How to Renovate Your Home’s Exterior without Going Crazy

My family’s home looks beautiful and functions great with new vinyl-encased windows, prefinished Hardie Board fiber cement siding, and a new asphalt shingle roof. Getting to the finish line was brutal, and the entire process, from initial research to completed project, took a serious time commitment over the span of about a year. I hope that these notes might help other homeowners navigate the process a little more smoothly than I managed.

Please note that I have never worked in the construction trades (except I’ve done some painting), and I have no professional expertise in the area. What follows are my personal reflections about the renovation process as a homeowner. My comments are not intended as advice; people looking to renovate their houses should do their own research and consult appropriate professionals. Yet perhaps my notes will give people some ideas to consider and some starting points for further investigation.

The Scope of the Project

When we purchased our 1977 house about a decade ago, the house was in rough shape. The purchase was in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown, and the bank that held the previous owner’s mortgage took a substantial loss on the deal. (By the way, 1977 is the cut-off year for when you need lead testing; thankfully we tested and did not have any.)

Much of the siding had no paint on it and was buckling and cracking badly. The windows were old, leaky aluminum-frames, some with broken panes. But with a few replacement boards and some caulk and paint, I kept the siding sealed up well enough through the intervening years.

But in the back, which gets little sun (and so dries out more slowly), the siding started failing beyond my capacity to easily fix. So we wanted to replace the siding at least on the back wall. We could have done that for a fraction of what we ended up spending.

We sided the entire house, plus put in new windows and got a new roof. Why? We could swing the work financially, and the idea of doing the project once the right way appealed to us. We had other reasons. You can’t wrap the corners well if you side a single wall. We also wanted to cut a new window opening, which obviously is pretty disruptive to the existing siding. And had we done the back wall with Hardie Board, the siding would not have matched the rest of the house, which would have been esthetically odd. There is a real and non-trivial psychic benefit to living in a beautiful and well-functioning house.

As for the roof, it was old, double-laid (which is no longer permissible by code), and poorly ventilated. So we decided to do the entire exterior, be done with it, and enjoy living in the renovated house.

The Bidding Process

The professional networks within the building trades are confusing and fluid. But basically the options are to hire a general contractor to oversee all aspects of the job or hire multiple contractors to handle different parts of the job.

We got a solid bid from someone willing to work the job as a general contractor, but it was considerably higher than the collection of bids we ultimately went with. We actually got better-quality materials for less money.

Amazingly (to me), representatives from two different companies came out to bid the job, took careful notes about the project—and then never got back with me again.

We ended up hiring three different companies: One to fix our side stairs and door, someone to install windows and siding, and one to install the roof. It turns out there are a lot of companies that do windows and siding and a lot that do roofs, but not a lot that do both.

Both of the main companies we used are listed with the major regional referrals, but I found the roofer through someone I know that used to work as a handyman and now works as a property inspector. He gave us the contact for the roofer, and the roofer gave us the contact for the sider. I was happy (enough) with their bids, so that’s the direction we went.

Both the roofer and the sider used subcontractors for the intallation work. The funny thing is that I might have hired any of several major companies and still ended up with the same subcontractors.

I probably could have saved a non-trivial amount of money had I figured out how to hire the subcontractors directly and cut out the middle parties. Roughly ten percent of the money for the job went just to sales commissions, and another fraction (unknown to me) went to pay out the company’s hierarchy of support.

But I’m not sure that I could have found good subcontractors on my own, and I’m not sure I would have wanted to. The subcontractors get something by associating with bigger companies: Someone else makes the sale, collects the money, and works with the homeowner. The subcontractors “just” show up to do the physical work. And I got the larger companies’ reputations and support. If you hire a small crew that does bad work or that disappears halfway into the job, you have little or no recourse. So hiring a large company that subcontracts the work is not a bad way to go, I think.

One professional we spoke with recommended that we hire a larger company that hires its own installation personnel rather than subcontracts the work. But such an arrangement seems to be rare, I suspect because the larger companies prefer to deal with less bureaucratic hassle regarding employees.

So we could have spent a lot more on the work, and we could have spent less. But for the money we spent I feel like we got good service and support.


The new window that we had put in is my favorite feature of the house. It is the only window with a great view, and it lets me see my entire back yard. It’s around 40 by 80 inches and offers a nice panorama. It has a slider on each side.

The rest of the windows are double-sliders (meaning that each can open from either side). They’re great, but frankly I wish I would have ordered single-sliders. The single-sliders seem a little more secure, they’re easier to close and lock, and the screen goes on only one side rather than over the entire opening. But there are a couple of windows that I would have wanted to open from left-to-right (from the inside), so if you get single-sliders make sure to evaluate which side you want to open.

We just got nice, standard vinyl windows that our rep recommended. They’re much quieter than our old windows and pleasantly draft-free.

I made sure to order “new construction” grade windows with the “fins” attached. The fins screw directly to the framing.

I also made sure to install trim boards around each window, then side up to the trim (and caulk). With the old windows the siding went right up to the window frames. To me, the advantage of trimming the windows is that they can be removed and replaced more easily if necessary. Plus you probably get a better seal.

Be prepared for noise, dust, and wind during window installation. Also, the installation crew managed to cut through an electrical line in the wall. And we got some cracking of the interior paint around some of the windows—be sure to work out ahead of time whose responsibility it is to fix such damage. But other than that the installation went well as far as I could tell.


I am so glad we went with Hardie Board fiber cement siding with paint already applied. The planks show up on a pallet with plastic wrapping over each plank. The product looks beautiful and it lasts well. It is, however, a hassle to install. But I think vinyl siding looks bad and wears poorly, and wood-based products are more prone to water damage. In my opinion, if you’re going to put up the money for new siding, put on the good stuff.

We had a big problem early in the installation process, and that is the point when having hired a larger company with a reputation at stake was very helpful. The crew installing the siding was not complying with the Hardie Board specs, plus our side-door was leaking water. (We got three major storms during the installation process.) I documented and described the problems carefully and, after a sleepless night on my part, the company sent out reps to resolve the problems.

The main company set me up with someone to reinstall the side-door (correctly this time) and took remedial measures to get the house wrap and siding up to specs. We ended up tearing off product from a partly completed wall and redoing it. I was very relieved that both the main company and the subcontractor took my concerns seriously and acted promptly to resolve the outstanding issues. I think the finished product is much better than it would have been had I not voiced my concerns.

I strongly recommend that homeowners who have Hardie Board installed become familiar with the Hardie installation sheets and explicitly discuss their details with the installers. Take pictures throughout the process, and emphasize that if the work is not done to specs you will insist that it be redone.

Hardie publishes installation guides for its house wrap, trim, and siding.

Here are a few things to look for. The wrap needs to be in good shape, overlapped properly, and sealed with tape. To avoid scuffing or chipping the siding paint, installers need to handle the product carefully. Hardie explicitly says to keep the product covered and dry. Hardie specifies how to install the flashing above horizontal boards (as above windows)—note the quarter-inch gap requirement. All cut edges need to be painted or caulked. And there needs to be flashing behind the product where ends meet mid-wall.

Make sure you end up with a tube of caulk and a container of paint for each color. If you find an unpainted edge later or ding your siding with a ladder or something, you want to have the touch-up supplies. (Just be aware that the product will slowly fade in the sun, so if you use touch-up paint years down the road it will probably look blotchy.)

I spent about a day’s work (over two days) fixing the trim and seal around the garage door to my satisfaction and touching up unpainted and uncaulked edges, scuff marks, and exposed nail heads. Is that work the installation crew should have done? Yes. But I decided that I was going to make sure the installers got the fundamentals right and handle details myself if necessary. At a certain point, doing some of that detail work myself was easier than nagging the installers to do it.

I also did some prep work that most homeowners probably do not do—I removed some of the fencing next to the house and put down some weed guard to keep the mud at bay.

By the way, if you redo your fencing, which we did prior to the siding work, make sure that the installers put the relevant posts a foot or so away from the siding, so you can remove the fencing next to the house. If we had had a fence post right next to the old siding, we would not have been able to properly install the new product (unless we removed the fence posts), because the walls ended up a little thicker.

My advice is to figure out ahead of time your level of tolerance for doing prep and touch-up work. If you want start-to-finish meticulous attention to detail, accept that up front and make sure you hire someone willing to accommodate. And be prepared to pay a premium.

Our electrical box is attached to the back of the house. I was relatively happy with how the installers handled that, but they did not z-flash the bottom trim board, as I think they should have. I ended up putting in some extra caulking around the box. If you have to worry about siding around an electrical box, I recommend that you discuss a plan with the installers first.


Our big dilemma was whether to do the roof before the siding or after. There are two reasons I’m glad we decided to do roofing last.

First, the peak boards were 2×6 inch boards, and the Hardie Board replacement product is only an inch thick. So, unless we had removed the peak boards first and put up temporary materials, the drip edge would not have integrated with the new product. And the old fascia (under the gutters) was a little narrower than an inch, so that might have been a problem too.

Second, the siding installers used scaffolding that bolted into the roof, and I would have been more than a little irritated had they bolted through my brand-new roof. Of course, you could just insist ahead of time that installers use a different sort of scaffolding.

But for those two issues, it would have been better to do the roof first.

What I envisioned was the old roof coming off in nice big sections. What actually happened is that much of the old roofing and tar paper pulverized, caught in the wind, and left tar smudges all over my beautiful new windows and siding.

In retrospect, I wish I would have blue-taped plastic over all the windows prior to the roof installation. That would have prevented the tar smudges and the collection of black dust in the frames.

As for the siding, it is simply unavoidable not to end up with some tar smudges when removing an old roof and tar paper.

I do not believe it is possible to remove tar smudges from Hardie Board without damaging the paint. The roof installers tried to wipe some the tar off and just made matters worse. But there is a very easy solution: Just wipe the area with a dry rag, then put touch-up paint over the tar smudge. This worked fine, and I got everything touched up in a couple of hours. Again, this is the sort of thing the roofing installers probably should have done, but frankly they did not know how to handle the problem.

We went with GAF Timberline asphalt shingles, as our rep recommended. I think asphalt is the best option for the money. I looked at several other roofing options before going with standard asphalt, including plastic shingles and coated metal. The other products are dramatically more expensive, and I was not convinced that they would hold up to major hail much better than asphalt. (My sense is that manufacturers of plastic shingles could make them a lot stronger by making them solid rather than molding the underside as a mesh.)

We had vents installed in the roof itself at the ridge and partway up the roof, as the roofing rep recommended. The idea is that cooler air enters evenly along the bottom of the roof and flows out the top, keeping the attic and shingles much cooler. This sort of venting supercedes turtle venting.

Amazingly, crews installed the roof and the gutters in a single day.

The Upshot

For about a day I was seriously worried that the project was going sideways and I’d have to spend a lot more money and maybe even get an attorney involved. Thankfully my fears proved unfounded. Instead, the main siding company we hired listened to my (justified) concerns and put things right. Yes, I ended up having to do some of the touch-up work myself, but that didn’t much bother me.

The house looks beautiful, and as far as I can tell everything functions as it should. It is a huge relief to get that stressful and time-consuming project behind me. Now we can turn our attention to some interior and landscaping projects that we can do ourselves.

And the Great Exterior Renovation Adventure of 2017–18 will fade into memory.