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American siding: practical is still popular

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | February 13, 2013

What's the most popular type of exterior siding today? According to the U.S. Census Bureau about 33 percent of the new single-family homes constructed in 2011 were clad in vinyl, making it the number one exterior siding that year. But was that choice dictated by home builders or home buyers?

Back when homes were built by the folks who were going to live in them, a house was clad in whatever material was locally available (or free). Today's home builders likewise have an eye on material availability and construction costs. But they have the other eye trained on home sales, so they do tend to follow market trends indicating what prospective buyers want.

What do home buyers want for their exterior siding today? Does geographic location still influence choice? Or have advances in siding technology changed all that?

Two centuries of U.S. siding

Take a drive through the historic district of any city or town, and it's easy to see what siding materials were popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wood was plentiful and easy to obtain, and sheltering one's family was of higher priority than conserving natural resources.

Brick was also popular as it could be made just about anywhere clay and a kiln were available. According to the website for Colonial Williamsburg, the brick for larger homes was often manufactured right at the jobsite as the structure was being erected.

Stone can be found on many old houses as well. As farmers cleared their fields of obstructions to make plowing easier, the stones often found their way into fences and onto house veneers. Even back then homeowners realized the natural product required little maintenance and could provide years of protection for their families and possessions.

Siding in the 20th century

Siding material options for houses took a giant leap forward during the mid-1900s. The home building industry went into overdrive as service members returned from overseas and needed a place to live.

Aluminum siding: Aluminum siding with a baked-on color finish was introduced in 1947 by Jerome Kaufman. He learned the process by watching how the exteriors of planes were painted during World War II. Kaufman and a group of contemporaries formed Alside Siding, which became one of the largest producers of aluminum siding in the country. Families who installed the product no longer had to worry about painting the exterior of their homes every several years.

Vinyl siding: The compound used to produce vinyl siding had actually been around since the late 1800s, but vinyl siding didn't make its way to the marketplace until the 1960s. The material offered many of the same low-maintenance qualities and prefinished colors as aluminum, but was less prone to dents and dings.

While vinyl was slow to gain acceptance for use on anything other than lower-end homes, that changed when manufacturers began increasing their style and color options.

Fiber cement siding: The mid-1980s brought another entrant to the exterior siding market: fiber cement. James Hardie Inc., an Australian company, developed the product that quickly gained a reputation for its realistic wood-like appearance and long-term durability. While many other companies now produce the material, Hardie is still identified so strongly with it that many contractors refer to all fiber cement products as "Hardieboard."

Modern siding popularity through the decades

How did 20th century entrants into the exterior siding marketplace rate in popularity over the past several decades? Here's what the Census Bureau data shows for new-construction, single family homes for the nation as a whole:

  • 1973 -- Brick was the exterior veneer on 35 percent of new home construction; wood, a close second at 30 percent. Block, stone, and aluminum siding comprised a total of 22 percent.
  • 1980 -- Wood took over the top spot at 42 percent. Brick dropped to 28 percent and block, stone, vinyl, and aluminum siding to 17 percent.
  • 1992 -- Wood remained the most popular but fell to 33 percent. Vinyl siding made a strong first appearance at 23 percent, overtaking brick for second place.
  • 2000 -- The siding industry declared a new leader: vinyl siding took over the top position at 39 percent. Brick held steady at 20 percent, and wood fell to a distant third at 14 percent.
  • 2011 -- Vinyl siding maintained its lead but fell a little as fiber cement became popular. Vinyl was installed on 33 percent of the country's new homes and fiber cement on 15 percent. Brick remained in second at 24 percent.

Regional popularity

What about geography? Does regional location have any bearing on popularity as it did when siding choice depended strictly on availability? The Census Bureau data for 2011 indicates clear preferences by region: vinyl siding was used on 78 percent of the new homes constructed in the Northeast, but only 28 percent of those built in the South.

Even more surprising: the most popular siding in the country in 2011 was installed on just 6 percent of the new houses built in the western U.S. that year. Instead of vinyl, stucco reigned supreme out West: the material was applied as the exterior veneer on 49 percent of that region's new homes.

What do home buyers really want?

Larry McCarthy of Builders Siding Company Inc. in Chantilly, Va. knows exterior siding. He has been involved in the industry for over 50 years. His opinion of why vinyl siding is the most popular cladding on the market today is that it requires little maintenance. His customers point also to the material's budget-friendly cost and numerous style options as reasons for choosing vinyl siding for their homes.

Popular siding materials have come and gone, but for now, at least, it looks like vinyl siding is here to stay for a while.

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.