House Painting Tips

An outline of the important factors to consider when pricing a house-painting job.
By Donald W. Geary
July/August 1974
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Donald Geary bases his painting cost estimates in part on how many windows a home has.

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House painting is such a monumental task that most people don't know where to begin ... or, if they do know, they don't want to hassle with getting paint all over themselves or spend their weekends or vacations perched on top of a ladder. And that's where I come in.

Last spring I placed an advertisement in a suburban news paper: "House Painting — reasonable and efficient, free estimate — call _____. " The notice cost me $1.60 a week and brought in about five weekly inquiries from prospective customers. This was the start of a profitable business.

When I receive a call, I make an appointment to visit the prospective client as soon as possible. My rule is to explain to the homeowner at our first meeting that I'm not a professional painter, but have experience and believe I can do a good job. It's always best to be up front with people ... they appreciate knowing that they'll have satisfactory work done at a price below the going rate.

My next move is to walk around the house and get a clear picture of what's needed. This survey includes some basic questions: Will there be a significant color change? Are there any areas in need of repair (broken leaders and gutter, rotten wood, etc.)? Will the owner take care of these problems, or will I? (I always state whether or not I'm qualified to do so.) Does the customer want one coat of paint, or two? (The first goes on slowly, the second more easily because the covered surface is smoother and less absorbent.)

I also ask at this point whether the homeowner can supply an extension ladder (either his own or one borrowed from a neighbor). Most often he can, but if not I arrange to borrow or rent one. A good ladder costs about $185, which is why I don't have my own even though I've painted over 25 houses.

When I'm making an estimate I carry a clipboard and pad with me and make notes about the job: approximate hours and cost, date to begin and any special instructions (remove storm windows, put up screens, paint both, clean gutters, etc.).

My estimate is based on a window count (because the frames are the most time-consuming areas to paint, what with the detail and the care that's needed to avoid smearing the glass). Each window — and every door — goes down on my sheet as one hour ... and if extensive putty replacement is needed I allot extra time. Then I figure about three hours for the long side of a house, one to three for railings and porches (depending on length and type) and variable periods for trim according to its nature. Individual homes vary so much that rigid scheduling isn't possible, but my rough guides work out pretty accurately in practice.

These calculations give me an overall time estimate — one to three days — which I multiply by my hourly rate. When I employ a helper, I add his hourly pay to mine and then multiply.

The amount you charge should be fair to both the homeowner and to you. If you have some experience I'd recommend asking a minimum of $4 per hour. Raise your charge as you improve, but never compromise yourself by demanding the exorbitant rip-off rates of commercial painters. I don't buy paint unless the customer insists, since I prefer to have him or her select the grade and colors ... but I do urge the individual to go for the best he can afford. If I must supply the materials, I stick with a good brand such as Benjamin Moore, Dutch Boy, Sherwin-Williams or Sears. I'm particular because I know that the quality of the paint will directly affect the quality of my work ... not that sloppy workmanship with good materials equals a professional job, of course, but cheap products won't look good or last long no matter how they're used.

Two basic types of paint are available: oil-based and water-based (latex). Modern methods of production have improved the durability of latex to the point that it actually surpasses the oil type. I prefer a water-based formula myself, for several reasons: It dries in about one hour so that two coats can be applied the same day, it's easier to handle and stroke on and the brushes clean up with soap and water.

If you're going into the painting business, it's a good idea to visit a few dealers to get paint charts and find out about the available products, their prices, methods of application and expected life (which can vary from three to ten years).

Most house-painting jobs consist of four major tasks. The first is surface preparation, which can entail anything up to removing all the old paint or replacing parts of the structure. In most cases, though, what's involved is some scraping, sanding and caulking, with maybe a bit of priming here and there. The whole business should take about half a day for the average home and — if done well — will give you a good base for the work which is to follow. Remember, paint won't adhere properly unless the underlying area is free of dirt and loose coatings.

I usually begin by hosing down the outside of a house to remove most of the soil. Then I scrape any peeling, cracked or chipped spots. Areas which have been taken down to the bare wood get a splash of primer (or two coats of regular paint will suffice if the patch is small). Finally, I replace any loose or missing putty around windows and recaulk window frames, doors and chimneys where needed.

The second major task is to paint the trim and windows. The trim is usually simple, unless the house is an old one with overhanging eaves. In that case you'll be reaching overhead (wear a hat) and using muscles that will be sore for a while. Care with the windows saves time in the long run because you won't have to go back later and scrape the panes.

Then comes the main body of the house ... the easiest part because you can use a wide brush and make long strokes. (Just don't overextend your reach when you're standing on a ladder!) For large, smooth areas I often use an industrial roller, a bushy affair that holds a lot of paint and in most cases will cover as well as a brush ... with the added benefit of almost supersonic speed. I've finished an entire home — excluding windows — in one day using a roller and extension rod. I'd suggest, though, that you stick with a brush until you get really good.

The last task is to clean up the area around the house, by gathering up any stray paint chips, old caulking and putty and throwing them away. At the same time I survey the completed work and touch up any spots I missed or didn't cover well. I know that if I'm satisfied the homeowner will be happy too, and that's good advertising.

What I've told you is basically all there is to house painting (except that it's nice to have a good companion at home to massage your tired muscles). This skill is helping me earn money to get back to the land and — even after I'm there — should bring me some bucks for things I might otherwise have to do without. If you're planning a break — or have already made one — and you're short of cash ... think about financing part of your new life with a paintbrush!

For more information about house painting, read these articles:
How To Start A House Painting Business
How Much Paint Will You Need? 

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