vinyl siding starting around $275 per square (100 sq. ft.), installed.
This includes 1⁄2-in. foil-faced sheathing, a medium-quality siding and all necessary trim. In contrast, installed premium siding in an upscale market could easily run $400 per square. New soffit, fascia and window channel are priced separately. Vinyl soffit, for example, runs $2 to $7 per linear foot, depending on width. Based on these estimates, siding a simple 10-square ranch house—about a 1200 sq. ft. home—could cost as little as $3000 or as much as $6000.
Replacement windows could easily add several more thousand. A siding, soffit and fascia installation on a larger suburban two-story, in the same market, could easily run to $15,000. These are retrofit prices. New home installations are generally a little less. While vinyl can be pricey, a standard installation doesn’t come close to the cost of wood or masonry, and is only slightly more expensive than hardboard siding. When you factor in painting and repainting, vinyl can be less expensive than hardboard.
Because vinyl should never be face nailed, and because gutters are usually nailed through the fascia, most fascia wraps are made of painted aluminum that’s formed on site. Existing gutters must be taken down to accommodate the new fascia, so this would be a good time to install new gutters if that’s what the job requires.
Step 3: Signs of Quality
Many manufacturers offer a Good-Better-Best product selection to reach all segments of the market. The cost of upgrading one level is usually not substantial—as little as $30 to $40 per square. But, depending on the manufacturer and the materials involved, there is the potential for a significant price increase. Some installers offer only one level of product quality, preferring to work only with the best, while others start with a basic price and build up from there in clearly defined increments.
One measure of quality is the thickness of the vinyl. It can range between .035 and .050 in., with the better panels starting around .042 in. Builder’s-grade panels are often lighter, starting around .040 in. Avoid anything thinner. Thickness not only influences the stiffness of the siding, but also its thermal stability. Thin panels can bulge and buckle, and those thinner than .040 in. can sag in hot weather. Thickness is only one of the factors affecting stiffness, but it’s a big factor when comparing competitively priced panels.
The stiffer the panel, the better it will bridge irregularities in a wall, so a heavier panel is a good idea when going over uneven older siding. Rigid panels are also better at surviving high winds. Beefing up the nailing hem, the slotted section of the panel that’s nailed to the house, is another tactic that adds rigidity. Several manufacturers employ a rolled nailing hem that’s double the thickness of the panel itself for extra stiffness (Photo 1). Wolverine Siding’s StabilizeR system features a fiberglass rod running through a fold in the nailing hem (Photo 2).
Even more innovative is Wolverine’s NailTight Flexible hem design—a panel hung from a nylon suspension ribbon. As its name implies, it can be nailed tight, even by using a roofing stapler. This speeds installation and yields a straight wall with improved wind resistance. The siding’s profile also influences stiffness. Siding can be made substantially stronger just by increasing the depth of the return in the profile from 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 in. The Dutch-lap profile, offered by many manufacturers, is one of the more noticeable efforts at stiffening through profile design (Photo 3).
Step 4: Fancy Siding, Fancy Trim
One example is beaded siding (Photo 4) made by both Revere Building Products and Owens Corning. It’s based on a traditional architectural detail of mid-Atlantic Coast homes. Another recent development is variegated color in some premium sidings. Highlight colors are achieved in two ways—either by dropping beads of pigment into the extruder as the siding is being made, or by applying nearly clear acrylic films over a weathered cedar-embossed panel. The result is a very natural appearance, unlike anything available before.
A more significant departure from standard lap siding is paneling with the look of weathered or painted cedar shakes. This can be used as an accent on gables or as a whole-house siding treatment (Photo 5). And finally, many manufacturers now offer the look of hand-sawn, fish-scale cedar shingles (Photo 6). These come in 36- to 64-in. panels that look convincingly Old World, whether used on a true Victorian home or its modern suburban counterpart.
As for costs, assuming standard vinyl siding has a contractor’s price of $65 per square, cedar-shake siding would run about $160 per square and fish-scale shakes about $240 per square, uninstalled. It’s pricey, but worth it if you’re after a striking new look. But it’s the new trim options that really improve the look of the average vinyl siding installation, and most of them are not terribly expensive.
For example, instead of the typical flat, boring corner details of conventional vinyl, makers now offer extra-wide corner boards in both smooth and fluted profiles. The two sides are joined by classic quarter-round trim, which is available in matching or contrasting colors (Photo 7). You can even add a touch of class to the underside of roof overhangs with beaded soffit panels. When it comes to window detailing, the traditional look of wood without the fuss has never been easier to find.
Makers offer a range of alternatives from Victorian-style corner rosettes accenting 31⁄2-in.-wide channel trim to classic crown molding (Photo 8). And many of these trimpieces are available in light and dark designer colors. Finally, you can have a decorative sunburst gable, in solid or alternating colors. Decorative sunbursts are expensive, however. Each piece must be custom cut and pop-riveted to the adjoining piece, so it’s an all-day job costing around $1000 (Photo 9).