There are good reasons why homeowners do their own painting: Unlike most home-improvement jobs, no building codes apply to interior decoration. If you do something dumb, you don't risk life and property as you would if you were, say, tackling a rewiring job. And because labor typically accounts for 80 percent to 85 percent of the price of any paint job, you'll save a ton by wielding the brush yourself.
To identify top painting outfits, use Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook's ratings of local contractors. For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings through this link: checkbook.org/inquirer/painters.
Should you go with a pro or no? Before taking the painting plunge, consider the following:
• Inside job or outside? Inside, there are solid floors, reachable ceilings, and uniformly bright working light. Outside, uneven ground makes it difficult to set ladders and reach roof overhangs; morning dew can cause paint-adhesion problems; and rain can ruin still-wet paint.
• One room or the whole house? Applying one coat in one room is a reasonable Saturday project. Multiply the time spent moving furniture, prepping walls, and sanding old trim by the number of rooms in the house, and you might want to hire help. It's the same outside. You can probably tackle one shady garage wall that needs a little scraping and sanding plus a coat of paint, but covering all surfaces of the house is usually best left to a pro.
• One or two stories? Painting one story may be within the scope of an ambitious homeowner. Two stories means extension ladders and scaffolding — probably contractor territory.
• New work or repair? If a remodeling contractor leaves smoothly finished drywall, prep work is eliminated and the painting can begin. Where walls or siding need a lot of scraping, spackling, and sanding, the same-size project can take twice as long.
• Same color or stark change? Repainting with a similar color rarely requires more than spot priming and one finish coat. Dramatically changing the color usually requires at least two coats, doubling the painting work.
• Mostly walls or woodwork? A roller makes quick work of unobstructed walls. Rooms with wide baseboards, elaborate window casings, and cornice molding at the ceiling demand more time and effort. A lot of trim means a lot of brushwork — and edges into the realm of professionals.
• First-rate or second-best? Take a look at painting projects you've tackled in the past. Is the trim as smooth as you would like it to be on the new project? Are the walls uniform and free of lap marks? If you want results that may be difficult and time-consuming to achieve by yourself, hire a good contractor.
• House built before the 1978 ban on lead paint? If so, you'll likely want a lead paint-certified pro to properly seal off rooms and do required testing and cleanup to minimize exposure. (These may sound expensive, but they're usually not.)
If you decide to hire professional help, have several contractors inspect the job and provide proposals. You'll likely find huge price differences for the same job. A Checkbook undercover shopper got quotes from several contractors to repaint the walls, ceiling, and trim for a living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, and kitchen. Including paint and supplies, prices ranged from less than $2,000 to more than $6,000.
Don't assume that low prices signify lousy work: Checkbook finds that companies that perform top-quality work are just as likely to quote low prices as those that do shoddy jobs.
Ask companies to include all details in writing. Too many contractors submit offers such as "paint house for $5,000." A friendly contractor may offer a reassuring handshake and promise the crew will take care of all the details — starting on time, working every day, cleaning up, etc. But why not include each point in the proposal? If it's a challenge to get a written description of labor, materials, and other details, things will probably get worse as you go to contract and they start work.
Good contracts include descriptions of prep work and repairs; paint specs by brand name, type, color, and product number; number of coats; and a full description of the work, including frequently omitted items such as cabinet interiors and shutters. Minimize delays by specifying that, weather permitting, work will be continuous. Get a payment schedule that minimizes the down payment — the more payment you can withhold until the end, the more leverage you'll have to get the job done well and according to your specs. Insist that contractors provide proof that they carry both general liability and workers' compensation coverage.
Specify who will supply the paint, you or the contractor. Check Consumer Reports' paint ratings: In its tests, some relatively inexpensive paints performed better than more expensive paints and cost $10 to $20 a gallon less. But keep in mind that most paints will resist cracking, peeling, mold, and mildew. Who does the painting — and how well it's done — is more important than what's in the bucket.