When customers ask a remodeler what's to be done with ailing vinyl, the immediate answer seems to be: not much.

Old vinyl or aluminum exteriors aren't like wood-based cladding, which can be completely restored with some energetic scraping or conscientious paint stripping, followed by a top-notch paint job.

Vinyl and metal are different animals. Revamping these sidings is rarely a matter of patching in a panel here, replacing a corner post there, and washing the whole thing down. Metal, at least, can be successfully repainted in the field, but vinyl requires a complete change-out just to alter the color.

“When customers come to us, they're usually looking for a complete change in style and color. The 8-inch reveal and avocado green no longer matches the neighborhood,” explains Jeff Monsein, owner of The Aluminum Co. of North Carolina. “Typically, when vinyl gets to be 20-plus years old, washing it down won't be satisfactory.” More often than not, Monsein sells the client a completely new exterior. For the most part, total replacement is the rule in the vinyl residing market.

But for many remodelers, re-siding work is not their primary focus. Robert Criner, owner of Criner Construction in York, Va., confronts old vinyl and metal only when it relates to other work, such as an addition or new windows and doors that are part of an extensive interior remodel. “In remodeling, it often comes down to tying into and matching what they have.”

The first thing Criner does in this case is look for the disasters that vinyl and metal are often hiding. “It's what's under the siding —the flashings, the drainage plane, or water barrier — where builders fall down on a siding job and where remodelers have to pick up the pieces.”

If the substrate is in bad shape, Criner has to start talking to the client about replacement — removing the existing siding, fixing the problems, and creating a watertight plane, then upgrading to a premium vinyl or installing fiber cement. It may have to be done in phases, but it's never a simple repair. Often the facelift involves extensive design changes to the exterior, including wider overhangs, window trim, and other details that were either obliterated by the re-sider or never included in the original design (see photo, left).

The other downfall of many vinyl exteriors involves the trim details. “Too often, J-channel is the only trim,” Criner says. Creatively mixing horizontal panels with shingle panels, using premium trim materials, and hiding the J-channel by integrating it into casing and corner boards can go a long way to improving a vinyl exterior. “Vinyl may be the most economical siding option, but it doesn't have to look that way,” Criner says.