Painting Primer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a Los Angeles freelance writer on home improvement topics

The old house is starting to look just plain old. The sun is fading the stucco every minute and you know you've got to do something about it.

A good paint job sets the tone for your house and the right color choice can make it look bigger or smaller, stylish or dumpy.

How can you tell if your home needs paint?

"When the surface begins to fade and get 'chalky,' it's time to paint," said painting contractor David Dwyer of West Los Angeles. "You don't want to wait until the surface starts blistering off, since you'll be spending more time doing prep work."

High quality paints can carry a 10- to 15-year guarantee, but the paint alone is not the way to figure longevity of a paint job.

"The life of a paint job is going to depend on the quality of the paint, the type of surface being painted, the preparation of that surface and how exposed that surface is to the weather," Dwyer said.

"That's why you have to judge each house individually rather than rely on the guarantee on the can."

Here are some guidelines to consider if you're thinking of a having your house painted:

Color Choices

This can be the toughest part of the job. Do you keep your place yellow with white trim or do you try white with yellow trim? How about beige and forest green, with brown accents?

"I've seen a number of couples get close to divorce over what colors to paint their house," said house painter Ed Duran of Mission Viejo. "It's a hard decision to make sometimes, one you shouldn't rush into."

For residents of many planned communities, this isn't an issue. Community boards decide on what color choices you have. But for most homeowners, the rainbow's the limit.

One common color mistake is not matching colors with a home's architectural style. After seeing the brightly painted Victorian homes of San Francisco, it's natural to think that perhaps your single-story stucco tract home might look great when it's cream with three shades of blue as accents.

"Homes that have a lot of architectural details, like Victorians, can be painted with lots of vibrant, strong colors to make the house more interesting," said painting consultant Charlie Kaczorowski of Tustin.

"But here in Southern California, most of our homes aren't like that. If you paint your house pink with blue shutters, you might lose some friends in the neighborhood."

One factor to consider when choosing color is the style of your house. Ranch-style homes with low, sloping roof lines can look like they're sinking into the ground if they're painted a dark shade of green, blue or brown.

Brick facing on a home's exterior may add to its character, but it can also make it seem small. "If you paint the brick the same color as the stucco or in a slightly different shade, you can make it at least appear bigger," Duran said.

In some cases, homeowners select an appealing color combination but use it the wrong way.

"They might want to do the stucco or body of the house in a cream tone, then paint the trim green," Duran said. "But they paint the garage door with the trim color so that when you look at the house from the street, all you see is this big green door."

In the architecture of most houses, the focal point is the entryway. Try painting the front door with your trim paint, but use the more subtle body paint on the garage door. If the garage door is paneled or has some type of design, you may want to highlight the design with the trim color.

Some paint stores have computers available that let you see how a color combination works on a house similar to yours, but at best they can only give you an idea of what it's really going to be like.

What are the hot house colors right now? "We're seeing people choose contrasts that are very subtle," said Cathy Butterworth of Crest Paint & Wallpaper in Tujunga. "The variation between the body and trim color is slight. They're picking a uniform look. Lots of beiges, whites and grays."

"Paint always looks at least four times darker on the surface you'll be painting, compared to a paint sample," Kaczorowski said. "Find a color you like on the sample, get a quart of it that's four times lighter, then try it on parts of the house.

"I knew a guy who painted his house a beautiful taupe, but at sunset it looked pink. Look at the areas you test paint at various times of the day, since the sun can cause it to look different."

Probably the best advice is to take a walk through the neighborhood looking for houses similar to your own that stand out. "Don't just look for the freshly painted ones; even the homes where the paint is crumbling off may have been done in a nice combination," Duran said.

Do-It-Yourself?

Once your color is picked, you need to decide who is going to do the work. Do you get the ladders out and dust off the rollers or pick up the Yellow Pages and start getting estimates?

For an average three-bedroom, single-story stucco home, expect a professional painter to quote an estimate of anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500. "Painting is one of those tasks that's labor-intensive," Butterworth said. "The materials needed for a job like that might be $300, but the rest is spent doing the prep work and painting."

Select a painter as you would select any professional; make sure your choice is licensed, bonded and insured, ask for and check references and ask how long the job will take.

A typical three-bedroom home in reasonably good shape should take about a week to complete. Beware of the contractor who says it's a two-day job. "If it sounds like they're going to be in and out, or if the price seems outrageously low, you may end up getting what you paid for," Kaczorowski said.

"They may use a cheap grade of paint or water down good paint; they might not sand areas that need to be sanded or do the patching work correctly; they just cut corners to make money off the job."

Painting your house yourself can bring a huge savings, as long as you're able to take the job on.

Most of the work involved in painting comes from the preparation--washing, sanding and patching--which is why enlisting friends and relatives for a "painting party" isn't a bad idea.

"You need the elbow grease to be flowing," Duran said. "And be sure to set a realistic timeline to finish the job. Don't try to prep and paint your house over a three-day weekend."

Obviously, if you have health problems, doing it yourself may not be a great idea because of the physical strain. And if getting up and being stable on a ladder is a skill you haven't mastered, it may be best to have someone else paint.

But even if your health is great and you know what you're doing, you could be stymied by a two-story house.

"It's pretty intimidating to get up high on an extension ladder and look down," said Glo Leonard of All Valley Paint & Supply in Reseda. "Make sure that the soil under the ladder is firm and free of rocks so you won't tilt when you get to the top. It may not be a bad idea to rent portable scaffolding ($30 to $50 a day) to get to hard-to-reach areas that may need extensive work.

"I do my own painting because I know what kind of job I'm going to get," Kaczorowski said. "If you're physically able and you want to do it, you'll probably do a better-than-average job too because it's your home and you care about it."

Prep Talk

"Preparation is what separates the professional job from the amateur," Duran said. "Once you've got the surfaces clean and ready to go, you're ready to roll."

The prep work starts with cleaning. If your stucco is reasonably clean and has been painted no longer than five years ago, you can attach a spray nozzle to the garden hose and wash it down.

Otherwise, it might be smart to rent a pressure washer ($65 to $80 per day ) to do the job. But be careful. "These can break up stucco if you're not careful," Kaczorowski said. "Practice a little before using it so you know what you're doing."

If you're unlucky enough to have ivy growing up a wall, this is the time to take it down. Ivy roots cement themselves in the stucco and can usually be removed only with some heavy scraping by a wire brush.

Go over wood fascia board, eaves and siding with a solution of TSP and water, then give it a full rinse. After giving the wood at least two days to dry, carefully check for any bubbling or loose paint.

If the chipping paint is excessive in one area, it may be worth investigating why. "You may want to see if sprinklers are constantly keeping the area wet or if there's a leak in the roof above the eaves," Butterworth said.

Areas where paint is coming off of the wood should be scraped, sanded smooth so that it "feathers" in with the adhering paint and coated with an oil-based primer.

Cracks and holes in stucco or masonry can be filled with patching compounds, but be sure to allow enough drying time. "You'll often see painters fill in a bunch of cracks and then not show up for a few days," Leonard said. "They're not being lazy--they're giving the patches time to cure. These patches have alkali, and if they're painted over before they cure, they'll ruin the finish."

Any trees or shrubs close to the house will have to be trimmed to give you room to work. "If you're careful and you use plastic sheeting where you're working, any impact on the landscaping should be minimal," Leonard said.

With a flat shovel, dig a trench against the house at least three to four inches below ground level to make sure the paint covers everything to the ground.

When you're preparing wood siding or eaves, be sure to check that there are no soft spots that could mean termite infestation or dry rot. "Many times you'll see a piece of wood that looks just fine but your finger goes right through it when you push on it," Duran said.

The Job Itself

The decisions aren't over yet. Now that you've got paint, how do you get it on the walls?

The professionals usually use sprayers that operate with compressed air, and many dealers and rental yards have these available for the do-it-yourselfer ($50 to $75 a day).

"If you've used them before or you have the time and want to learn to spray, it's fine to try a sprayer," Kaczorowski said. "But professionals use them all the time and know how to use them, which is why they can do the job in half the time as a guy with a tray and a roller. There's more prep work--masking of windows and vents, that sort of thing--that goes with spraying, and the cleanup is more involved too."

Power rollers, ($40 to $50 a day) which force paint through a tube into the roller to eliminate the need for a messy tray, are favored by some people. "They're an acquired taste," Duran said. "If you do a lot of painting, you might like using them, but for most, the old fashioned roller works fine."

If the exterior hasn't been painted in a while, that's going to affect whether you'll need one, two or more coats. As the surface ages and dries, wet paint is almost "eaten" by the porous stucco or wood, which means another coat will be needed.

Before opening up the cans, make sure you're ready: You should have old clothes, hat, protective eye-wear, a mask. Rubber dishwashing gloves are a good idea to keep your hands clean, and some paint and hardware stores also offer a liquid product that coats your skin and helps errant paint splatters come off in hot water.

If you go with rollers, make sure you get the right kind. Stucco rollers are often made of foam and are thick enough to press paint into rough textures. Rollers for wood and other smooth surfaces are thinner.

The general rule of thumb is to do the job wall by wall. Start at the top on one side, cutting in with a brush if needed near the top, then rolling it on.

The trim is usually applied with a brush, although in large areas you could use rollers to save time. Get a good selection of brushes, flat-cut for the large areas, angle-cut where you need to be careful, and make sure they're for oil- or acrylic-based paints, whichever you're using on the trim.

Cleanup

Before it's time to step back and look at the job you did, you'll need to do the cleanup.

Don't make the mistake of letting rollers and brushes soak in a bucket overnight where they can get soggy and rusty. Attack them with soap, hot water and more elbow grease.

You'll need them clean to pick up the missed spots that will be visible only after the paint cures the next day.

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John Morell is a Los Angeles freelance writer on home improvement topics.

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