5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 3 Siding)

Vinyl siding covering up original cedar shiplap siding

“No Maintenance.” These two words scare the heck out of me when it comes to home improvement products, especially when it pertains to historic homes. So, let’s dispel a myth…

There is no such thing as a “No Maintenance” product for your historic home. Not a one! No car will last very long without an oil change, your lawn needs water to stay green, and your house needs painting to stay healthy. But many people search for products to sheath their house that will last decade upon decade with no upkeep. The unfortunate news is that these products don’t exist and many of the ones that claim to be such are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The Problem With Siding

The problem with siding is simple. It’s outside! It gets rained on, snowed on, tortured by hail and sleet, and the sun is constantly beating down on it and baking its protective layer of paint off day by day. It’s no wonder that folks look to “solutions” like vinyl or aluminum siding to “protect” their home’s exterior. The problem is that they cause more problems than they solve.

Vinyl siding is touted as a no maintenance product. It is rot proof, insect proof and comes in a variety of colors so it doesn’t need painting. But the problems begin almost immediately. First, vinyl siding doesn’t allow the house to breathe. Most of the time when I remove vinyl siding from a historic house I find wet, spongy, and rotted wood siding. Inevitably, the vinyl siding got some moisture behind it sometimes from rain seeping in and sometimes just from water vapor trying to escape the house. Since water vapor can’t get through the vinyl is just sits on the wood siding and turns it into a mushy mess that termites love. But don’t worry, you’ll never know that you have termites because while they munch away at your home the evidence will be completely hidden behind your perfect vinyl siding. Vinyl siding hides all kinds of ills which, along with it’s inexpensive price, is what makes it so popular. Unfortunately, you and your inspector will never be able to know there is a problem lurking beneath until it’s far too late.

Hail Damaged Aluminum Siding

Aluminum siding is another enemy of old houses. Not so much because of the damage it can cause but because it’s just plain inferior to historic materials. We actually came upon an aluminum sided house once that was built with brick! After a little show and tell the homeowner was thrilled to have us remove the siding and reveal their beautiful brick home. More often than not aluminum siding gets dented by any number of things like hail, strong storms, and the occasional baseball. The bottom 3 ft. of aluminum siding is usually covered in dents after only a couple years from its biggest enemies…Mr. lawn mower and Mrs. weed eater.

There is one product that I don’t mind, and actually use occasionally on our projects, that is not historically accurate. James Hardi siding products are top quality, long lasting products that, in my mind, can be a good fit for historic homes. If you’re not going to use the original materials they are a fine substitute. You see, I’m not a blind purist! I simply appreciate quality products and they do a good job.

The Solution

Cedar siding and shingles, especially if they are old growth, are extremely long lasting and resistant to rot and insects. When properly installed and cared for they will protect your house for well over a century. Problems arise when they are installed poorly or neglected. So here’s some helpful hints when it comes to repairing your real wood siding. Follow this advice and your siding won’t need to be replaced until your great grandchildren can swing a hammer. And remember there is no such thing as no maintenance. Just like any relationship needs quality time and attention to remain healthy so do our homes.

  • Always leave at least a 3/4″ gap (though we leave 1″) between siding and roofing materials to prevent rot.
  • Always prime the ends of boards with an oil-based primer before installing.
  • Follow the very specific nailing processes using only the approved nail types for your type of siding.
  • Always caulk siding/trim joints.
  • Inspect your siding at least once a year and touch up any chipped or missing paint.
  • Repaint your house as needed to maintain your siding.
  • (Optional) I always prefer to prime the back of any siding with oil-based primer prior to installing them just for added security. That way if there is a leak or moisture build-up behind the siding you’re still protected.

And one last parting thought about historic materials…”They’re not good because they’re old, they’re old because they’re good!”

Read the rest of the 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners:

Part 1 Windows

Part 2 Floors

Part 4 Plaster

Part 5 The Details

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.



  1. stephanie on said:

    I do not have a website. Do I need one to comment or ask a question?

  2. stephanie on said:

    I just purchased a 1912 craftsman. I have not read anything about asbestos siding. Can I get information on what are options are. My neighbor ripped theirs off bagged it paid thirty bucks to digard. Is there anything under this siding???? It looks good just want to know if it brings down value and above questions Thanks

    • Stephanie, Asbestos siding is a great product as long as it is in good condition. The health danger is when it begins cracking and crumbling. If you want to replace it due to poor conditions or appearance it is definitely something that should be done by a remediation company to protect yourselves.

  3. Jason on said:

    Okay I have a old farmhouse originally built in 1857 then completely redone in 1883. You can tell it was a magnificent building. It currently has aluminum siding that I am about to replace. I very nervous of what lurks beneath it. Plan originally was vinyl siding because over the years now I am second guessing it. I recently came across a a sketch and photo from late 1800’s any advice.

  4. Jamie Pate on said:

    Can I take the siding off my 60 year old house and leave it that way. I hate siding!!!

    • I’m assuming you want to remove the vinyl or aluminum siding. If that’s the case and the original wood siding is underneath (which it usually is) then the answer is yes. You may have some repair work to do on the original siding to bring it up to snuff, but I’ve removed these ugly coverings from many a house.

    • Alison on said:

      We are sort of facing the same dilemma with our 1939 home. I also suspect there may be some water damage underneath our horrid aluminum siding but don’t know how to inspect it without removing a big portion of aluminum siding on the front of our house. We are considering painting our aluminum siding to make it look “better” but would much rather expose the original cedar shingle siding. However, we are working with very low funds so painting the aluminum seems like the more cost-effective solution for now in case there is tons of repair work with the cedar (not to mention we cannot afford to reside the house if the cedar is not salvageable.). I wish there was some way to magically know what the condition of the old cedar shingle siding is underneath all this aluminum!!!

      • Alison there is no magic way to know what’s underneath. Be patient and save your money and sometime soon you’ll be able to take that aluminum off one portion at a time. Till then it is keeping the rest of the house.

  5. Chuck on said:

    I have just purchased a very old two story century home that has aluminum siding probably installed many years ago. Up near the top of the home there has been possibly 2 inch round holes drilled and are exposed and not filled in. Possibly from insulation blow in ?
    How do I fill in the holes? Can I use wooden dowels ? The holes are very unsitley. I also want to paint the entire siding with Tremclad Paint with a sponge roller is that OK ?

    • Chuck, it does sound like the holes are from someone adding blown in insulation. I would cut patches from wood the same thickness as your siding and glue them in place then fill any gaps and sand it smooth. As for Tremclad paint, I’m not familiar with that product so I can’t say one way or the other.

      • Chuck Cheyne on said:

        Hi and Thanks for your reply. Yes I do believe that your right and will give your advice a go!! Tremclad is a sort of rust paint that is extremely hard and durable especially on metal ( and wood ) I will send you a note once spring /summer arrives in Ontario Canada. Thanks again. Your site isawesome. Chuck

  6. Tareq on said:

    I have discovered original wood siding underneath the vinyl siding of my house. After removing to inspect in a number of places, it appears in good condition. Called previous owner which said that they didn’t want to have to paint every few years. Is there any chance to restore the wood siding currently underneath the vinyl? I am concerned that it would not look right from the nail holes.

    • Tareq, it can most definitely be restored! Fill the holes with a quality wood filler or epoxy and sand it smooth before repainting. You’ll never know there was a hole to begin with.

  7. Randall Dlugoss on said:

    I question the “prime the back of any siding with oil-based primer prior to installing them just for added security”. If the siding is sealed on all sides, does that mean it cannot breath and therefore not dry as easily if moisture does get in?

  8. Parker Boudreau on said:

    I once saw a “Dirty Jobs” episode about a place back east that made the wood siding and shingles. I have always loved the look of wood siding, but don’t know much about it. Seems like it might be something that works best in certain states or in certain climates, but I’m not sure.

  9. Terry on said:

    Great information here. Looking for ideas for 1933 cedar shingle sided Midwest home that has been painted over the years, now peeling badly. One experienced painter says impossible to get good finish because old lead paint topped by newer paint will continue to peel quickly. Another will do it with extensive prep, no guarantees, for $11,000 for two-story house. New siding is costly — no matter the material — but wondering if that is better investment than frequent costly painting.

    • Terry, it’s hard to decide what will be worth it. If the underlying shingles are still in good condition I would probably go with the extensive prep over re-siding. It’s true that paint adheres best to fresh wood that’s been primed. I’d get a few quotes for both options and see what will work best for your budget.

  10. Thomas Reynolds on said:

    If Vinyl Siding is installed properly, you will get none of the above mentioned problems. yes it will fade as does every other exterior product. Hardy requires future painting and constant caulking, oh ya it also lets moisture build up behind it with no airflow to dry the wall, vinyl siding has weep holes to aid in moisture removal. Both products will allow algea growth if installed in area of home that gets little to no sunlite. You can scrub off on vinyl siding without hurting finish, not so with hardi siding. Both have plus and minus benifits. If installed properly and maintained, vinyl can match hardy life span at a lower cost to homeowner.

  11. Kevin Loiselle on said:

    My wife and I are thinking of purchaseing a home built in 1885 and I have a few questions. It appears to have a Dutch lap siding but I’m not sure the wood, based on this thread I would in that time period it would have been Cedar??

    There are locations that are rotten and one small section that the current owner covered in vinyl siding. Where can I find replacement siding that is the same or is it best to replace all with hardy board?

    Given the age if the home can one assume that the original lead based paint was removed on a previous painting and if not how do I check?

    Some of the original windows have be replaced. A couple aluminum and a few with just a sheet of glass. Is it possible to find historic windows to replace the replacements with? Were the sizes back then standard or were they all custom to each house? This house has 45 windows and most of them are original. Painted shut of course. Are all the replacement parts available for these old windows?


  12. Tammy Hiday on said:

    I have a 1908 house with car siding that is in really bad shape. We’ve repaired and repainted numerous times but are just plain tired of that. Can I install cedar shingles over the car siding? If you think this is feasible, can you give me a link/s to the how tos and do nots on how to do this?

    • Tammy, installing shingles over car siding should be much of an issue I wouldn’t think. I’ve never done it but I’d I were going to I would take the opportunity to at least install some building wrap on top of the siding and maybe even some rigid foam insulation.
      The shingles would be installed regularly with no changes since the siding gives a pretty much flat surface to install on.

  13. PCL on said:

    I live in a 60 year old condominium with aluminum siding on the 2nd story bump-outs. It does look a little cheap and 2 dimensional where it meets the windows (especially with the rest of the walls being masonry), but the corners have joint caps on each clapboard, rather than the hideous corner-channel you see with vinyl siding; being away from any activity, it still looks new after nearly 6 decades and I’ve seen it protect other houses from fire much better than a typical vinyl job would. So my advice to anyone who has aluminum siding would be to keep it until you can afford something decent, like HardiPlank, brick or stucco. Vinyl siding may seem like a step up at first, but it degrades much faster. I have some neighbors with vinyl siding that was covered with algae after only 6 months and who knows what power washing a house every 6 months will do to it in the long run.

  14. Jim on said:

    I need to replace the vinyl on my Victorian. I want to use Hardi, but I have a circular section. Is there anything I can use?

    • Jim, I’m not sure what you mean by a circular area, but the Hardi siding can be cut to fit almost any shape necessary.

      • Jim on said:

        I have an area that is circular or round in shape. This is two stories high with turret at top. The siding has to wrap around this area.

        • Hardi siding is actually very flexible and can be wrapped. It just depends how much it has to wrap. If it is too much of an angle then shingle siding would probably work best.

  15. Boy, can I relate to this. I even share your tolerance of Hardie siding! In fact, due to the sad state of the cedar on the back side of my house, we are considering it. Our house has almost no insulation under the cedar, so that poses a problem when also trying to save the plaster inside. Ya gotta get in there to insulate from one side or the other, since our winter temps fall into the teens, and it’s a tough decision.

    The first siding coverup was a layer of tar paper imprinted with a brick design. I’m sure you’ve seen on some homes that were built in the early part of the 1900s. “Cheap siding fix” is all I ever think of when I see it. So my old folk Victorian farmhouse stood proud with its cedar shiplap until someone wrapped in that. Later, to add insult to injury, the faux brick was covered in a rather strange pressboard type siding. Because the sections very wide, it looks ridiculous on this house. Because it appears to be mostly paper and wood fibers, there is a lot of rot. But we tolerate it until the interior is more livable. We had to remove all of it from the back side of the house before doing anything else. The gutters were in such sad shape that one corner of the back of the house, which is the kitchen, was deteriorating, and fast. Off came the siding, and then we scabbed in new material and jacked up the house.

    Because there is still a long way to go on the inside, we’re putting off finishing the exterior. I’m sure my neighbors love us for that. It will probably get a coat of white paint in the spring, and then it will at least not be such an eyesore until we can finally repair, restore or replace the siding.

  16. Historic Homes are beautiful and often worthy of restoration. In the process, there are significant opportunities to improve the energy performance of the building. There is so much cost in the aesthetic and cosmetic details that taking care of the infrastructure before the details are finished is wise because it is impossible once the cost for the finished work is laid out. Before you start the process consult a BPI certified building analyst on how to improve your building’s performance forever.

    By the way, paint holds up longer than stain I have found.

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