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Painting contractors: How much should painting cost, or should you DIY?

Peter WardenThe Mortgage Reports Contributor

What does it cost to paint a house?

You probably could paint your house, if you wanted to and had the necessary time and equipment. But maybe you should just look at painting contractors. How do you find them, and what should you pay? Three things affect the cost:

  1. Square footage of the area to be painted
  2. Architectural features that can make it easier or harder to paint
  3. The quality of materials and job you want

Expect to pay more for a room with designer suede paint and faux finishes. Or a four-story exterior with lots of trim to get around.

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Don’t be Jack the Dripper

You may want a $200-million Jackson “Jack-the-Dripper” Pollock original on your wall. But you don’t want his characteristic drips, runs and splatters underneath it — in the paint that covers that wall.

It’s not especially hard to get the smooth, clean, precise finishes you want. Indeed, some homeowners achieve ones that are indistinguishable from those delivered by professionals.

However, relatively few do because they lack the patience to do the best possible job. They cut corners, ignoring three essential rules:

  1. Prepare surfaces thoroughly and appropriately before touching the paint can — And mask or cover carefully everything you don’t want the paint to touch
  2. Invest in high-quality products — You get what you pay for with primers, paints, brushes, rollers and so on
  3. Educate yourself — You can’t hope to achieve what you want unless you understand the processes involved. Get tips from a knowledgeable friend. And it’s not a bit sad if YouTube is your friend

Related: Home maintenance essential for preserving property value

Follow those three rules and you may do a great job. Still, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll do it in the time it takes a professional. Someone who works daily for many years with every type of paint and surface will immediately know what each situation demands. And will have acquired all the tricks of the trade to do a great job quickly.

For many homeowners, the smart move is to call in a professional. But it’s not going to be cheap …

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How much do painting contractors charge?

Painting contractors charge $2,775.

Kidding! Obviously, as discussed above, there are endless variables that affect the price you’re going to pay, including where you live. If that’s somewhere with a high cost of living, your estimate will be above the average. That’s because painter’s costs are also higher.

Related: Hassle-free selling with full-service home prep

Luckily, websites such as PaintingLeads.com, HomeWyse.com and HomeAdvisor.com have done some serious legwork to establish some national averages for painting contractors’ costs. Adjust from those averages to account for your location, the size of your home, its age and architectural characteristics and what you want done.

If you mash up those websites’ numbers, you learn:

  • That $2,775 is actually the average cost for painting the exterior of a home in 2018, according to HomeAdvisor
  • It costs a bit (maybe 10- or 20-percent) more to paint an interior — All those interior walls mean extra surface area. And there are doors and baseboards to cover and floors and furnishings to protect
  • For exteriors, the material your sidings are made of will make a big difference — Metal sidings are typically cheapest and stucco the most expensive, with vinyl and wood in between
  • PaintingLeads reckons it costs $1500-$2300 to paint the exterior of a single-story, 1,500-square-foot home — and $1800-$2500 for the interior
  • It calculates it costs $4000-$6000 for the exterior of a three-story, 4,000-square-foot home — and $4500-$7000 for its interior

Expect roughly 80 percent of your bill to go to your painting contractors, and the rest on materials. Fifty-five percent of it typically goes straight into labor and 25 percent into “painter’s markup.”

What’s “painter’s markup?”

A painter who charged you just for labor and materials would soon go bankrupt. Painters need to cover the costs of running their business — and make a profit.

Some contractors will show those costs and profit as a painter’s markup. In theory, that’s the revenue the company retains on its purchase of the paint and other materials you need, and may involve trade discounts from suppliers. That may not always be the case in practice.

Related: Best home improvement loan: How to find it and pay less for it

However, don’t get too hung up on that. When you’re comparing quotes from different, equally reputable contractors (and you’ll want at the very least three), focus on the bottom line. After all, it shouldn’t really bother you if, why and how the quote is broken down. Some give a single price with no breakdown.

Of course, you still want detailed specifications and materials on the quote. You need to know precisely what you’ll be getting. Otherwise, you can’t make valid comparisons.

Finding good painting contractors

If your state or municipality licenses painting contractors (and not all do), you should choose one that is licensed. You’ll also want one that’s insured for all sorts of liabilities, including workers’ compensation. Ask to see the paperwork. After all, nobody who has it is going to mind showing it.

The best way to find any contractor is to get recommendations from homeowners who’ve used one recently. You want to know about their reliability, work ethic and professionalism as well as the quality of their finishes.

Even when you have a recommendation, do your due diligence. Begin with a background check. Search the Better Business Bureau website and your local licensing department’s database of complaints.

Related: Complete guide to building a house

Also, do a general internet search for each contractor’s name in case there are less official complaints to uncover. Once you’re in touch, ask each candidate for references from recent customers who’ve had jobs done that are similar to your project. Then call them to ask about their experiences.

But what if you can’t get any or enough personal recommendations? Just Google “painting contractors in [your zip code].” Then work through the list, favoring ones that specialize in they types of project you need. You can do your due diligence before you start placing calls, but you’ll still want references at some point.

Make a shortlist of at least three candidates and get a detailed quote from each. And feel free to negotiate.

Do it yourself

Like many professionals, painting contractors make their jobs look easy. So maybe you watched a couple of guys transform your neighbor’s home in a day or two and thought, “Piece of cake. I could do that.”

And you may well have been right. But pause before you begin …

DIY questions

  1. Is this worth dying for? — Annually, there are more than 300 deaths (and 164,000 ER visits) in the U.S. resulting from ladder accidents. Most fatalities are from falls of 10 feet or less
  2. Am I going to poison myself? — If the existing paint pre-dates 1978, it likely contains lead. You’re going to need specialist advice
  3. Am I going to finish this? — Some people finish every task. Others hardly ever complete anything. You know which you are. Remember, a half-painted house is a serious eyesore
  4. Do I know what I’m doing? — Certainly, YouTube can help. But you need to identify the surfaces to which you’re going to apply paint before you can access the right instructional videos
  5. Do I have the patience? — If you pride yourself on your big-picture approach to life, are you really going to put in the time and effort to prepare surfaces properly and get the details and finishes right?
  6. Am I prepared to buy quality paints and tools? — No matter how good a home improver you are, you’ll find getting professional finishes hard/impossible if you cut corners
  7. Is this the right job for an amateur? — Professionals are used to working at height on taller homes and know how to use ladders safely on sloping and uneven surfaces. Conversely, amateurs can often do a great job on single-story homes with easily accessible sidings
  8. Finally, have I picked the right time of year? — Don’t paint exteriors when it’s too hot or too cold (50°-90°F is the Goldilocks temperature) or rainy or too sunny or too humid or too windy or too dusty. Pick your season

Now, you may, through nature or nurture, be someone who is good at home improvement. But you may not be. If you’re in the latter group, don’t pick the very-public exterior painting of your home to test whether you’re ready to switch camps. Begin inside.

Verify your new rate (Sep 21st, 2018)