Imagine a house you never have to repaint. A roof you never have to replace. A deck that’s going to last longer than you. It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
With some careful choices and some extra resources, you can upgrade your house with long-lasting materials that will take some maintenance chores off your to-do list.
Most durable materials/components are typically low maintenance as well (think brick or stone, for instance). But a single material is only part of a larger system. While stone is a definite contender for the longest life, its longevity is undercut by its need for mortar, which doesn’t last forever.
Really, any building material will attain its maximum lifetime, but only if it’s installed correctly. Improper installations can not only lead to the failure of the material, but also to the larger structure as well. Also, most product warranties are voided if the product was is not installed per the manufacturer’s instructions.
Calculate the Costs
When choosing materials, a general rule of thumb is that longevity doesn’t come cheap—expect to pay a premium for the longest-lasting materials.
Cheaper materials have their allure, especially when money is tight, but the initial lower cost may be deceptive. Take exterior trim, for instance. Pre-primed pine trim might cost $3 to $4 per board foot, while PVC trim may cost $5 per board foot or more. The PVC trim doesn’t need paint and won’t rot, while you can expect to repaint the pine every ten years and it will rot and eventually need to be replaced.
Another cost factor is labor. Are you going to be doing the work, or will you hire someone? Homeowners save money by working on their own homes, but in the most extreme cases maintaining the exterior of a house can become a full-time job.
When it’s time to start talking to a contractor, find out if they are well versed in the installation of the material you plan to use. If not, it’s better to find someone else.
Best Low-Maintenance Housing Materials
The following is a list of the most common categories of exterior housing building materials, their estimated lifespan, and approximate price. These material prices don’t include installation and may vary by region.
In the absolutely low-maintenance house parts contest, the roof wins hands down. Luckily, most roofing materials will last for decades, so it becomes a question of whether you’d prefer to pay more for a roof that will outlive you, or pay less for the one you’ll have to replace in 20 years. The height, pitch, and complexity will affect the roof installation costs.
- Clay and concrete tiles: 100 years or more. May only be considered architecturally appropriate for some regional styles; installers and sources may be harder to find; may require additional framing in the roof to support their heavier weight. $4 per square foot (concrete) to $10 per square foot (clay).
- Slate: 100 years or more. Sources and installers may be hard to find, especially outside of the Northeast; installation is expensive; may require additional roof framing for support. $4 to $6 per square foot.
- Galvanized Steel and Aluminum: 40 to 80 years. Fireproof; lightweight; good for regions with heavy snowfall; installation can be expensive. $4 to $6 per square foot.
- Copper: 70 to 100 years or more. Achieves a beautiful patina; long-lasting; expensive; it might be hard to find installers familiar with the material. $10 to $20 or more per square foot.
- Cedar: 30 years. Rustic appearance; environmentally friendly; somewhat expensive; may not be appropriate in areas with seasonal wildfires. Approximately $4 per square foot.
- Three-tab asphalt shingles: 20 years. Inexpensive; universally available; relatively easy to install; significant carbon footprint. $1 to $2 per square foot.
- Architectural asphalt shingles: 30 years. More expensive than three-tab shingles; longer life; significant carbon footprint. $2 to $3 per square foot.
As a rule, gutters are not considered low maintenance, especially if the house is close to trees. Periodically, gutters must be cleared of leaves and other debris so that they can drain properly.
Generally, metal gutters made from thin stock don’t last as long as those made from the more expensive heavier-gauge material. Also, seamless gutters have fewer leaks than do segmented types.
- Stainless steel: 100 years. Never rusts; extremely long-lasting; expensive; can be fabricated as seamless or in sections. $5 to $12 per linear foot.
- Copper: 50 to 100 years. Very durable; available as seamless or segmented in three different weights; expensive; seams must be soldered. $25 to $40 per linear foot.
- Galvalume (steel coated with an aluminum/zinc alloy): 25 years or more. It can be fabricated as seamless or in sections. $2 to $4 per linear foot.
- Galvanized steel (zinc-coated): 20. It can be fabricated as seamless or in sections; not as durable as aluminum. $2 to $8 per linear foot.
- Aluminum: 20 to 40 years. Won’t rust; available in seamless or sections; less expensive choices made from thinner material tend to bend or buckle. $6 to $12 per linear foot.
- Vinyl: 25 years or more. Inexpensive; paintable but doesn’t require paint; lightweight (easier to install); may become brittle in extreme cold. $3 to $5 per linear foot.
Siding is the outermost exterior layer that protects the structure of the house from the elements. As a rule, the lowest-maintenance materials will also last the longest.
- Brick and stone: Should last the lifetime of the house. Very low maintenance (may require repointing and periodic washing); older brick may need to be sealed to prevent spalling; expensive to install. $6 to $10 per square foot (brick); $35 to-$50 per square foot (stone).
- Traditional stucco: Should last the lifetime of the house. It can be stained or painted (if painted, it may need repainting); not used as commonly as it once was, so it may be harder to find contractors familiar with its installation; installation costs less than stone or brick. $6 to $9 per square foot.
- Fiber cement: 75 years or more. Extremely durable; heavy; somewhat difficult to cut and install; takes paint well; available in clapboards or shakes; expensive. $1 to $5 per square foot.
- Wood (cedar, redwood): 75 years or more. Should be treated with preservatives or painted; may be prone to rot, insect damage, and fire. $3.25 to $15.75 per square foot.
- Synthetic stucco (EIFS): 50 years. Correct installation is critical; it can increase a home’s insulation value; it can be paintable; it may be hard to find an installer. $2 to $3 per square foot.
- Engineered siding: Some manufacturers offer a limited 50-year warranty. Relatively new to the market; available pre-primed or with factory finish; insect and rot-resistant; less expensive than most siding materials; needs to be painted on a regular basis. $11 to $28 per square foot.
- Vinyl: Up to 50 years. Inexpensive; available in many styles and colors; low maintenance; susceptible to wind damage, fire, extreme cold weather. $2 to $7 per square foot.
- Aluminum: 50 years or more. The original low-maintenance siding material; not commonly used anymore; corrosion-resistant; relatively inexpensive; color tends to fade and look chalky after years of exposure. $3.50 to $4.75 per square foot.
House exterior trim
The exterior trim on a house—windows and door casing, corner boards, rakes, soffits, and fascia— is more likely to require maintenance or replacement than any other element.
- Wood: Can last 50 to 75 years with proper installation. Traditional material; must be painted or stained on a regular schedule; inexpensive; prone to rot and insect damage. Certain species (e.g., cedar, redwood) will last longer than pine. Prices range from about $2 per board foot for unpainted pine to $10 or more per board foot for clear cedar or redwood.
- PVC: Limited lifetime warranty (20 years). Won’t rot; insect-proof; more expensive than wood; paintable, but to minimize thermal expansion it cannot be painted dark colors; installers must also detail joints to account for thermal expansion. $5 to $6 per board foot.
- Fiber cement: 75 or more years. Extremely durable; heavy, somewhat difficult to cut and install; available pre-primed; takes paint well. $3 to $4 per square foot.
- Aluminum: 50 years or more. Primarily used in conjunction with vinyl siding; thin coil stock is wrapped around existing trim elements; paintable; can be prone to wind damage; dents easily. $1 to $2 per square foot.
Windows and doors
While windows are primarily glass, their frames require the most maintenance and have the most potential to fail, especially if their exteriors are painted wood and not clad in aluminum, vinyl, or fiberglass.
In addition to the various frame materials in windows, on higher-end units, there are also options for different configurations of insulated glass. Adding glass to a door will usually increase its cost and decrease its thermal properties. (The following prices are based on a 36-inch by the 80-inch sized door.)
- Fiberglass: 50 years (windows); 100 years or more (doors). Very durable material; won’t rot or warp; can be painted or textured to resemble wood; good thermal properties. $35 to $80 per square foot for windows; $400 to $1000 or more per door.
- Wood: 30 or more years (windows); 30 to 100 years (doors). It can be stained or painted; natural appearance; wide range of styles and price points; requires regular maintenance to remain rot free. $200 to $1000 or more per door.
- Composite (windows): Warrantied 10 to 20 years. Frames are made from a relatively new mix of vinyl and wood products; low maintenance can be painted or stained; good thermal properties. $25 to $80 per square foot.
- Vinyl-clad and solid vinyl (windows): 30 years. (windows). Rot-free; don’t require paint; limited color choice for solid vinyl windows; relatively inexpensive. Vinyl-clad combines a wood interior with a lower-maintenance exterior but is more expensive. $13 to $70 per square foot.
- Aluminum-clad (windows): Typically warrantied 15 to 20 years. Very low maintenance; exterior combined with wood interior. $25 to $80 per window.
- Solid aluminum (windows): 30 years. Lightweight; corrosion-resistant: less expensive than most. It can be powder-coated, so low-maintenance; not energy efficient, so most appropriate for warmer climates. $35 to $80 per square foot.
- Steel (doors): 100 years or more. Affordable; very durable; can be painted; won’t warp or rot; less energy efficient than fiberglass or wood. $150 to $300 per door.
Porch flooring, decking, and handrails
Decks and porches usually require a fair amount of upkeep that includes routine cleaning; periodic applications of paint, stain, or sealer; and ultimately replacement.
- Tropical hardwoods (ipe, cambara): 50 to 75 years. Insect and rot-resistant; won’t leach chemicals into the environment; very low maintenance; no finish required; expensive. $5 or more per square foot.
- Aluminum: 30 to 50 years. Most expensive; requires no maintenance except cleaning; very light and strong; limited choice of powder-coated colors; recyclable; difficult to install. $10 to $11 per square foot.
- Composite: 25 to 50-year warranties. Rot and insect-proof; won’t splinter; doesn’t require stain or sealers, low maintenance but is susceptible to fading; more expensive than wood. $6 to $8 per square foot.
- Polyethylene and PVC: 30 years. Impervious to rot and insects; low maintenance: more expensive than composite decking; can get uncomfortably hot in the direct sun; easy to clean; looks like plastic. $4 to $8 per square foot.
- Pressure-treated wood: 15 to 20 years. Inexpensive; contains toxic chemicals; may splinter or warp if not maintained. $1.50 to $2 per square foot.
- Redwood, cedar, Douglas fir (porches): 20 years or more. Natural look and feel; insect and rot-resistant; colors will turn to gray in the sun unless sealed periodically; low density means faster wear; can be as expensive as tropical hardwoods. $5 or more per square foot.
Most of the material used in flooring and decking—wood, aluminum, wood/plastic composites—are also used for handrails. Their pros and cons don’t change. (See the previous section.) Two types that fall out of that grouping are wrought iron and cable rail systems made from a stainless steel cable.
- Wrought iron/steel: 100 years. Extremely solid; must be maintained (paint, powder coating) to prevent corrosion; steel is less expensive than wrought iron; both are more expensive than wood. $50 to $120 per linear foot.
- Cable rail systems: 10-year warranties. Low-maintenance; stainless steel may degrade faster in salt air; check with local building codes before choosing; expensive, but DIY kits are available. $35 per linear foot.
Whether leading to a deck or a more formal entrance, exterior stairs have to endure lots of wear and tear. Unless they are concrete, stone, or metal, stairs should be framed with pressure-treated wood for increased longevity.
- Pressure-treated wood: 15 to 20 years. Inexpensive; contains toxic chemicals; may splinter or warp if not maintained. $1.50 to $2 per square foot.
- Tropical hardwoods: 50 to 75 years. Rot and insect resistant; won’t leach chemicals into the environment; very low maintenance, no finish required; expensive. $5 or more per square foot.
- Concrete: 50 to 75 years. It can be custom formed and poured or purchased as precast; very low maintenance; can be combined with stone or brick to offset the industrial look; can cost less than site-built stairs.
- Stone: 100 years or more. Natural appearance; low maintenance; durable; potentially expensive depending on design and materials.
- Brick: 100 years or more. May need annual cleaning; needs repointing every 50 to 60 years. $4 to $5 per square foot.
- Steel and Aluminum: 50 to 75 years. May be available as prefab or custom; very low maintenance; steel will rust (unless painted, which increases maintenance) but aluminum won’t; lightweight aluminum is noisier than steel; steel is less expensive than aluminum.
- Composite: 25 to 50 years. Rot and insect-proof; won’t splinter; doesn’t require stain or sealers; more expensive than wood. $6 to $8 per square foot.
Landscape/privacy fencing can be made of wood, vinyl (PVC), composite material (vinyl/wood mix), or wrought iron. Wooden fencing is often painted or stained, which increases both the life of the fence and the need for regular maintenance.
Vinyl and composite require the least maintenance but cost more to buy and install. Prices listed do not include the cost of footings and posts.
- Wood: 20 to 30 years. Cedar $15 to $30 per linear foot; redwood $25 to $50 per linear foot; pine $10 to $25 per linear foot.
- Pressure-treated wood: 15 to 20 years. $10 to $25 per linear foot.
- Composite: 25-year warranty. $9 to $45 per linear foot.
- Vinyl: 100 years. $16 to $35 per linear foot.
- Wrought iron: 75 years or more. $35 to $100 per linear foot.
Installation is key
Most materials will not perform as intended unless they’re installed correctly. When you’re replacing any material on the exterior of a house, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. I
f the material is too generic to come with instructions (pine trim boards, for instance), do some research to find the currently accepted installation methods. Improper installation can even void a manufacturer’s warranty.
Read the Warranty
Most manufacturers offer some sort of warranty with their products. Unfortunately, not all warranties are the same.
Manufacturers typically define “lifetime warranty” as a specific life expectancy of the product, while others may define the term as the duration of ownership. The best advice is to read the fine print in the warranty before purchasing a product.