I have to admit, sometimes a cheap paint job looks pretty good when it’s done, in fact, without knowing what was done a bad paint job can look a lot like a good paint job. Sometimes even with close scrutiny it is difficult to determine. How can this be?
The first thing to remember is that there is a psychological transition occurring: it looked lousy, now it has been painted, ergo, it looks great – this is huge; you may be delighted because it looks so much better, but in short time you will see evidence of things not done well.
Paint seldom falls off, and never fades, overnight. Improper caulking and other surface prep shortcuts seldom show themselves right away. It takes time, so the job looks fine but then – then you notice a caulking seam has buckled, or there’s fading, peeling, etc., and it’s only been 6 months, or a year or two, but it’s beginning to look like you need to paint again.
That is, if you were looking but you’re not because its spring, and your house was painted last spring or summer or fall or just the ___ before so it’s fine, we don’t even have to think about it – so let’s go for a bike ride…
So what is the trick to knowing – before signing the contract – what you’re getting? You’re contract may specify: “prep, prime and 2 coats” but that isn’t good enough.
If you were baking bread and your recipe specified: “combine all ingredients and bake in a hot oven” how good would your bread be? It might be great but if you weren’t doing it by repetitive-memory what are the odds of that?
The Top 5 Short Cuts to Know and Avoid (just paint mechanics, not insurance, financial or security related – these 3 deserve special attention)
1. Prep: scraping loose paint, removing buckled caulking, sanding where necessary, priming prepped areas, re-applying caulking, priming again, then washing the house. There’s a lot that can be avoided here, days’ worth of work in many cases. Skipping some or all of this doesn’t mean the finished paint job will look crappy right away, but crappy it will look.
2. Primer: using the right primer for the situation, not just the cheapest can that has “Primer” on the label. There are dozens of primer types and they’re specific to the need and the surface. Some primers cost $100/gallon and others $10, and just like everything else, you get what you pay for. Why use a cheap primer and expensive paint? Will the expensive paint hold the primer to the surface? For a while maybe, but the first good reason the cheap primer gets it will let go of the surface it was holding on to – like a short freeze/thaw cycle, or a little surface moisture.
3. Good Paint, and the Right Amount: paint manufacturers provide recommended spread rates for a gallon on paint, usually 400 sq. /ft. This is applying the paint at the minimal recommended mil-thickness, not optimal. Optimal is probably closer to 350. Your house has a specific amount of surface area to be painted, your contract should include that number, multiplied times 2 – if you’re buying 2 coats. If your contractor says he’s putting on 10 gallons with a brush so it’s thicker, he’s either a liar or a fool and you should find another contractor or buy him a calculator so he can show you how that math works.
4. Two Separate Coats: Spray then back roll is not 2 coats! – If I had a grain of sand for every time that lie has been sold, I’d be an island prince. Or this one: “one good coat with a brush is the same as 2 with a sprayer”, right. Try that next time you bake; one cup of flour from a glass measuring cup is worth 2 from a plastic one – that sounds silly to everybody, whether you’ve ever baked or not.
5. Method of application: sometimes a sprayer is best tool, sometimes rollers, sometimes brushes, sometimes pads, often times all are used – it all depends on what material is being applied to what surface, but always it should be specified. A sprayer has different tip sizes that allow either more, or less paint to be applied. Brushes and rollers can apply the same load (the amount of paint that can be held by the tool) to either a larger, or a smaller space – it is all about the spread rate in the case of any application tool.
• In Summary Your Contract Needs to Specify Process, Prep Levels, Cleaning, Type and Number of Gallons of Paint, application method. Warranty coverage and period need to be specified, but can and often are covered by a different document.
Now, you know what to look for.
Next, when interviewing contractors to paint your house, ask questions about the 5 items listed above. Make notes and compare them to the contract you’re offered, if specifics aren’t listed in the contract, they will not be done! If you want something done and it’s not specifically listed, the only way to make sure that item gets done is to be there the whole time and watch it being done.
• Just Because It’s on your Contract doesn’t mean it will be done.
Because of the nature of the painting trade, there are many players who are transient; either geographically, or vocationally. Asking an unprofessional tradesman whether he’s going to do X and then trusting him to do so is foolish, and is the reason your contract needs to be specific.
Transient actors aren’t thinking about the future, i.e.: the next time they’re going to be painting your house. No, they have a different future in their cartoon bubble: “…finish this house today and we can start Mrs. Flotsam’s tomorrow and get paid for 2 jobs by Friday – That’s as long term as the strategic thinking goes in most cases.
• Above and Beyond the Contract is Trust:
Simple trust: do I trust this person that what the items and actions they have listed on my contract will be adhered to? This is a really good question to ask yourself. This is a feeling question, so trust yourself here.
• But Verify:
Check-in frequently as the project progresses. Don’t be passive about this, go outside and look, make notes and go over your questions with the contractor the following morning.
Don’t be afraid to shepherd your project a little. If, in doing so, you find some problem and begin to wonder if you’ve made the right choice, listen to that fear and bring it up, do what you must to get it straightened out, stopping the job if necessary.
• That’s a wrap:
So Hire a good contractor to perform a specific contract and stay on top of the process and you will be happy with your purchase years from now. It really is simple, and remember that the pain of poor quality lasts longer than the joy of cheap price.
Well, in my cartoon bubble, a paint job is the entire experience: workers, finished project, communication with the workers, and the office, project management, estimate accuracy vs actual/final cost, billing, etc.
This is more than just the finished job, it’s the whole experience that determines if you’re going to invite a company back or not.
And the short answer to the question is: quite a lot can go wrong.
A better question might be: how bad was it?
That question is a bit of a hat-tip toward the menacing reminder of what could be, for most consumers over 30, a memory an experience contracting a tradesman or service provider wherein nothing went as expected, and after which the entire white-knuckle ride was best forgotten. Everyone in that demo has a tale to tell – a war story of sorts – and we often do tell, to amuse and admonish, and to remind our now-self of what our then-self said: as the events were still unfolding: “I’ll never do this again!”
Painting is a very intrusive process, it’s disruptive to living, privacy, spaces, and schedules.
Painters are in and around the house, inside bedrooms & bathrooms, closets, kitchens, everywhere! Paint work is also intrinsically messy: wet stuff from cans spread out and allowed to dry: oh the possibilities!
Painters should be tidy, conscientious, open, honest, diligent, trustworthy, communicative, responsive, sober, neat, hygienic, organized, efficient, responsible and mature. Not that any other trade can or should possess fewer of the above characteristics, but many can coast with the right 2 or 3 of them. Painters cannot…
A good painter should be like a butler or concierge; skilled, friendly but not familiar, a consummate professional.
The trouble is, as noted in previous writings, everyone has painted, everyone knows a painter, everyone has a collection of paint tools and almost everyone is related to one. Painters are like home cooks – millions perform the act but like home cooks, the quality and variety of experience delivered by painters is just as wide.
The other basic truth that undergirds painting as a trade is the fact that the practice isn’t regulated; there is largely no body of codes that regulate process and finished work, unlike nearly all other trades – in painting, it’s up to the painter, and anyone can call themselves one – try that with electricians or plumbers.
This is not to say there are no standards, there are: PDCA Industry Standards are becoming more universally recognized and utilized to set the bar, but they’ve yet to trickle down, and the ubiquitous nature of the trade itself places it comfortably within the realm of an activity (like cooking). And aside from lead abatement and safety aspects, painting will never be regulated like other trade professions.
Now that the table is set, I have a confession: I have personally experienced all of the following 5 scenarios, not only from a customer’s perspective, but from the contractor’s – the perpetrator – as well; I’d love to be able to say here that nothing has ever gone wrong on one of our projects in 20 years – but that would be unbelievable, and untrue. Some of these top 5 are repeat offenders, others we’ve corrected from the first exposure. This piece is meant more in the spirit of a serial admonition, a cautionary tale – than an exercise in finger pointing.
The top 5 things that go wrong on paint & stain/finish jobs:
1. Communication – it’s not rocket science, just a painting project. The painters show up, install the paint, what could go wrong? This could be #1 if we throw in all the things contained in #1 that would be covered by effective, thorough communication. So much ground is covered with in this topic that examples are superfluous; suffice it to say that if you haven’t covered it in a conversation, or better yet, in written communication (proposal, contract, text, letters, emails) it is safe to say it hasn’t been covered, only assumed by you, the finisher, both. 2 or more sets of assumptions are often in play: those of the homeowner, the painting company owner, the project manager and/or the workers.
2. Oversight: “It turned out fine, but it was like pulling teeth and I felt like I was the job supervisor.” In the sales/estimating process for a painting job there are 2 parties: the seller and the buyer; the seller has things in his/her cartoon bubble, the buyer things in his/hers. They’re both talking about the same project, but they’re seeing different things, and from a different perspective. The buyer sees the job completed from the perspective that is not unlike a tidy retail transaction: predictable, smooth and trouble-free. The seller sees something different: an easy-going customer whose expectations are low, and a project where everything goes exactly as planned. Then the job begins…
3. Schedule and timeline: Contractors are notorious for over-populating their schedules and juggling multiple jobs at the same time, spreading themselves thin so that every customer gets a little progress and nobody is completely neglected. Imagine a mechanic changing tires on 3 cars at once, but one tire on each car then moving to the 2nd tire, on each car – crazy, but it happens so often in the trades it has become prosaic. The fear of losing a job, fear of disappointing, desire to please everyone, feast/famine cycle, any or a little of each may be in play in the mind of the contractor. The effect of this on the consumer has, over time, conditioned people to lower expectations to the point where they’re just happy when someone finally shows up to work! It’s a little bit like the soft prejudice of low expectations; and projections for shortages of skilled tradesmen will only exacerbate this problem. Youtube has replaced traditional trade schools, and anybody can get on Youtube!
4. “I thought that was included” Ouch! This may not be as common, but it is more disappointing; I hate to beat up mechanics again but who hasn’t had that experience? Your new brakes are $1500 not $400 like you were quoted. Back to #1, it should be communicated in the scope of work- or work order, contract, emails, even a cocktail napkin is better than a remembered conversation, and the subsequent he said she said that inevitably results from murky agreements full of flexible language, or handshakes deals.
5. Quality of Finished Work: not what was expected. Or, as they say in the trade: good from far, far from good. Unless you’ve seen their work somewhere else or hired them before, it is really hard to know what you’re going to get. “Looks great to me” is never something you want to hear from your contractor. Getting it right once it’s not right may not even be on the menu; what if it’s the best they can do? In the cooking analogy, everyone knows someone who make fabulous _____ (insert your favorite), and someone who couldn’t make it good if life itself depended on it. In that case it’s time to move on and find someone else whose capabilities exceed the first one.
I promise This Top 5 List will never change; it’s been the same in the 20 years I’ve been around. It can’t change until some technological leap makes wet stuff in cans archaic – I’m not holding my breath.
How much does quality painting and wood finishing work cost? The short answer is: just as everything else – more than most of us want to pay. But, like just about everything else, you can pay less – sometimes much less. And, of course, along with everything else we purchase, there are trade-offs to saving money. The trick with painting and wood finishing projects is to understand what the trade-offs are and evaluate which trade-offs make sense to you, and which do not.
Let’s start with painting; painting is the one building trade that just about every adult human being on the planet has done, some. It, therefore, is comfortably within the reach of all of the able-bodied.
So, how much it costs to paint a bedroom, or a homes’ exterior depends a lot on the factors; which are obvious: prep levels, rot, staining, stability of existing coats, current color, desired color, how fast it has to be done, what season you’re in (on or off-peak) weather conditions, geometry of house or contents of room, etc.
What isn’t so obvious are things like this: are the workers paint craftsmen or general labor do-it-all types, will I be happy with the visual results of the work, will I be happy with the experience of having these people around or in my house,how will it last, how long do they stand behind the work, how long have they been in business, how long will they be, do they have a “real job” that they go to? Even less obvious: do they pay their insurance premiums, unemployment for their workers, taxes, social security and Medicare contributions, are they a real company or a subcontractor brokerage?
It may appear as though I’m stacking the deck, but I’m not. Let me demonstrate by asking another question: how much does a car cost? Immediately, everyone knows the myriad factors that go into the cost of a car – experience tells us we can buy a running car for a few hundred bucks, or spend as much as a small house costs; the basics remain the same: tires, steering wheel, doors (maybe). It’s the differences that count, and there are hundreds of them, maybe thousands.We know them because we remember our first car, and how proud we were, and how it was such a beater! But we were happy with it because we knew what the trade-offs were, were comfortable with lowered expectations and what we could afford. And we’ve bought many cars since then, often with mixed results.
In this way, painting projects are just like cars, you can spend a little or a lot. The goal is to be happy with the work and the experience, when it’s done. And that’s the rub; you don’t get to see it until it’s done. With the car, you get to see and drive it, with the paint job, you don’t. The solution therefore, is to ask questions and do your research before you sign a contract and give a deposit.
Ok, how about a range? Square foot pricing ballpark range; for this example let’s use a 10 X 12 bedroom, walls (300 sq/ft) and ceilings (170 sq/ft); cost can range from $200 to $600, depending on physical factors and who is doing the work. That’s a variance of 300%, and if you look long enough you may even expand on that. Exteriors: same broad expansive range will be found. There’s just too much detail to be accounted for, or ignored, to have a standardized pricing matrix.
Wood finishing projects also are typically found to be in the 300% variance range, the difference is that you’ll find fewer bidders who will even do the work – having tried it and found fraught with risk (when things go wrong they are much more difficult to fix) and hard to estimate; if you’re lucky and get an honest one. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get someone who will give it the old college try; in their cartoon bubble the words “what could go wrong” would be visible (if you could see their cartoon bubble).The main problem with wood finishing and refinishing is that it looks and seems so simple to do: just touch up the bare spots and put another coat on and viola, you have…a disaster. Unlike solid films (paint), clear coats show everything underneath – everything that everyone else who owned the house before you, and all the attempts by them or those they hired to give it a shot…are visible. Cabinetry, millwork built-ins, trim, windows, staircases and front doors; these aren’t pedestrian, or even skilled worker projects – they’re on the highest shelf in the finishers’ realm.
Thinking about how much quality painting and wood finishing work should cost ought to be an exercise, not a quick reaction or emotional buy. And, just like anything else we consume, from tacos to toothpaste, has real trade-offs to consider before deciding. Knowing what those are makes us responsible, informed and wiser consumers.