Painting Costs — Is $675 a Fair Price?

by Dan Derkum


Is $675 a fair cost? That’s a question a customer recently asked me about an estimate she received from an insurance restoration company. I started to think about the question and found myself sympathizing with her dilemma. In so many areas of construction today, folks really have no idea of what there’re paying for or buying. People want the cheapest price, the highest quality, and quick turnaround. Unfortunately, the three together are a thrice oxymoron. As with anything, it’s all about decision making and what’s important to you. You only have 3 choices when it comes to quality; these are Good, Fast, and Cheap. 


Below are images of the Project Management Triangle (PMT). The PMT or “Iron Triangle” is a highly recognized and well used project management tool to quickly illustrate the outcome of your decisions.


Good-Fast-Cheap: Pick Two

The PMT gives the options of FastGood and Cheap; you can pick any two.  Here, Fast refers to the time required to deliver the product, Good is the quality of the final product, and Cheap refers to the total cost of designing and building the product. This triangle reflects the fact that the three properties of a project are interrelated, and it is not possible to optimize all three – one will always suffer.  In other words you have three options:

  • Design and build something quickly and to a high standard, but then it will not be cheap.  Why?  Because quality and durability requires better people and materials.  Over time, this always proves to be the lowest, total overall cost.

A word of caution regarding “quickly”.  Quickly is a highly relevant term.  Quickly does not mean overnight completion.  It means that if the project is properly planned and carefully executed, it will progress along its normal course and be a success.

  • Design and build something quickly and cheaply, but it will not be of high quality.  Why?  Because quick and cheap is a house of playing cards.  In other words, success requires proper, well thought out planning, careful execution, using high quality materials and people.  Anything else and it will fail.
  • Design and build something with high quality and cheaply, but it will take a very, very, long time.  Why?  Because the technology has yet to be developed to get the cost down.


About that paint price of $675.  Here is what you’re not being told and what you don’t know enough about painting to ask:

  1. Is the Painter properly licensed by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), have and carry Workers Compensation Insurance, General Liability Insurance, and is Bonded?
  2. What brand of paint are they using?  Are you sure that what’s in the can reflects what the label says?
  3. What application process are they using?


Let’s examine each of these separately.

  1. Licensing and insurance.  Log on to www.CSLB.CA.Gov to check if the Painter is licensed, the license is valid and in good standing, they are bonded, and they carry Workers Compensation Insurance.  The site won’t tell you if they have General Liability Insurance – this is equivalent of car and home insurance.  If the Painter destroys or damages your home, this is what pays to cover the damage.  No General Liability Insurance and you’re on your own when he burns your house down because he did not properly secure the paint and its fumes ignited from your water heater pilot light.  By law, you must be told if the Painter/Contractor has General Liability Insurance.  It’s not required by law (why in the world would you hire anyone who does not have this?).  If they do have General Liability Insurance, you must be provided with the name of the provider, policy number, and the insurance contact information when you hire the Painter/Contractor (this is when you sign the contract).

Workers Compensation Insurance – BE CAREFUL!  If the CSLB web site says that the Contractor is exempt from Workers Compensation Insurance, this means they personally are going to perform all of the work by themselves.  They have and use no employees or subcontractors.  Guess what?  In California, this makes you responsible for all injuries and legal expenses for anyone that Painter/Contractor brings on your property to work.  If they are injured or killed, you’re responsible.  Your typical homeowners insurance won’t cover this either.  I have personally met Customers who were more than $50,000 (and growing) in debt because they hired someone who lied about carrying Workers Compensation insurance.

  1. Product.  Behr, Dunn Edwards, Vista, Valspar, Sherwin Williams, Weatherbeater, Benjamin Moore, etc.  Do you know which is best for YOUR community?  Just because one brand of paint works good in New York does not mean it works well in California – so forget the internet for researching what people have to say.  Moreover, what works in beach communities (such as Newport Beach) is vastly different from what works in inland communities (such as Mission Viejo)!

In my 35 years of Southern California building and remodeling, I find Dunn Edwards is the best paint.  Great, so the Painter/Contractor is using Dunn Edwards paint.  OK, which one?  Like all manufactures, they have a low end and high end product (go back to the triangle).  The cheapest paint Dunn Edwards makes is Acriwall at about $15 per gallon. The best is Suprema (inside) at about $30 per gallon and Evershield (outside) at about $35 per gallon.  If your job is going to require 15 gallons of paint inside, with tax and the government mandated fees, that’s almost a $249 difference.  The difference in quality is HUGE.  With Acriwall (a production or new tract home paint – really cheap water color stuff), you won’t get even 1 wall washing out of it.  You’ll be lucky to get a year or two before you’ll need to paint again.  Correctly preparing the surface and using Suprema or Evershield paints and with proper care, 10-15 years easy before your next paint job.  Now that $249 difference quickly balloons to around $1,245 or more – and that’s just the paint!  Again, see the triangle above.

What’s in the can?  Sure, the Painter tells you they’re using Suprema.  Make sure your contract specifically spells out the make and type of paint – not “Dunn Edwards paint” or “paint”.  It should read, for example, “Dunn Edwards Suprema SPMA40 in the color of DEW 311, French White”.  I have seen more often than you can imagine a much lower quality of paint inside a Dunn Edwards Suprema can vs. what the label says.  How can this be?  Simple, to get the price down, the Painter fills empty Suprema paint cans with (a) cheaper paint and/or (b) cuts the Suprema paint using water and/or cheaper paint.  You don’t get something for nothing.  Let’s face it, nobody works for free or looses money on a job.  How could they live doing this?  When the paint arrives, look for the label on the paint:

Paint Label

Last item on product – Primer.  All new baseboards, door case, doors, drywall (even repairs and patches), and any bare wood must be primed.  Forget all the hype of paint+primer in one.  It’s a bunch of baloney.  First prepare the surface (sanding, hole filling, etc), prime (2 coats minimum), and paint (2 coats minimum).

There is no one size fits all primer.  Specific primers are made for specific applications.  I can tell you that the best (I believe) primers are those manufactured by Zinsser.  It’s not cheap, but it’s really good stuff!  Like anything, it’s the strength of the foundation that matters – painting is no exception.  The best built house will fail if built on a substandard foundation (see the triangle).  Zinsser’s Bulls Eye 1▪2▪3 primer is the best primer for most interior painting.


3. Application.  This is a tough one.  Unless you’re an experienced and highly qualified licensed Painter/Contractor, you’re not going to be able to figure this one out.  Anyone can paint.  Not everyone knows HOW to paint.  You can watch all the You Tube videos and attend all the Home Depot clinics in the world, this still will not provide you with even 10% of the experience you need to paint correctly.  To paint properly, it’s much more difficult and expensive than it looks.  All the ding-dongs out there have conned you into believing one painter is as good as the other . . . its price that matters (see the triangle).  Painting incorrectly will not only guarantee damage to your home (which you likely will not see the extent of for years) but look and perform marginal at best.



So, here’s what I can offer for general tips:Paint Rollers
    1. Insist on 2 coats of paint.  With few exceptions, every Painter will cheerfully tell you with a smile that he always provides 2 coats!  What he means by 2 coats is that he passes over the same wet area of paint twice.  That’s 1 coat!  To get 2 coats, the first coat of paint (or primer) needs to dry 4-6 hours minimum.  Then, a second coat is applied.  Ask the Painter how they are going to apply 2 coats of paint to your living room walls and finish the job in 1 day when the first coat needs to dry for 6 hours?  See the triangle.
    2. Let’s assume your Painter is painting the gypsum (drywall) surfaces in your living room.  What is he using for a roller cover?  The picture to the right illustrates 3 types top to bottom (a) a traditional 9” high quality roller cover from Dunn Edwards (b) fabric mini or “weenie” roller (c) foam mini or “weenie” roller.

      A bag of 3 or 6 budget roller covers from Home Depot are trash.  These will leave fuzz and an imbalance of paint on your walls.  Insist on a new (not used) paint roller cover from a professional paint supplier (like Dunn Edwards). I’ve used almost every roller on the local market.  I can tell you the Dunn Edwards Pro White roller cover is by far the best.  It does a verynice job (yes, it costs more) and you can see and feel the difference.

      Those mini or “weenie” rollers are designed for getting into tight places.  They are not for painting entire walls.  Unfortunately, (again, to get the price down), I’ve seen lots of Painters use these to paint entire walls (they apply a lot less paint).

    1. Masking and protection.  Your Painter should take great care to ensure everything is reasonably protected.  If I could put into the bank how many times I find over-spray and paint roller spray on windows, lights, carpet, tile, mirrors, window coverings, door knobs, hinges, lights, switches, plugs, ventilation grates, etc., I would be rich.  Yes, masking takes time (see the triangle).  Do you really want paint on your door knobs and ventilation grates and registers?  Did you know that by painting your ventilation grates and registers you’re costing yourself money in heating and cooling bills?  It also causes excessive build-up of dirt, lint, dust, pollen, and bacteria.  Sure it’s faster for the Painter, but worse and more expensive and unhealthful for you and your family.

This essay is not all inclusive.  There is far more to painting correctly and doing a proper job.  I’ve provided some basic things to look for to make sure your Painter has the potential to measure up.  If the items presented here are not what you’re seeing in your Painter, find another.

About the Author
Daniel A. Derkum is the owner of DAD's Construction, a leading South Orange County, California design-and-build remodeling and renovation contractor.