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Fiber-cement siding seen as better house option

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bethe Rykaczewski of Franklin Park says she likes the heavy siding she and her husband, Dave, put on their house because it is going to need some work.

But not in the negative sense, she says.

"Vinyl siding people will tell you about how you never have to do anything with it," she says. "But that is what I like about this: You can change it."

She is talking about fiber-cement siding, a mix of sand, cement and cellulose that is used to create a heavy, wood-like siding made in panels and shingle pattens in soft colors. But those colors easily can be changed with primer and paint, different from many other sidings.

Fiber-cement siding is finding popularity with "educated" consumers -- not because of house-smarts, but because they do a great deal of research on the product.

Brian Murphy, owner of EZ Home Exteriors in North Versailles, does 95 percent of his work selling vinyl product, he says. But he finds customers looking into fiber-cement siding are "educated" because of the research they do.

That research can be a hassle, jokes Paul Valint, owner of Unique Building Solutions in Harrison City, Westmoreland County. He talks of dealing with would-be clients who spend months, sometimes years studying the product, even though they already have decided on it.

Jim Spade of Ross says he probably presented that image when he was researching fiber-cement siding for his house. One dealer was less than enthusiastic about dealing with him.

"I guess they get tired of people who think they know it all," he says. "I might think I do, but I know I don't."

Valint and Legacy Remodeling in Dormont are the only two certified Western Pennsylvania installers of fiber-cement paneling made by its largest manufacturer, James Hardie Building Products of California. That means any job they do is audited by Hardie inspectors, which then validates its 30-year warranty. Vinyl often comes with a 15-year warranty, but generally lasts longer.

While fiber-cement siding is manufactured by other firms, the California company's dominance is so strong, the siding often is known as "Hardie board."

The board is strong, heavy, durable and pretty. Because of its weight, it takes more installers to handle it.

"You need a carpenter to put it in," says Jeff Moeslein, president of Legacy. "It is a lot more difficult to do it right."

The installation issue means the process takes longer. The siding also is more expensive, says Legacy CEO Ken Moeslein. He, Valint and others say it costs about $10 a square foot, perhaps 30 percent more than vinyl.

But Spade and Rykaczewski say they spent less than that in their dealing with Valint, and the expense paid off because they believe they have made houses stand out.

The Moesleins say interest in fiber-cement siding is growing, but admit they sell vinyl twice as much as "Hardie board."

Rodney Abbott of New Horizons Home Exteriors & Windows in South Park says fiber-cement siding accounts for only 30 percent of his work.

He believes the higher price of fiber-cement is the main issue. Vinyl, he says, comes in six or seven grades, allowing the customer some choice, a flexibility not offered in fiber-cement.

He also believes siding is not seen as one of the key replacements on a house.

"When you have a leaking roof, there is no choice: You have to replace it," he says "Most times, you don't have that problem with siding. It is more a matter of choice."

Spade says he had a choice when he decided to re-side his house. But he saw fiber-cement siding as the better option. His research and experience with vinyl suggested fiber-cement sidingwould wear better, be a better insulator and be more easily painted.

"So, what if after three years your wife says 'I wish we had a green house instead of a blue house'?" he says. "With Hardie board it's easy. You can paint it."

Bradley H. Daniels, president of Bradley's Roofing & Home Improvements in New Brighton, Beaver County, says the "maintenance-free" nature of vinyl siding still makes it more popular than the fiber-cement product. He says it is 80 percent of his siding business.

He also finds log siding, in which a cabin-like structure is created, is more popular and less expensive than fiber-cement siding.

But Valint from Unique Building Solutions is convinced fiber-cement siding is the only way to go.

"I wouldn't put vinyl on a dog house," he says with a shake of his head.

As a benefit, he points to the trade he gets from neighbors of clients who like what they see.

Aesthetic qualities were of little concern for Bob Muhl of Wexford. Pine planking was going bad on his house and he wanted to replace it with something of the same nature.

"I never even considered vinyl," he says. "I wanted something that would last longer."

He knows the job was more expensive than vinyl and took longer to do. His house is completely covered by planking, so it took Moeslein's crew four weeks to finish the job.

But Muhl says he got what he wants and believes he is convincing neighbors to go that direction -- on looks alone.

"The hard surface sets it apart," he says.

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