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If you like the looks of wood siding and the low-maintenance qualities of man-made siding products, consider fiber-cement for your home.

Asbestos-free fiber-cement siding has been around since the late 1980's. Its market share is on the rise, but it still lags behind wood and vinyl siding. Builders are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of fiber-cement, but the product isn't well known among consumers.

New homes marketing expert Debbie Rosenstein of Rosenstein Research Associates says fiber-cement siding is "gaining more prominence in the market." She says consumers generally are not asking for it by name, but people in the new homes industry are beginning to push it. Rosenstein sees a trend developing toward fiber-cement because the siding has "a little different feel" than other products and appears "more upscale."

Fiber-cement siding generally is more expensive than aluminum or vinyl siding, but it costs less than brick or traditional cedar siding. It's sold under a number of brand names, including Hardiplank, a Cemplank, and WeatherBoards.

To make the siding, manufacturers mix cement, sand and cellulose fibers with water. The planks are offered in various widths in both horizontal and vertical styles. They can be given a smooth look or finished with a heavier wood grain appearance. James Hardie Building Products, which makes the Hardiplank line, has even introduced a plank that simulates the look of shingles to use as an accent on your home.

A big selling point is that fiber-cement siding offers a number of benefits over wood. For instance, James Hardie says its Hardiplank lap siding "resists damage from extended exposure to humidity, rain, snow, salt air and termites," and under normal conditions it "will not crack, rot or delaminate." The company backs its claims with a 50-year, limited, transferable warranty.

Georgia-Pacific says its Cemplank "allows you the durability and performance of concrete without sacrificing the natural beauty of wood." It offers "high structural strength and good impact resistance."

Last February, Builder magazine reported the market for fiber-cement is growing because it fills "a void left by other siding materials." The magazine noted that vinyl siding has "problems with cracking and warping" while "aluminum can dent or face in extreme weather conditions."

From a safety standpoint, fiber-cement siding won't burn. It has a zero flame-spread index and a zero smoke-development number. However, the ratings do not cover any finishing materials applied to the siding.

Though makers of the fiber-cement siding tout its low-maintenance qualities, it does need to be painted. The siding is offered with a factory-applied primer coating, but the final finish is yours to decide. Manufacturers say that if done correctly, paint applied to fiber-cement siding can last several times longer than paint applied to wood siding. Georgia-Pacific notes some third-party coating systems on the market come with warranties up to 20 years.

Attaching fiber-cement siding to your home is similar to applying wood siding. It can be blind or face nailed by hand or with a power nailer. Screws may also be used. While traditional woodworking tools can be used, manufacturers suggest that carbide or diamond tipped blades be used to extend the life of the blades. As the demand for the siding grows, new products are also being introduced to make installation even easier. Makers of the siding also offer trims and soffit to complement the siding.

The fiber-cement siding products have not yet been on the market long enough to test some of the longer warranties being offered, but if you're looking for an alternative exterior to your new home, talk to your builder about what fiber-cement has to offer.

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