Tips for Your House Painting Business

Follow these wise tips for your house painting business to protect yourself from dishonest clientele.
By Ray Miller
January/February 1975
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Be sure to get paid for the painting you do and any extra jobs along the way.

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I've just finished reading How to Start a House Painting Business by Joel Ellis and House Painting Business Tips by Donald W. Geary in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and found that they made a lot of sense. Both authors, though, failed to stress some points I think are essential.

I worked for ten years as a carpenter and have been in business myself for five years as a general contractor and builder . . . and although I don't like to insist on signed contracts, pay exorbitant insurance rates, etc., that's the way it has to be or I'd find myself on the short end of the stick. Here are some suggestions that MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers might think about before grabbing a brush and going to work.

[1] Get the customer to sign an agreement, and be very specific in that contract about what you are and aren't to do. Otherwise, you may find yourself stuck with jobs you never expected because the homeowner thought you were supposed to do them. After all, until you've got all the money in your hand (in cash), the other fellow has you by the seat of the pants . . . and he knows it. Believe me, I've been there.

[2] Don't fall for the "extras" deal . . . the one where the owner says, "As long as you're on the spot you might as well do so-and-so and I'll pay you extra." It's fine to pick up odd jobs — in fact, they'll help you break even if you find you've underestimated the original work — but make out an "additional work order" and have the customer sign it. If he's not out to screw you, he'll understand that this protects him as well as you.

[3] When you write up an agreement, specify how and when you are to be paid for your work. Got at least a third of the money — preferably half — down before you paint, or at any rate on the day you start the job. This advance will cover the cost of materials and some wages. If you hire an assistant it's an absolute must, for he has to be paid whether you are or not.

Remember, no matter what kind of nice guy you think your customer is, the down payment will sometimes be all you'll ever get. You may even be surprised to find out that people you thought of as friends will stick it to you for a couple of bucks . . . so at least make an effort to protect yourself.

[4] Try to deal with the person who pays the bill. Otherwise you may find yourself in the middle of a domestic quarrel and not getting any money for a job the head of the household didn't OK.

If the lady of the house asks you to do something extra and it's her husband who handles the checkbook, bring the request to his attention in a casual way. For instance, next time you see him you might mention the day when you'll be able to do that additional work. If he doesn't know what you're talking about, watch out!

[5] Now we come to the matter of insurance. If you're of age, work by yourself and own nothing but the shirt on your back, don't carry any. The homeowner will have to cover whatever damage you do, and he can't sue. (Be careful, though . . . he can get a judgment against you.)

On the other hand, if you've busted hump to get a homestead or some acreage, you can lose it darn quick if you don't have coverage. I know! I don't like paying the fat-cat insurance companies either, but it sure beats seeing my home taken or having a judgment granted against me.

Think about it. What if you employ a helper and he or she gets hurt (or killed)? Even if the injured party doesn't want to sue, there may be a wife, parents or relatives who feel differently. Also, if you're not covered, the homeowner is responsible for the accident on his property . . . and you can bet he'll sue you.

(Most states, incidentally, require that you carry compensation insurance for your employees whether you hire them for one day or a year. This also gets you into withholding taxes, social security, etc . . . and Uncle will have no mercy if he catches up with you and finds that you're not doing what he thinks you should.)

Or suppose you're up on an extension ladder slapping on paint, and the wind is blowing the wrong way. You just may be painting someone's home or car half a block down the street . . . and you're going to have to pay for the damage. Some people may allow you to compound the auto and wax it, or paint the speckled side of the house. I don't have to tell you, though, that most owners will be seeing dollar signs. They can and will live with the spots, but they want money to help them forget.

What all this boils down to is liability insurance. You'll wish you had it in any of the cases I've mentioned . . . or if you happen to drop something on a kid's head from a good way up . . . or if your ladder tips and you get paint on a driveway outside or a rug inside.

These are some of the reasons why painting contractors, and general contractors like me, have to charge the "rip-off prices" mentioned in Mr. Geary's article. I'd be glad to work for $4.00 an hour if I didn't have to pay Uncle and the insurance companies half of it.

I don't like to be the one to dampen someone's fire, but what I've said is true: Some customers just seem to be waiting for a sucker to come along. Fortunately, they aren't an everyday occurrence — for the most part, working for people is interesting and enjoyable — but the painter must always keep up his guard. That's what makes me want to find a homestead and get out of this hassle.

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