Painting your house

Fast and Short Term vs. Good and Long Lasting

So the painting company has given you an estimate of many thousands of dollars to paint your house. They are going to pressure wash it, spray it, then roll and brush the trim a different color and scrape the overspray off the windows. In just a few days you will have the worst possible paint job money can buy. It will probably only last 1-3 years, and then the painting company will be happy to come back and do it all over again.

If you are selling your house, you may not care how long the paint job lasts, but if you plan to live in your house indefinitely and you want to protect it from the elements and show off to best advantage the architectural features, you need a real paint job. Done right, it should last 10-15 years or more and it could end up costing you less than the wash-and-spray guys. Or you could even do it yourself.

Why Pressure Washing is Unnecessary and Bad for Your House


Pressure washing damage on brick

Pressure washing is convenient for the painters, period. It doesn’t really wash your house and it could actually do damage to wood and send moisture into places it would never and should never go. In the wrong hands, it can break glass and permanently etch concrete and brick.


Pressure washing damage on wood

You DO need to wash the house before painting, so that the new coat has the best chance to bond with the undercoat. But what needs to be removed is generally mildew, not dirt, especially in the south and midwest. This can only be adequately removed with bleach. It is possible to pressure wash with bleach, but the high volume of water requires high volumes of bleach, wasting money and creating way more toxic runoff than necessary. There’s no reason for any more pressure than that which gets the bleach and water mixture on the house. I use a hand pump and garden hose and can wash most small/medium houses in one day. Higher spots can be reached from ladders, but there needs to be a system that can be used from the ground with minimal pressure. If you choose to use a pressure washer to reach higher places, it should be on the lowest possible setting (under 400 psi), just enough to get the mixture up there. Others are also figuring this out and call it “soft washing” or “low pressure washing.”

Lousy painters also claim they are ‘scraping’ the old paint off with the pressure washer. This is total bunk designed to speed up the process so they can move on to the next job. Yes, loose paint will come off with high pressure washing. But you’re leaving the edges to come back up in a year or two, and you’re driving water into the areas of raw wood left behind. This wet wood won’t bond with the paint slapped over it and could actually lead to accelerated rot. There is no substitute for hand scraping the loose paint (unless you are removing all the paint on your house, which should be done professionally and costs a lot of money).

How to Bleach Your House
You will need to protect your vegetation by covering it with plastic or spraying it with water. Water protects things from the bleach, so don’t get any on the house or it won’t clean properly. Most home improvement stores sell outdoor bleach (it is concentrated and has a binder that allows it to adhere longer on a vertical surface). Buy at least 8 jugs. You can always take unopened jugs back and you don’t want to have to run back to the store in the middle of the job. You will also need a hand pump sprayer, rubber gloves, safety goggles, clothes that cover you head to toe and can be ruined by bleach, and rubber shoes or shoe covers. Be sure to roll up the cuffs of the rubber gloves so the bleach mixture doesn’t run down your arm. Mix the bleach and water in the sprayer at a 1 to 4 ratio, that’s 1 part concentrated bleach to 4 parts water. Put the water in first or the bleach may bubble out. Secure the pump onto the container, shake to mix, and pump up the pressure. You’re now ready to start.

Start at the bottom or you will have streaks as the bleach runs down the siding that may not go away. Be sure to get the bottoms of siding, sills, and overhangs. You will be amazed at how quickly the mildew disappears or turns brown. Any spots you missed will become obvious after a few minutes and you can go over them again. After 15 minutes or so, wash off the bleached area with a hose, being careful to leave a buffer of bleached area so no water gets on unbleached siding. Many people in the south used to bleach their house every spring and if there’s no loose paint, you may decide that’s all you need to do–no painting required!

Green mold will require higher concentrations of bleach and perhaps scrubbing. Gutters may also require scrubbing to come clean, but are rarely repainted so that’s your choice. When you are done, be sure to clean out the sprayer by triple washing the container and then allowing the sprayer to spray about a half container of water to clear out the wand. Bleach will gunk up the sprayer and make it unusable if left to dry in the mechanism.

Scraping Your House

Let the house dry overnight. Get a 5-in-1, a paint scraper, and a pull scraper. You will learn from experimentation which scraper works best in which situation. The 5-in-1 is the handiest tool, and I keep one in my pocket whenever on a painting job. In the other back pocket is a dust brush, in one hammer loop is a hammer to pound down nails, and in the other hammer loop is a damp rag. Now you look like a painter!


If you think a lot of paint is going to come off the house, you might want to put drop cloths under the area you are working on to catch all the old paint scrapings. If it’s a hard surface, you can come along with a shop vac and just suck it up. If it’s not that much paint, you can kick some mulch or gravel over it. If it’s lead-based paint, you have to decide what the risks are and how you want to deal with them. If you are going to do any power sanding, you definitely have to assess these risks and act accordingly, as the dust is much more dangerous than the chips. Test every color on the house with a test kit, investigate your state’s laws if lead paint is apparent, and stay safe, especially if children or pregnant women are around. In Georgia, if you pay someone to paint your house, they must be lead certified. However, home owners are not required to be lead certified to work on their own house.

The idea is to scrape all the loose paint off the house and make sure that the edges remaining are not going to pull up off the house and ruin the new paint job. You do that by scraping at them to make sure there are no loose edges and all old paint is securely bonded to the undercoat. This may leave a mottled look that some people like to sand to smooth out. That’s a lot of work and you have to decide how important it is to you to have a smooth surface. Perhaps you only want that look near doors where people see it close up. If you find loose caulk around windows, doors, or trim, it has to come off. You may want to cut the loose caulk away from the caulk that is stuck fast so you don’t end up pulling good caulk out. I also keep a folding boxcutter in a front pocket for that purpose. Scrape as much of the house as you can prime the same day. If you come back the next day, you may find those edges have pulled up overnight with the changes in humidity and temperature. Priming will fix them down.

You may also find areas of rotted wood, particularly around window and door sills where water tends to pool or splash. If the rot is too extensive, you’ll need to replace the piece or get a carpenter to replace it. If it’s small, you can use a type of wood filler similar to Bondo to fill the area after digging out all the rotten wood and letting it dry out. Follow the directions on the can. The trick to a seamless patch is to shave or sand down the patch so it exactly matches the profile of the trim piece you are fixing, with no bulges.

Priming and Caulking


Sears House (1934), Sapelo, GA

If your house is going to be white, you can get any good primer and brush it over raw wood or dark areas. The newer paint+primer products are really amazing, but I would still want raw wood spots to get their own coat of primer to protect the exterior of your house. It has less tint, but more stain-blocking and binding agents than any paint you can buy. If your house is a darker color, give the clerk at the paint store the primer and the color you are planning to paint the house and they will mix enough tint in so that you don’t need to go over the primed areas again to hide the white color. After you’ve primed, it will be obvious where to caulk. Any place there is a gap or hole, especially around doors and windows, squeeze in some PAINTABLE caulk. If it doesn’t say ‘paintable’ then it isn’t. Remember, water is the enemy and it will penetrate anywhere it can, rotting wood, loosening mortar, seeping into basements, staining interior sheetrock. Keeping a waterproof exterior is essential to preserving your home. Don’t forget to run your finger over the caulk to smooth it down and make sure it’s filled the hole and adhered to both edges of the gap. And don’t leave ridges of caulk on the smooth trim or siding surface–smooth them down for a nice finish.

Painting the Final Coat

This is the point where it’s really important to know if the paint on your house now is oil-based or water-based, especially an older or historic home. Primer is meant to bond, but paint is pickier. Putting latex over oil will peel off in large sheets eventually because it doesn’t bond with the oil undercoat. The way to be sure is to put some denatured alcohol on a rag and rub it on the paint. If it comes off on the rag, it’s latex (water-based). If it doesn’t, it’s oil-based. Oil over latex will last longer than latex over oil, but most people don’t want to mess with oil anymore and current acrylic (latex) paints are as durable as oil. If you are in doubt about a product, read the label. Then google your question and see what people say (with the requisite internet grain of salt). If you find that your house has oil paint on it, you will need to prime the whole house or put an oil-based coat on it. But products are changing and be sure to inquire if there are any water-based paints that can bond to oil (and then check the fine print). Luckily, asbestos siding is very inert and safe as long as it remains undisturbed. Paint also adheres to asbestos siding very well. Leave it alone and only paint it when you want to change colors.

I do the trim first because it’s usually white and the siding is darker. It’s easier to get a straight line with the darker color riding up on the white edge. If the white edge rides over the darker edge, you see it instantly. This will make more sense presently. Always paint in the shade. The sun will dry the top of the paint faster than the bottom and you can get bubbling and lack of adhesion. Always check the temperature parameters of the paint you are using and don’t apply when it’s too cold–this will affect the adhesion properties. Paint inside out. That means do the inside surfaces first–the muntins, the sides of the frames, the interior jambs–because you will slop paint onto the other surfaces and you want to smooth those last. The part that you want to look the best is the part you see best–the frames of the doors and windows. Usually semi-gloss is used for trim and that shows any flaws and brushmarks, so you want to apply it wet into wet. Don’t let the edge dry as you continue along the architectural element. You’ll see what I mean. You will also appreciate me telling you to always start in an out of the way spot to make your mistakes and learn how to manipulate the materials. Don’t start on the front door! Here’s another way that many painters cut corners: they spray the siding and then roll the facing of the trim, leaving the sides of the trim the siding color. This is just wrong and lazy and deprives the homeowner of a great deal of the beauty of the architectural features. It’s really not that hard to paint the sides. If you do the trim first you don’t even need to worry about the siding/trim interface because it will be covered by the siding color.

If you’ve done the trim first, you’ve probably also done the fascia, the soffits, the eaves, all the trim just under the roof and above the siding. As you paint next to the roofing material, slip a paint guide under it to prevent slopping paint onto it. It’s important to work from the top down because of gravity–paint drips down on what’s below it. Although I do the trim first, I usually do two coats on the sills because they are horizontal surfaces that get a lot of rain pounding on them. The second coat goes on after the siding is done in case some siding paint has dripped onto it.

The siding coat is the most satisfying one. You are covering the primer, the old paint, and creating the lines that define the architectural features of your house. It’s easy to paint a straight line using the opposing 90 degree surface as a guide. I always use an angled brush so I can control the tip and apply the paint against the trim element, keeping the brush at an even angle. You don’t have to be perfect and you will get better and faster with time. As with the trim, paint the underside of the clapboard or siding element first, then the facing and smooth it in the same direction, wet into wet. Easy as pie!

You may need to paint the foundation as well. Proceed as before by testing the previous paint, or obtaining the correct paint if it has never been painted. I would generally leave brick and stone alone (having been careful to keep from dripping or brushing siding paint on it). They are beautiful and require no surface maintenance, but painting turns them into surfaces that will always need repainting. If the foundation is concrete block, I would get a good exterior paint that adheres to concrete. Porch floors should be scraped and primed and painted with porch paint for better wear.

What If I Don’t Have Time Or Money To Paint My Whole House?

If you only have a few problem spots, you can wash, scrape, prime, and paint those few spots and that will tide you over until you can do the whole house. Those spots may show, but at least the wood will be protected and you can put it off a little longer.

What If I’m Not Able To Paint My House?

If you need to hire people to paint your house, call around and see who can accommodate your wishes. Painters who have dealt with historic houses are more likely to be willing to do hand scraping and hand pump washing, often for reasonable prices. Or call your local historical society to find out who to call. If all they do is pressure wash and spray, go on to the next one. If you can’t find a painter who doesn’t insist on pressure washing, make sure they use bleach and at the lowest possible pressure, and try to get that in writing. If they say they will do it as you wish, be sure to watch them enough to know if they mean it. If they don’t, stop them and ask to speak to their supervisor or the owner of the company. Remember, it is your house and you are paying them–or not.

For more detailed information, please check out the National Park Service Preservation Briefs.