It’s tempting to judge a home by its cover, but for decisions about paint or siding, you need to go a little deeper and consider what’s already there, what shape it’s in, your budget and aesthetics.

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.
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 maintenance—it 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.”