QCan stucco be painted to give it a cleaner appearance? -- A. Klaw

AStucco can be painted, but if a cleaner appearance is what you want, you should try light pressure washing first. Pressure washing is often a first step in the paint-preparation process, so you have little to lose. I clean the stucco siding on our house with a pressure washer set at 2,000 pounds per square inch.

Avoid excessive pressure and test the washer on an inconspicuous area to make sure there's no damage. If you're unfamiliar with pressure washers, have the work done by a trained technician. Many painting companies offer this service.

Frequently, washing is enough to make the stucco look sparkling clean -- surface dirt, mildew and many stains simply melt away under a pressurized stream of water and siding cleaner. It is possible that you will decide there is no need for painting after the siding is cleaned.

If painting is still the goal, however, let the cleaned walls dry before proceeding. This can take several days to a week, depending on the weather. Repair any cracks or other defects in the stucco. Tiny hairline cracks will be sealed by the paint, but many larger cracks can be sealed with acrylic-latex caulk. If major repairs are needed, it is best to have the work done by a skilled worker -- check under "stucco" in your Yellow Pages.

Stucco can be painted with high-quality acrylic-latex paint suitable for masonry. Check the container for recommendations and special instructions. Some experts recommend so-called elastomeric paints, which are sold at paint stores and home centers. Some special paints, such as UGL's Drylok Stucco Paint (www.ugl.com), are also available. The paint is applied with a roller with a nap about 3/4-inch long. Paint should be worked thoroughly into crevices. Two coats are best.

We have concrete steps in the front and rear of our house. We paint them, but the paint doesn't last. What are we doing wrong? -- M. Harrigan

For starters, you might be using the wrong paint. For concrete surfaces where there is foot traffic, always use special concrete-floor paint, sometimes labeled "porch and floor" paint. These paints come in several types, including epoxy and latex. You should be able to find a good selection at a home center or paint store.

Epoxy paints are usually considered the toughest. They cost more than latex and are more difficult to use -- they generally come in two parts that must be mixed immediately before application. If you are having problems with wear and adhesion, epoxy could be the best choice.

Before you repaint, remove all loose and flaking paint from the concrete with a chemical paint remover or by sanding. Then clean the concrete by scrubbing with a solution of one cup trisodium phosphate, a heavy-duty cleaner, in a gallon of warm water. Wear goggles and rubber gloves when using paint removers or strong cleaners.

The paint container might have additional instructions for preparing the surface, and they should be followed . For example, "etching" the surface might be recommended. Etching improves adhesion by roughening the surface and removing a fine powder that can form on the surface of concrete. Etching is done with an acid (sold in paint stores) that must be used with extreme care.

We have a vacation home at the seashore that is left unused for long periods, during which we set the thermostat at 50 degrees. We get different advice on whether we should turn off the power to the water heater during absences. What do you think? -- T. Bolavage

If you are going to be absent for more than a week, I would turn off the power to the water heater and close the main water valve. For extended absences, I would drain the water-heater tank and other water lines, especially if there is any danger of freezing if the heating system fails.

Water heaters have been known to burst from excess pressure, and a water damage can result if no precautions are taken. If you drain the water heater, be sure to refill it before turning the power on again. Failing to refill can burn out the heating elements.

Questions and comments should be sent to Gene Austin, 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, Pa. 19422. Send e-mail to doit861@aol.com. Questions cannot be answered personally.