Unlike other trades, you don’t need special training or a truck full of tools to paint one room or an entire house. But who does the painting can have a dramatic effect on how well the job is done—and how much you’ll pay for it.

Identify worthy candidates.

Our Ratings Tables report both raves and rants from local consumers about painters they’ve used. Reviews were collected from surveys we sent to Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected consumers we invited to participate.

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.

Compare costs.

Get several prices. The figure below shows the bids eight painting contractors quoted our undercover homeowner for two separate jobs: (1) Re-caulk and repaint all exterior wood trim, including 27 windows, on a two-story 3,000-square-foot home; and (2) Repaint the walls, ceiling, and trim for a foyer, hallway, two bathrooms, two stairwells, and three bedrooms. Prices include paint and supplies. For the exterior work, prices ranged from $1,830 to $6,800—a difference of $4,970; for the interior work, prices ranged from $1,175 to $4,780—a difference of $3,605.

The message is clear: Get several price quotes. Because 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. Low prices don’t indicate lousy work.

Ask companies to provide detailed bids on identical specifications. Although that sounds simple, 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?

Other key points:

  • Tell bidders 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.

Become a Smarter Consumer Get free, expert advice delivered to your inbox every Wednesday when you sign up for the Weekly Checklist newsletter.

What to get in writing.

Even an airtight contract won’t make dishonest contractors honest or turn sloppy shortcut painters into dependable experts. But by putting in writing all the details you’ve pinned down, plus a few other clauses, you can eliminate common sources of disputes.

Detailed description of job—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.

What paint goes where—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, for instance, 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 will follow the spec list, which is considered part of the contract.

  • Request a firm start date and an estimated completion date.
  • Personnel—Minimize delays by specifying that “weather permitting, work will be continuous.”
  • Insurance—Contractors should provide proof that they carry both general liability and workers’ compensation coverage.
  • 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. 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 credit that lets them buy stuff and pay later.
  • Dealing with lead—If your home was built before 1978, insist that workers follow the law to keep you and your family safe. Add to your contract: “Company will follow EPA regulations for containing the work area and minimizing the generation of lead-paint dust.” Click here for more info on dealing with dangerous lead-based paint.
  • Cleanup—Include the phrases “The work area will be left broom clean,” and “Contractor shall remove and properly dispose of all trash and leftover paints, solvents, and materials.”