Clean It Up 

Older houses need special attention

The brick on the outside of my house is dirty. Is it OK to paint brick?

Well...painting brick is OK in the sense that there are no life-breaking consequences, like getting locked up in a Turkish prison. But I say don’t paint the brick. Unless a brick house has big aesthetic problems—like multiple hideous patches or mismatched bricks—there is no good reason to paint it.

There are lots of good reasons to leave unpainted brick unpainted. First, unlike wood or wood-McNugget pseudo-siding (called hardboard in the trade), brick does not need a protective coating. Second, once you start painting brick, you’ve committed to a lifetime of repainting, which will eventually build up a thick coating that will obscure swell details like mortar joints, corbels and all that. Third, it’s easier and cheaper to have the brick cleaned, and the cleaning will last a lot longer than a paint job.

I live in a yellow brick house, built in 1914. When I bought it 10 years ago, the brick was dirtier than a Cheeto-eating Laundromat baby. All around me, owners of similarly stained yellow brick houses were having their places painted Hilton Head colors. Did I follow the trend? Did I even allow myself to think the word “taupe?” Nope. My house remains proudly unpainted, the color of fresh creamery butter, because (gratuitous plug) I called Fred Bledsoe, the proprietor of Happy Bear Roof Cleaning Service, 292-8716.

Fred is not your everyday contractor boy. First, he is quirky. Fred tells me that, for a limited time only, he is offering free “Which way is up?” lessons to all new customers. Second, he gives a freebie demonstration, in which he comes to a customer’s house and cleans off a sizable patch of dirt. This causes two things to happen: First, customers say, “Wow! That really works!” Second, since good Americans can’t stand things that don’t match, folks hire Fred right there on the spot, so he can make the rest of the house as clean as the test patch.

Fred also cleans stone, and roof shingles. He’s not the only person in Nashville who does this kind of work—he’s just my personal favorite, which probably means he’d make people who like Michael Bolton nervous. There are boatloads of handymen and painters who say they know how to clean brick, and many would cheerfully accept the assignment. But beware: Rookies and puddinheads could screw up the job and leave the house permanently ugly. Be sure to check references before you hire any contractor.

The roof shingles on my house are original. They’re worn out, and it’s time for new shingles. One roofer tells me that since there’s only one layer of shingles, I can put new shingles over the old ones. Another roofer tells me to tear off the old shingles. Which way is better?

Tear ’em off. Lots of roofers, roofing manufacturers and trade associations say it’s perfectly OK to put new shingles over old shingles, provided the old shingles are in decent shape. I say this is good marketing (Low cost! Buy now!) but half-assed roofing.

The only good thing about a two-layer roof is that it costs less, because you delay the labor costs (removing the old shingles) and disposal costs (hauling and dumping the shingles in the landfill). Understand, these expenses don’t disappear, they just move into the future. In the meantime, you’re stuck with a second-rate roofing job.

There are several not-so-good things about putting on a second layer of shingles. Two-layer roofs are inherently wavier than one-layer roofs. The wavier the shingle surface, the more likely it is to have little areas where water can pool, causing damage to the shingles, and maybe even leaks.

Shingles on a two-layer roof are more likely to come loose in high winds, because nailing through old shingles is not as good as nailing directly into the decking. Also, roof decking doesn’t get exposed during a roof-over job, so rot or heat damage to the decking can go undetected—and unrepaired.

As usual, when you figure in the hidden costs of doing it cheaply, doing the job right will actually cost less.

Walter Jowers can be reached at


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