Be Picky With House Painters

You have to live with these walls, so do your homework. Here's what to ask.
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Pity the poor house painter.

Like sportscasters and politicians, he is burdened with a job that everyone believes they could do equally well -- alas, if only the overworked customer had the time.

Plumbers, electricians, carpenters? These skilled laborers might as well be sorcerers from days of yore, whose black magic (and estimates) are not to be trifled with. "Whatever it costs, good sir, is most fine; I pray only that ye may fix my problem posthaste."

The painter gets crossed arms, a scowl and assignments only grudgingly.

And yet, to quote the immortal words of the decorous British homeowner Wallace, from Nick Park's wonderful series of animated

Wallace & Gromit

films, "Amazing what a lick of paint'll do."

Or per James Osterhoudt, who helms the father-son duo Osterhoudt Painting, "No one ever walks into a home and says, 'My, what lovely plumbing you have!' The first things they see are the walls."

Osterhoudt lives across the street from me in Staatsburg, N.Y., two hours north of Manhattan; his son, Ryan, resides cater-corner. Still, when it came time to begin cosmetic work on the 1860 Victorian my wife and I bought last year, we had four painters provide estimates.

All spent upwards of an hour with pad and pen in hand to get their arms around the scope of the work, and they varied more than I'd expected. In the end, we chose the midrange Osterhoudts, because we liked them, and we knew exactly where they lived.

When they had completed the job -- beautifully, I must add, including plaster repair and sheetrock work -- we discussed the ins-and-outs of interior and exterior house painting. To ensure total irony, I began by asking how one should go about selecting a painter.

Picking Your Painter

Osterhoudt emphasizes the personal connection. "You have to size up the painters, how they present themselves," he says. "What's their demeanor?"

After two solid weeks in the Osterhoudts' jovial company, I would underscore the point that it helps not only to trust but also to like your painters.

Ryan highlights the importance of references, from homeowners themselves rather than, say, general contractors. "They're the ones who had to live with the job and who saw the aftermath," he points out. "Personal recommendations are big."

It's easy to get hung up on the estimate, but that number shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. A good interview also includes asking the painters what they feel the room(s) or exterior needs. (Ultimately, we had to put off painting our home's flaking exterior for a season due to lack of funds, as we hadn't grasped the scope and intricacy of the job.)

"The more details the painters bring up that you hadn't considered -- maybe the ceiling doesn't actually need paint, but the sashes do -- the more they probably know what they're doing," Ryan says. "They should also be able to talk you through the steps of the process. If they're painting over oil paint, what that entails, and so on."

Osterhoudt cautions against any painter who utters the following phrase: "I'm giving you two coats -- prime and paint."

"The homeowner hears 'two coats,'" he says. "But that's not two coats of paint. One coat is appropriate to some jobs, but that kind of ruse spells trouble."

Some other key information homeowners should get from their prospective painters:

  • Who's doing the job. Will the head of the firm be on site? If not, find out the experience of the crew.
  • Proof of insurance. Ask to see a certificate of insurance, for protection in case of damages or injuries. While your own homeowner's insurance should cover you, claims against it may drive up your rates later.
  • A written job description. "If there's no job description, some jokers are going to do what's easiest for them," says Ryan. Getting specifics can also clarify the difference in cost between painters.

If my wife and I were surprised by the variance in estimates, the Osterhoudts say we shouldn't have been. They point first and foremost to a lack of unions and licensing.

Also, "Some people overbid or underbid because there's some guesswork as to the amount of time it will take, especially with people who contract out the painting and don't know their staff well," Ryan says. Lastly, per Osterhoudt, is the fact that "each person feels differently what they're worth."

As a homeowner, you want to feel that you're getting your money's worth, which you can sense during the job.

The most obvious sign is the paint on the wall, naturally, but don't ignore the paint that is or isn't on the floor.

"Look at how the painters leave the room they just finished," James said. "Is it still dirty? Is it dusty? Did they leave paint on the floor, did they make any effort to take paint off the floor? How they leave a place can say as much as visible cracks and caulking areas or through-voids."

Let's say a week after the paint job is over that you suddenly see an area that shows streaking. (We did not.) The Osterhoudts say that you should expect your painter to stand behind his work, within reason and absent anything ex post facto.

"Things happen, and a professional painter can accept any reasonable criticism or request for a fix within a fair time frame -- 30 days or so," says Osterhoudt. "All we ask is don't throw out the paint and give us a realistic amount of time to get back to you to do it."

DIY or Die

There are do-it-yourselfers, cheapos and maniacs who will read the above and still want to tackle the job themselves. Maybe they even think it'll be fun. (For us, watching the paint dry so beautifully was the fun part.)

Ryan, however, has a few words of advice.

"Do not skimp on prep work -- the sanding, priming, caulking and whatnot make the job," he says. "Anyone can put paint on the walls, take a roller and roll it on a wall. But not everyone can make the wall look perfect when it's done."

His other bold-faced tip is to use good materials, especially brushes -- the Osterhoudts recommend

Purdy. In Ryan's decade-plus experience, homeowners tend to buy good paint but poor brushes and rollers, which cause umpteen problems, starting with poor coverage and uneven, streaky consistency, never mind trying to cut in fine lines around windows, doors or molding

sans

splatter.

"You're saving money by not hiring a painter, and then you're going to cheap out on materials?" says Ryan. "It makes no sense."

For my money, it makes even less sense not to hire a good painter in the first place. If the walls in my home could speak, they would no doubt agree.

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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for

Golfweek. A former executive editor at Golf Magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.