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Within the last 50 years, wood siding has become increasingly more expensive, adding considerably to the cost of new housing.

The supply of lumber, especially cedar, has contracted for a variety of reasons, mostly environmental, which has boosted the price. In some areas of the country, cedar has been running about $1.70 a foot, and that puts the cost out of reach of many new-home buyers who already a stretching their budgets to pay the mortgage.

Stone and brick, too, have become more expensive, but for different reasons. Labor costs have risen over the last few years as fewer stonemasons and bricklayers have entered the trade. Although the building industry has made considerable strides in boosting the labor supply, costs remain high.

Most lower-end and mid-level new houses -- if they use it at all -- typically have stone facades. Some other material is used on the sides and in the rear. That material is vinyl, which is manufactured from polyvinyl chloride.

Since 1986, the use of vinyl for siding and soffits has tripled, from 12 million squares to more than 38 million squares, according to the Vinyl Siding Institute. (One square equals 100 square feet of siding, enough to cover a 10-foot-by-10-foot area.)

Aluminum siding, which was the only alternative to wood in the late 1950s and 1960s, has pretty much taken a back seat to vinyl among builders and remodelers.

Vinyl is widely used to side older houses as well as new ones. Typically, owners who side with vinyl over original wood siding are looking for less costly ways to insulate houses.

What a vinyl-siding contractor will do is staple Tyvek or other house wrap to the exterior of the house and then install vinyl over it. Otherwise, the homeowner has to remove the existing wood siding, wrap the house, and reinstall the wood.

Maintenance is also a factor when choosing siding. Wood siding has to be painted regularly. Vinyl does not. Wood siding is prone to mildew. Vinyl is as well, but mildew tends to form only in shaded areas and is easier to clean.

The cost of siding a 2,300-square-foot house - the average size of a new house, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) - is $5,000, which includes the Tyvek.

Vinyl siding has its detractors. It is not always installed properly or well - some contractors cover perfectly acceptable brick and stone chimneys with it, for example. Vinyl is not accepted by the overwhelming majority of local preservation boards for use on houses in historic districts. And even though it is popular among many homeowners because it does not require as much maintenance as wood siding, it doesn't look like wood.

Despite builders' claims that buyers don't mind vinyl siding on three sides of a house, said surveys of home-magazine readers indicate that if there was stone or brick on the front, they wanted the rest of the house to look the same.

In searching for a less-expensive, but durable and wood-like alternative to vinyl, manufacturers have come up with fiber-cement. The material, widely used in the South, is making inroads in other areas.

Fiber-cement is manufactured by firms such as CertainTeed Corp. in Valley Forge, Pa., and James Hardie Corp. in California. Fiber-cement siding should be more durable than wood - it is termite-resistant, noncombustible, and warranted to last 50 years.

HardiPlank, the James Hardie product, cost $3 to $3.25 a square foot installed, including painting, since even though it is prepainted, the finish can be affected if the HardiPlank is dragged along the job site.

Fiber-cement siding is composed of cement, sand, and cellulose fiber that has been cured with pressurized steam to increase its strength and dimensional stability.

The fiber is added to reinforce the concrete and to prevent cracking, which is inherent in concrete. The planks come in 5¼-inch to 12-inch widths and are about 5/16-inch thick.

Like wood siding, fiber-cement siding is installed over studs or exterior wall sheathing with an appropriate water-resistant barrier, using galvanized nails or screws that penetrate into wall studs. The fiber-cement planks can be cut with a carbide-tipped saw blade, snapper shears, or with a guillotine-type cutter.

For finishing, fiber-cement products come either primed or unprimed.

Many builders believe that fiber-cement board is cost-effective, especially when compared with wood, and the cost will likely decline further as the material becomes used more widely.

Many people are reluctant to use new products. But fiber-cement performance certainly warrants a hard look at its use.

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