Years ago, when I was a punk architect in my 20s, I asked a well-known San Francisco Bay Area contractor what he considered the most important factor in a good remodel. I suppose I was fishing for an answer along the lines of, “Excellent design,” or at the very least, “A decent set of plans.”

His one-word reply: “Painting.”

He went on to explain that he had a sort of fetish for excellent painting.

He maintained that the quality of the paint job was what really set apart a top-notch project, because when all was said and done, the paint was the surface that everyone saw.

At the time, having just recently emerged from U.C. Berkeley’s incomparably touchy-feely school of architecture, I remember thinking to myself, “Now, this is one shallow cat.” But over the years, I’ve come to realize that he was absolutely right. Not that good design isn’t important–obviously, I think it is, or I’d have become a hot dog vendor on the Berkeley pier quicker than you could say Sim van der Ryn.

But the fact is that even the best design and the finest workmanship can be instantly transformed to a tawdry mess by the sort of slapdash painting that’s all too common these days.

Skilled painters are accorded far too little respect, partly because there aren’t that many of them. Instead, the field is swamped by low-balling incompetents who think the ability to wield a dribbling roller qualifies them to use the title “painter.” Most find work solely because they’re cheap. Top-quality painters are further cursed by the fact that the painting phase occurs toward the end of most projects, when overextended owners are most likely to start tightening the purse strings.

Unfortunately, whether you’re building from scratch or remodeling, cutting corners on painting is likely to cost you dearly. My not-so-shallow contractor friend was exactly right: Painted surfaces are ultimately what most people notice. Hence, if your house looks like it was painted by Mr. Magoo on drugs, all of your earlier efforts will have been in vain. Here, then, are some bare minimum standards to expect from a paint job:

  • The coverage should be uniform, without a watery, skim-milk appearance.

    In addition to proper application, using top-quality paint makes a big difference here. A good painter will automatically insist on using the very best paint. If you find your painter using econo-buy paint, plan to be disappointed with the results.

  • Borders between different colors should be sharply cut in without wavering.
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