Painting Your Home Exterior: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques

Most everyone remembers Tom Sawyer and the whitewash fence. Sent out to paint Aunt Polly’s picket fence, Tom schemed and manipulated to get his friends to do it instead. You could do something similar and hire professionals to paint your home exterior. But you’ll probably save thousands of dollars by doing it yourself.

Read on to find out what you need to know to ensure your exterior paint job looks just as good – or better – than any professional paint job.

Picking Exterior Paint

Painting your house isn’t just about how it looks, although that plays into your motive. A good paint job can influence how you feel and, like a wax job on a car, actually raise your home’s value. Painting your home also helps protect the structure – it’s the only thing standing between the weather and the house itself, after all. Good paint can even help lower your energy bills. However, it takes proper surface preparation, correct application, and a quality paint to do it right.

Take the time to comparison shop when selecting the paint. Look at different types and brands, and pay particular attention to the details listed on the label. Some may require special preparation before use, and others may offer special qualities, such as mildewcides, in the formula.

Any paint you choose will fall into one of two basic types:

Water-based Paint: Simply referred to as latex, water-based exterior paints clean up easily with soap and water. Latex paint dries quickly and produces little odor, making it more environmentally friendly. Latex is more flexible once dried, so it’s less likely to crack. Look for high-quality latex paints with 100-percent acrylic resins.

Oil-based Paint: Called alkyd paints, oil-based paints require solvents for cleanup (mineral spirits and paint thinner) and take much longer to dry. Harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are another concern, although some products aim for lower VOCs. Alkyd paints also emit strong odors until dry. Professional painters often favor alkyds, however, because they are stain resistant, long lasting, and flow smoothly, so they don’t leave brush marks.

Whichever paint you choose, keep in mind that when it comes to paint, the price says a lot about the product. More expensive products and brands use more pigments than so-called “bargain” paints. This translates into a thicker, longer-lasting paint job. A good paint job, using quality products, can last 10 to 15 years or more.

Wait for Good Painting Weather

Exterior painting isn’t an all-weather sport. In fact, applying paint under the wrong circumstances may affect the quality and performance of any exterior paint product.

Choose mild days when the temperature ranges between 50- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Partly sunny to cloudy weather is best. In direct sunlight, surface temperatures climb much higher, potentially preventing the paint from bonding properly. Follow the shade around your house as you work for best results. Also, keep an eye on the humidity and forecasts of rain. While latex exterior paints don’t require as long of a drying time as alkyds, they will still wash away in the rain. Remember, they’re water-soluble.

Exterior Paint Preparation

Young Tom Sawyer didn’t realize what an easy job he had, simply slapping on another coat of whitewash over the old. Painting your house isn’t nearly as simple because it requires preparation, and what you do to prepare your house for painting spells the difference between success and failure. Some even say that preparation is half the job in painting.

Proper exterior prep work involves most or all of the following:

Test for Lead: If your home was built before 1978 and you think the paint job may be just as old, don’t take chances – test the paint for lead content. Paint and hardware stores sell relatively inexpensive kits that make testing a small flake of the old paint easy. If your exterior paint contains lead, wear protective suits and breathing masks while removing the old paint and contain the paint with plastic sheeting spread to collect the debris. Dispose of the debris at a hazardous waste site to prevent environmental damage. For more information about lead-based paint and safety, consult the EPA.

Cover or remove items around the home exterior: Furniture, shutters, house numbers, light fixtures, garden hoses, and such may become damaged or cause a hazard during the work. Spread plastic sheeting over shrubs and flowers to protect them as well. Spray grass with water or cover with additional plastic to prevent damage to it.

Scrape any loose or peeling paint: To last, the new paint must bond properly to the siding. Loose paint will cause the new to begin peeling immediately. Use a paint scraper and avoid gouging the wood as you work. Add a heat gun to help loosen the paint as needed. Avoid power sanders and grinders, which are less gentle on wood.

Sand rough areas and edges: Begin with medium-grit sandpaper, sanding by hand or with a small orbital sander, and switch to fine as you smooth rough surfaces and edges. If less than half the old paint remains after scraping and sanding, consider stripping the remaining paint to make it easier to blend the borders between bare wood and old paint. Sanding also provides a method to scuff up a painted surface and increase the bond with the new paint, which is particularly useful over glossy paints.

Clean the exterior: A power washer, which is fairly affordable to rent or purchase, makes quick work of cleaning your home exterior. It also breaks windows, pulverizes brick and mortar, or etches wood just as fast, if you don’t know how to use it correctly. You can use it or you can scrub the house with a scrub brush, hose, and pump sprayer, along with a cleaning solution (water and TSP works in most cases) and rinse completely. For best results, wait at least 3 days after washing before painting.

Repair any damage: Fill in small cracks, dents, and holes. Repair any rotten wood and replace trim or siding as necessary.

Apply a primer: A primer isn’t always necessary. If the old paint is clean and didn’t require scraping and stripping, a primer usually won’t be needed. However, when covering a much darker color, painting over bare wood, or switching from alkyd to latex paint, you must use a primer. Don’t skimp on the primer either. It protects the wood and allows you to use much less paint than if you didn’t prime the surface.
Hint: Use a metal primer to spot-prime over nail heads and prevent rust from forming.

Caulk it: Squirt beads of caulk along all joints and seams. Don’t skimp on caulk, either – it’s the only thing, other than the paint, standing between your home and the weather.

Brush, Roller, or Sprayer: How To Apply the Paint

The final decision to make before painting your house is how do you wish to apply the paint? Some professionals use paint sprayers. They make quick work of the job, to be sure, if you’re experienced at using them. In unpracticed hands, however, it’s difficult to prevent drips and runs, over-spraying in some areas and under-spraying in others, and probably leaving a fine mist of paint on areas and things meant to be left unpainted. Better to use a paint brush or roller instead. In fact, using both usually works best. Roll the main areas and switch to your brushes to tackle corners, edges, trim, and doors among other detail work.

Painting Technique

Start at the top of the house and work down to the ground, moving down the length of the house after each vertical section is complete. Paint the trim only after the rest of the house is finished.

When painting with the brush, load it correctly: Dip the top third of the bristles into the paint and tap lightly against the interior of the can (never the lip, where it may gather dried paint and debris). Make long, smooth strokes and brush back and forth a few times. Oil-based paints require more brush strokes than latex, which dries too quickly.

To use the paint roller, dip it into the tray and roll it back and forth several times to remove excess paint. Again, use long, even strokes. Roll in various directions, unlike with the brush, to coat the surface adequately.

If you have experience painting your interior walls, painting the outside will prove much easier. Either way, by the time you’re finished, you’ll find you’re much more confident – and your home will also be much more attractive!


  • Bruce September 21, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Caulking: Prime, caulk, prime, then paint. Be sure the caulk & primer are compatible.

    Prep: clean, clean, clean. No such thing as too much cleaning. If some existing paint comes off due to power sander vibration, it was coming off anyway – better now than after the new paint is applied.

    Application tool. Many years ago, a contractor painted a local factory, & hired school kids to paint ground work. I questioned the cost of labour for all the brushing vs spraying. The foreman took the time to teach me. Two of the things he taught me: 1.) brushing gives much better adhesion. 2.) brushing will apply more paint, providing a better looking longer lasting job, and a happier customer.

  • Catherine C Brooks September 16, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    I disagree with your recommendations for paint stripping: “Use a paint scraper and avoid gouging the wood as you work. Add a heat gun to help loosen the paint as needed. Avoid power sanders and grinders, which are less gentle on wood.”

    If the paint has lead in it, do NOT want to use ANY of these methods as described. Dry scraping generates huge amounts of toxic lead chips. A plastic tarp helps collect the debris, but it must be cleaned up every day. Heat guns operate at 1000+ degrees and create toxic lead fumes which can poison workers. Yes, power sanders and grinders are more harsh on wood but, more importantly, without vacuum shrouds they generate flying dust which endangers the whole neighborhood. Infrared Paint Removers (Speedheater) are low heat to not make fumes but soften paint for safer scraping.


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