If you don’t have helpful suckers…er…pals…to help you out like Tom Sawyer did, or if you want professional results and a quick turnaround, consider a contractor, particularly for exterior jobs or whole-house interior painting.

Contacting Contractors

Our Ratings Tables report both raves and rants from subscribers about painters they’ve used. The customer reviews come from local consumers we surveyed, primarily Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers.

In addition to recommendations on our website and from friends, look for contractors with references from previous customers in your neighborhood for jobs within the past year, or with other particulars that reach beyond two or three satisfied customers (or relatives). Also ask for references from paint suppliers. A few phone calls will help you determine if the candidate is highly regarded or barely known.

When asking for references from previous customers, give more weight to contractors with long track records of successful projects and more years in business. Experience matters, particularly with a traditional manual skill like painting.

Once you’ve assembled a pool of candidates, ask each of them for a cost proposal.

Evaluating Proposals

Get several proposals. Below we show the bids nine painting contractors quoted to our undercover homeowner to repaint the walls, ceiling, and trim for a living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, and kitchen. Prices included removing wallpaper in the kitchen and paint and supplies. Prices ranged from $1,380 to $6,512—a difference of more than $5,000.

Prices Quoted by Painters
for an Illustrative Job

Our undercover shopper asked companies to quote prices to paint the walls, ceiling, and trim for a living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, and kitchen. Prices include removing wallpaper in the kitchen and paint and supplies.
Lowest Price Quote $1,380
^ $2,650
| $3,000
| $3,415
| $3,792
| $3,800
| $3,950
v $4,893
Highest Price Quote $6,512
Difference between lowest price quote and highest price quote... $5,132

If you get three or more price quotes, you’ll likely also get big price differences. Since we find that companies that perform top-quality work are just as likely to quote low prices as companies that do shoddy jobs, don’t be put off by low bids. Paying a low price doesn’t mean you’ll get lowly work.

Ask companies to provide detailed bids on identical specifications. Although that sounds simple enough, too many contractors submit offers such as “paint house for $5,000.” A friendly contractor may offer a reassuring handshake and promise that the crew will take care of all the details—starting on time, working every day, cleaning up, etc. That’s great, but why not include each point in the proposal? If it’s a challenge to get a written description of labor, materials, and other details, things will probably get worse as you go to contract and they start work.

Other key points:

  • Let bidders know that you’re getting other proposals. Competition ensures contractors offer their best prices.
  • Check whether contractors will supply the paint or if that’s your responsibility. If different contractors propose different arrangements, adjust accordingly when comparing prices.
  • To compare more than price, look for a thorough recap of the specs, work area, materials, starting date, and an estimate of how long the job will take. A contractor who sorts out the details and puts them on paper is likely to follow through with those details on-site.
  • Make material disposal part of the cleanup job. An increasing number of jurisdictions charge substantial fees and have stringent regulations about construction waste, and paint and solvent leftovers.

Making a Contract

The contract should include all the details you’ve pinned down: prep work, paint, number of coats, specs for walls and trim, and description of the work area. Include any remaining gray areas, like that porch ceiling or the dingy insides of the kitchen cabinets. If many types and colors of paint will be used on the project, simplify things with a specifications list: brand name, type, and color (with manufacturer’s product number) for siding, and the same details for trim, shutters, garage door, and porch risers, as opposed to the treads. Then add a line in your agreement that the job shall follow the specifications list, which is considered part of the contract.

Leave something out and you’ll either have to rely on the contractor’s goodwill to include it or pay extra. Before that happens, walk around the job area one more time. Worried that your prize rhododendrons will wither under a shower of sanding dust and paint spray? Add a line about protecting them.

But an airtight contract won’t guarantee good results. In fact, contracts present a paradox. You need the strongest possible provisions to protect against an incompetent and unscrupulous contractor—someone who may not abide by them in any case—but if you work with a reputable pro, those provisions probably won’t be necessary. The person trumps the paper; which is why the selection and proposal process is so critical. No legal language can make dishonest contractors honest or turn sloppy shortcut painters into dependable experts.

Here is a closer look at some key contract clauses:

  • Personnel—Some contractors start off with a full crew that swarms the work area. Then, for many reasons (mainly juggling other jobs), there may be days with little or no activity. Minimize these delays by specifying who will be on the job and that, weather permitting, work will be continuous.
  • Insurance—Contractors should provide proof that they carry both general liability and workers’ compensation coverage. The former covers damages if a ladder smashes through your or your neighbor’s window; the latter covers injuries to a worker who falls off the ladder. Some homeowners insurance coverage, particularly umbrella policies, may cover those incidents, but the contractor’s policies should kick in first.
  • Payments—Minimize the down payment and maximize the final one. The more you can withhold until the end, the more leverage you’ll have to get the job done well and per your specs. If a contractor demands a large payment up front to buy materials or equipment, you’ve got the wrong contractor. Reputable pros have accounts at suppliers and, like you, credit that lets them buy stuff and pay within 30 days.
  • Starting and completion dates—Request a firm start date. The completion date will probably be an estimate, but neither will have an impact in the event of a dispute unless you describe the dates with this phrase: “Starting and completion dates are of the essence of the contract.” Even if job duration is important, don’t add a bonus clause for finishing early or a penalty for finishing late. You don’t want workers to cut corners to earn a bonus, or, as penalties mount for lateness, give the contractor less and less of an incentive to finish at all.
  • Specifying quality standards—Unlike, say, remodeling work, there are no exact or measurable standards for painting. But to protect against an obviously substandard job, include a catchall phrase to the effect that the contractor will complete the project in a professional manner.
  • Lien waivers—The contractor should provide a form called “Waiver of Mechanic’s Lien Rights” at the end of the job, which absolves you from paying the contractor’s bills. For example, it means that the paint supplier can’t sue you to collect on 30 gallons of paint plus brushes. The form is used mainly on large projects and, of course, is unnecessary if you supply the materials.
  • Cleanup—Standard contracts include the phrase: “The work area should be left broom clean.” Normally, that’s enough. But if your project generates some construction debris, plus partially used paint cans, cleaners, and solvents, make debris removal the contractor’s responsibility, since those materials may require special handling and hefty fees at recycling centers.