Beauty may be skin deep, but when it comes to siding, at least, looks are everything. Google search “siding curb appeal” and help yourself to the roughly 1.5 million links on that topic, many leading to real estate agents' pages eager to point this fact out.
But here’s the paradox: The people who own the house are usually in the house, looking out, not outside the house looking in. What they’re looking at right now is their kitchen, their bathroom, their boring den. If they want to change something, that’s probably where they’re going to start, buying what they can touch and feel, such as a granite countertop or a walk-in tub. That makes a siding job somewhat like a Christmas-light display, observes Tara Dawn, co-owner of Opal Enterprises, a suburban Chicago home improvement company: “So much effort, and we don’t look at it. It’s all for other people.”
And even if they’re budgeting for the exterior, which some homeowners will do, there’s the fact that a re-roof, when needed, is non-negotiable and dysfunctional windows get next priority. “Siding’s not as mission-critical as a roof or a leaky window,” says Mike Damora, vice president marketing and sales for K&B Home Remodelers, in New Jersey, and regular contributor to Pro Remodeler.
To some extent, cladding suffers from its own success. The life span of different siding materials, when properly installed, ranges from 30 years for aluminum and vinyl to as much as a century for fiber cement, stucco, stone, or brick. Even wood, the notoriously high-maintenance cladding that many others imitate, can last a long time, if regularly maintained.
You may wonder, then, how there could be any market at all for re-siding, but by 2019, according to Freedonia Group estimates, some 100 million squares worth close to $11 billion will be sold. But as good as siding products are, all bets are off if installation proves inept, if hail storms come through, or if the product simply does what everything eventually will, which is to wear out. In the case of vinyl, that could take the form of bubbling, buckling, tearing away in high wind, warping, or fading.
Sometimes the point is pressed when a tired-looking property has to be sold. And sometimes homeowners get tired of maintenance expense. Siding as an alternative to regular painting “is still very relevant,” Damora says. "Though it’s kind of a ZIP code thing. There are situations where you have wood that’s no longer going to take paint. If I were a canvasser I’d think: Bingo!”
Envious of Your Palace
Jason Kersch, sales manager at Major Homes, a home improvement company in Queens, N.Y., has sold a lot of siding jobs in the last 11 years. He’ll tell you that a homeowner's biggest motivator is aesthetics. Where the siding’s shot or just looks old—such as the asbestos shingles common on homes in New York City boroughs—“85 percent of the time it’s need,” Kersch says, that is, it’s looking bad, though, he adds, “I've sold siding jobs where the siding looked perfectly fine but just wasn’t to the homeowner's taste.”
To sweeten the deal in such situations there’s the energy efficiency of insulated vinyl siding, which Major Homes carries and which may get Kersch talking as much about R-value as beauty. But the convincing argument always has to do with looks, a hope and a dream brought to life by color imaging. “I build on the emotion that that house is going to be unique,” Kersch says. And the question he inevitably raises is: “Do you want to look like everybody else on the block?”
A siding sale is design-driven and is unlikely to happen without the imagination being engaged. “Why do you want a new car?” asks Fred Finn, president of Chicago-area home improvement company Euro-Tech. “When the old one still drives, isn’t leaking oil, and it’s all paid off? The reason: It’s to make the neighbors jealous.” If anything, says Finn, who has also sold many siding jobs, “I want to get the person I’m sitting in front of to feel what they’d feel once their house has been turned into a new palace.”
Of course, it could also be that envious neighbor on the phone who’s requesting a sales consultation. “There’s a bit of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ when it comes to replacing siding,” Opal's Dawn points out. Which would explain why, while it’s not Item No.1 on the list of every buyer of an existing home, it’s probably on the list somewhere. Of those who call Opal Enterprises looking for siding, “70 percent say they’ve lived in the home two to five years and knew when they bought the house that it was on their list of things to change,” Dawn says. The showpieces installed by this design-centered exterior contractor in Naperville, Ill., aim to leave the Joneses in the dust.
What Do They Know?
Contractors of many kinds have remarked on the fact that homeowners today typically come into the sales call loaded with information gleaned from the internet. That’s true for a roof or window replacement job, where the materials list may consist of a dozen items. But siding? Here brand names—few with any resonance—proliferate, and accessories abound. Almost 30 years ago, when Paul Panagiotidis and his brother-in-law started Total Home Construction, in Melville, N.Y., vinyl siding consisted of 12-foot panels in a limited range of colors. Since then Panagiotidis has watched the product his company specializes in evolve into ever more sophisticated colors, shapes, sizes, and panel lengths, not to mention corner posts, trims, and on and on. Most of this is vinyl. Homeowners often consult Total Home because they need a change or are bored with the current look of the house, Panagiotidis says. But they can’t keep up with all there is to know about siding. They want to see first-hand that it will look great, so the contractor sends them to look at about eight of his projects.
When he’s running a siding lead, home improvement salesperson and sales trainer Tommy Steele, makes it a point to mention that of all home improvement projects, siding replacement—vinyl or fiber cement—consistently ranks near the top for return on investment in re-sell. The reason is that a radical alteration in appearance produces “a new house at the same address,” Steele says. Beyond that, there are the basics that signal quality and professionalism: insurance, licensing, and a careful inspection for rot, bees, termites, water damage, and so on. The installation issue is similarly crucial.
“I tell people that the siding comes in cardboard boxes,” Steele says. “Someone has to put it on the house. If it isn’t put on properly, nothing works at all.” There are companies that sell siding jobs based on photographs of how poorly the work of other siding companies ages. Total Home is not one of them, but for Panagiotidis, the promise of foolproof installation is similarly front and center. “We’re certified, we do the installation by the book, and we use employees, we don’t use subs.”
Get Inside Their Head
Kersch recalls riding along to watch others sell when he first got started and wondering, “What would I want to hear if I was sitting on the other side of the table? What would make me feel comfortable?” Those questions, he says, still inform every sales visit.
It comes down to enabling homeowners to see that new look in their minds, then helping make up their mind that it’s worth paying $30,000 for. Panagiotidis brings samples and a ton of photos on an iPad. That’s engaging, but it’s often a certain direct appeal that gets the homeowner's juices flowing. “I look around their brand new kitchen or their living room," Panagiotidis says, "and I ask them if they can recall what it looked like before the kitchen was remodeled, or before that crown molding went in in the living room. They’ll say, 'Yeah, it made a big difference.' And I’ll say: We are going to do that on the outside of the house. We’re going to make your outside look like this inside.” Then Panagiotidis describes in detail just how that will be accomplished. “The people who are serious and want to hire somebody" he says, "they hire us.”