Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Paint Jobs: The Good, The Bad and The Best

By Matt Cantor
Friday June 23, 2006

In my job, I’m often asked to estimate what a particular job might cost. Mrs. Jones wants to know how much a new furnace might cost, or perhaps a roof. These aren’t too hard to roughly gauge and costs won’t vary by 100 percent (most of the time). 

I might even be able to give a pretty fair guess; but a paint-job is a horse of a different color when it comes to estimates and let me tell you why. There are paint jobs and paint jobs and paint jobs. They diverge in quality so much that it’s almost as though two different painters are in different lines of work.  

I mention this because I saw a classic case the other day. A true “blow and go” (I realize this gets used for lawn-care too but it really does apply, as you’ll see, to painting). This paint job was done so quickly and was so thin that there were actually voids on the surface that looked like thin leaves of paint in the places where it had failed to form a continuous sheet. 

Also, you could see from the clear image of the grain of the rough wood below that the thickness of the paint was probably about that of a sheet of paper. The painter must have gotten a lot of coverage out of that five-gallon bucket of paint. If you add a little water, you might just make it around to the other side and be done before 10 a.m. In other words, the house had a new color, but nothing that I would actually call a paint job. 

Now, let’s contrast, just within this one criterion, with another paint job. Last week I saw a paint job that I gave a very big vote of confidence to and boy, it was sweet. 

One of the ways in which it was clear that this was a great paint job was that the fine definition of surface reticulation or, in English, the texture of the surface below the paint, was very much obscured. 

This isn’t always a good thing, in terms of aesthetics, but they found a very good compromise and having enough paint on the outside of a house is a darned nice thing. 

The paint was rolled in the right places and brushed in the right places and was nicely built-up at the joints between surfaces so that it was very clear that, making allowances for the paint quality itself, this paint job would be around, protecting the house for a long time to come (10 years?). 

So even if the only thing we talk about is volume and thickness of paint, we can be talking two different world. By the way, the first product was literally in need of repainted now and I think it was done last month. If it were done twice as well, it might have needed to be repainted in a year or two. That’s how big the difference is. 

So when we speak of one paint job costing three grand and another being 12, it may well be that the 12 is a far better value and that the painter puts less money in their pocket than the felon (oops, I mean fellow) charging 3. We’re not just talking apples and oranges, we’re talking row boats and aircraft carriers. 

The second issue and the one that I usually use as my primary criterion is preparation. It’s often been said that preparation should be largest part of any paint-job, although the percentages I hear bandied about (of course I never bandy myself, gave it up years ago) range from 50-90 percent. 

Not withstanding statistics, the point is that preparation is extremely important and that gallons of the best paint, painstakingly applied by caring hands cannot prevent the ill results of inadequate prep. 

One very important example relates to moisture. If one paints a surface that is not fully dry, the moisture below the new paint coating will vaporize in the heat of the day and form blisters, which lead to delamination and pretty soon the coating has gone all wonky (technical terminology). 

If the paint job is applied over a dirty or oily surface, the paint can similarly begin to detach and fail in the course of a year or two. 

A real favorite of mine, because I see it so often, is paint failure (now or soon to come) when paint is placed (usually sprayed) over old peeling paint. 

There’s no paint strong enough to keep the paint layer in place very long when the surface it’s attached to is already hanging in leaves off the house. 

A simple scraping would have been enough to prevent this but many a painter has left such stuff on the outside of the house and blown over it in pursuit of a quick check (or simply because they didn’t know any better). 

A quick aside is due at this point to offer some explanation as to why such workmanship comes into existence. I do not believe that most tradespeople are corrupt. Most are just trying to get by and are going the best work they know how to provide. The larger problem is the lack of knowledge and experience out there. 

The really great painter knows so much more than their sorry counterpart. They might even know fast and inexpensive ways to remove all the detritus from the outside so that they can create an iron-clad surface without spending months preparing the surface. 

In any event, they are not going to be cheaper. That’s the sad but consistent truth about this kind of work (and, of course, many other kinds of work). 

Two plumbers might be darned close on their estimates and the rules on connecting pipe will help to keep their work somewhat similar, but painter A (Starving Student Painters of Lower Lower Rockridge) will simply not provide the same product as painter B (Francine Flaubert Faux Finish et Decorating), despite their best efforts. 

Again, it’s up to the buyer to do the bewaring and to help push the quality uphill. We do this by saying no the low bid and by looking at a painter’s past pains for paltry products. Talk to clients from two or three years ago and go see their house before you sign on. 

Paint thickness and good preparation are just two of the criteria one should be looking at when comparing paint jobs and your poor servant’s column space is nearly filled but let it be sufficient to say that there is a lot of difference between a good and a bad paint job and hopefully, just as great a difference between a cheap and a costly one. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.