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Photo by Steve Goraum

It doesn't take much more than a brush, bucket and ladder to get into the painting business. Of all the trades, painting offers the most opportunities for less-than-skilled workers to pass themselves off as experienced pros. It's also easy for unscrupulous sorts to work a scam on homeowners. In one classic scheme, the painter charges you for premium paint but applies a lower grade. We recently had a situation where we caught a painter pouring cheap paint out of 5-gal. pails into empty cans of expensive paint; he was charging the customer for the higher grade and pocketing the difference. He was gone by noon.

It's important to hire a painter you trust. Much of the work takes place when you aren't around, and it is difficult to check a painter's work. Once the job is complete, you won't be able to tell if he primed the entire surface or even if he applied two coats rather than one.

The Checkup

Before you hire someone, check his certificate of insurance to guarantee he has general liability insurance, and also verify that workers' compensation insurance is in effect if he has any employees. Checking work quality isn't as easy. Painters will offer photos of past jobs as testimony of their skill, but these won't tell you much. For an exterior job, for example, they're usually shot from the curb. This is too far away to show visible brush marks and wobbly cut lines on windows and trim. You have to go to a site and take a close look.

When you ask for references, the painter will likely steer you to a current or very recent job. Most freshly painted houses look great. But because the real test of a paint job is how well it stands up over time, inspect a job that was done at least three years ago.

Look for the following when you check out work: consistent wear over the entire surface; peeling and flaking; and cracked glazing compound around windows. Also check for signs of overspray, splatter or spilled paint, especially on the roof, driveway, sidewalk and shrubs. Ask the homeowners if they've noticed any problems with how the paint is weathering, if their landscaping suffered any ill effects while the painter was working, if the painter kept to the budget and if they would hire him again.

The Contract

A contract with a painter is more than an agreement for him to paint your house for a certain price. It's your chance to commit the painter to following specific prep and application methods; using quality materials; protecting the site; and cleaning up. It's also the way to set a payment schedule.

Prep work. For outside work, proper prep is crucial to the durability of the paint job. Don't settle for vague contract language like "properly prepare all surfaces." If you have wood siding, the contract should state that the painter will power-wash the house with a bleach or TSP mixture. Also demand that the power-wash operator be experienced. In the wrong hands, these high-pressure water guns can blast through windows, scar siding and tear screens.

As for the actual prep, require that siding be disk-sanded. The sanded areas should then be feathered with a palm sander to blend in with the rest of the job. Also specify that all gaps be filled with caulk and that all the siding be primed with a penetrating, slow-drying primer. Avoid "spot priming," where just the bare wood is primed.

For inside work, make sure the painter checks all drywall joints for smoothness and fixes damaged walls. For wood trim, stipulate that the painter fill nail holes, seal knots and prime with a slow-drying primer. A contract for premium work calls for all woodwork to be sanded between finish coats.

Application methods. The contract should specify how the paint will be applied. For exterior work, primer is best applied by brush. I don't notice much difference between spraying and brushing for topcoats and for exterior work, though spraying uses more paint. What's more, a painter experienced in spraying and ample overspray protection are a must.

Also write in minimum drying times. Painters who want to speed through a job will spray over wet caulk, and even want to apply a second coat before the first has time to dry properly. Leave at least a day between each coat. Also make sure your painter isn't putting latex-based paint over oil-based paint without the proper primer. Latex over oil without priming is a recipe for serious peeling.

Material quality. Write into the contract the paint you want by listing the manufacturer name along with the grade, color, gloss and base. Painters may recommend a paint, but it's usually because they're getting a good price on it, not because it's a high-quality finish. So, do your own research. You'll find, as I have, that you get what you pay for.

Site protection and cleanup. The contract should require your painter to use drop cloths (or masking tape and paper) to cover everything at risk from spillage, splatter or overspray. For exterior work, this means shrubs, the driveway and even sections of the roof, and for an interior job, floors, cabinets and electrical fixtures. If I walk onto a site and don't see a sea of drop cloths, I grow suspicious that the painter isn't thorough.

Also require that the painter return the site to prejob conditions, especially landscaping. And agree before the job starts who will clean the windows--and if it's part of the painter's fee--once the work has been completed.

Payment. Never give the painter more than 10 percent of the total job cost at the contract signing. Thereafter, disperse one-third of the remainder on the first day of work, a third at the midpoint (use a job milestone, like "all prep done, primer and first coat applied") and the final third after the painter has cleaned the site and removed his gear and you have approved the job. Once you hand over that last check, it will be tough to get the painter to return for touch-ups.

Take a walk. Before the painter starts working, take a walk around the house with him and make a note of all cracked glass panes, torn screens and old paint spills. This kind of damage is common when painting, but if you know where the existing damage is, there won't be any argument at the end of the job when you point out new problems. Too often I've seen homeowners who were unable to substantiate that a painter damaged something because the painter can always say it existed before he arrived. This is especially true of window panes, which can take a real beating during prep and reglazing.