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Painting square foot cost: a review in 4 steps

Learn how to calculate your painting square-foot cost, about the best paint brands, and how to connect with painting contractors.

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Your painting square foot cost depends on many factors.

Giving your home interior or exterior a new coat of paint is a simple way to make your living space feel fresh and new no matter the painting square-foot cost.

Many people wait to paint when they're about to move or are moving into a new home. There's certainly value in increasing your home's appeal to engage buyers.

Yet sometimes you need to treat yourself and your home to a new look. Stimulate your senses with a change you can show off to family, friends and neighbors.

Painting is an investment. Budget your painting square-foot cost on the following four factors:

    • Whether you opt to hire a professional painting contractor or do it yourself. 
    • The cost of supplies you may not have on hand.
    • The type of paint you choose to use. 
    • The size of the space.

What is your first step? Find a painting contractor

Painting is messy and time consuming. Relax and hire a paint contractor. Photo by amoklv on iStockphoto.Painting takes time and patience. You might think it's not a big job. But once your back starts aching and you're cursing the floor you ruined, you might wish you bit the bullet and went with a professional.

Hire a painting contractor to get the job done quickly and properly. You won't have to purchase any supplies, and you know the job will be done right.

With the proper crew, an exterior paint job (including trim and touch-ups) can be done within three days. By yourself, it could take weeks.

Another plus of hiring a painting contractor: The professional might have an agreement with the local paint and home improvement stores, which likely results in a better deal on the paint and supplies you would get. Some stores give a percentage discount to licensed painters in their area.

Painting contractors handle the proper disposal of empty paint cans and cart away any unused paint. In most cities, you cannot just throw away a paint can in the garbage or recycling bin. They must be taken to the appropriate facility.

The cost of a painting contractor will vary depending on where you live, the materials you select, and the number of painting contractors needed for the job.

The painter may charge by the hour for a smaller project. In general though, painters charge a lump sum for the project. It's not uncommon for a painting contractor to request for half of the project's quoted total to be paid in advance, with the other half paid upon project completion and approval.

Seek at least three quotes from different painting contractors. Find a qualified professional near you who can help and always be sure to get an itemized estimate before you start

To prime or not to prime?

Before you get down to the business of choosing your wall paint, priming is something you need to consider that will impact how much it costs to paint a room (whether you paint it yourself or have a contractor do it for you).

Advantages of including primer paint

Primer paint minimizes the number of coats of finish paint you will need later on in the painting process, whether you are using interior paint or exterior paint. It not only increases the adhesion of any future paint so it lasts longer, but it also protects your walls from mold, water damage, and other gross substances.

For instance, say the previous owners smoked cigarettes in the home for years. Without primer, the smoke stains in the drywall will ooze out from under the fresh coat of paint and be visible to you and your house guests.

Primer paint and painting setup by adventtr on iStockphotoEven if you're building your home or space from the ground up, it is smart to start with primer.

Exterior primer paints serve the same function as interior primers. An extra feature in an exterior application is weatherization. Some exterior primers are ideal for all climate conditions, while others are designed with specific regions in mind.

For instance, there are exterior primers ideal for the humidity of the South and the mildew of the Pacific Northwest. There are primers created to withstand the Texas heat.

Increase the value of your home. An exterior paint job has a 90% return on investment. Ask a painting contractor about painting square-foot costs for your area or the cost for painting a house. Get quotes now!

Oil-based vs. latex-based primer or specialized primer

There are different types of primers for different types of surfaces. There's oil-based primer and latex-based primer. There are also specialized primers for different conditions, like if the walls you want to paint are heavily stained.

You can even find multi-surface primers and lightly-tinted primers. If you know for a fact you need a wood primer, go with it, since it was created specifically for the wood surface you're painting.

Your exterior surface also determines the type of primer you need. There are primers for wood, vinyl siding, brick, stucco, concrete, metal and so on. 

Your contractor will know which primer is best for your home. The contractor may find your home is in such a condition that a dual interior and exterior primer is ideal.

Primer paint costs

Primer is slightly less expensive than paint. A gallon of primer costs between $10 and $35. Primer prices lean toward the high-end based on the brand and specialization of the primer type.

Depending on what you are priming, you may need at least two coats of primer. For example, you'll need more primer if you're changing your paint colors from dark to light. The darker the paint color, the more coats of primer you'll need. 

All in all, better two coats of primer versus three or four coats of paint since primer will cost you less.

If multiple surfaces need to be primed, then have your contractor purchase a 2- or 5-gallon buckets of primer instead of single gallon cans. 

In rare cases, you may or may not need an interior primer. If your wall has no chips or cracks and is a similar light paint color, it's not absolutely necessary to apply primer. If your wall is chipped or cracked, you should definitely scrape, sand and caulk where needed; then add primer.

You definitely need a primer for exterior surfaces due to the constant exposure to the elements. When accepting quotes from contractors, ask if they included exterior primer in their estimate. If they didn't, they may be trying to go the cheap route so they can provide a lower estimate and get the job.

They may state you don't need an exterior primer, which is why they did not include it in their estimate. Don't listen to that line. It doesn't matter if your home is new or you're repainting the exterior, you need to prime first.

Your painting contractor will know exactly which primer type is best for you. Consult with multiple painting contractors for free quotes and to gauge their knowledge.

What additional painting supplies do you need?

Paint color and paint brush by Gelpi on iStockphotoYour painting square-foot cost includes more than just the paint. There are other basic supplies you will need to invest in besides primer paint.

How much you spend on painting supplies depends on whether this is a one-time paint job; you plan to use the supplies on future painting jobs; or you hire a professional painting contractor.

Here's a brief rundown of what you'll need if you're taking the painting project on yourself:

    • Disposable, waterproof drop cloths are available for just a few dollars for a multipack and are well worth every penny you will spend.
    • Masking tape generally costs about $5 per roll. Purchase the blue kind for painting.
    • Sandpaper pricing is determined by the size of the paper and the grade of the paper. Calculate spending between $5 and $10 for sandpaper.
    • Spackle averages around $7 for a small container.
    • Caulking runs between $2 and $10.
    • Plan to purchase a large and small brush, which can range from roughly a few dollars to $10 or more each. 
    • You will also need rollers, roller covers and a roller tray, which you can purchase as a set for roughly $10. 
    • For exterior paint jobs, you'll also need to decide if you're going to manually wash the exterior or pressure wash. Let your contractor know which method you prefer. Washing by hand takes a lot more time. While the supplies are cheaper than renting a pressure washer, you pay for it in labor costs. Renting a pressure washer runs anywhere between $60 to a $100 per day. Rental prices vary based on your location in the U.S. and also how close you live to the rental center.

Overall, the lower the cost, the lower the quality of the materials. If you have to choose, don't skimp on brushes, rollers or the paint brand.

A clear advantage of hiring a professional painter is they bring all the gear with them. You don't have to spend time debating which sandpaper to buy, or finding out after the fact you bought the wrong caulking.

The average return on investment for interior painting is 107%, and 94% of real estate agents suggest it as a smart home improvement project, according to HomeGain. Start collecting free quotes from professional paint contractors in your area today.

Popular paint brands: Follow the crowd

If you want your paint job to last, invest in a paint brand with a good reputation. Consumer Reports lists some of the top paint brands as:

    • Behr
    • Benjamin Moore
    • ICI
    • Olympic
    • Sherwin-Williams
    • Valspar

Prices for different paint types and brands are all over the board, with a gallon of Olympic paint costing roughly $26 compared to $125 for a gallon of Christopher Peacock paint. Fortunately, there are several brands that are available in the $25 to $40 price range.

Why are paint brands priced so differently? Well, you get what you pay for. Cheaper paints are more diluted than those on the higher end. Thus you'll need two to three coats versus a single coat of the good stuff.

Again, if you can, go for a quality paint brand.

Paint finishes

Paint finish and modern, orange room by archideaphoto on iStockphotoYour paint finish choice relates to the surface you are painting, and how shiny you want it to be. A paint finish also affects how easy it will be to clean the surface. Your options include matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss and gloss.

For the best paint finish, follow these brief tips:

    • Matte finish, also called flat finish, is best for ceilings, walls or any other surface in low-traffic areas, such as bedrooms and closets. It is especially useful for hiding imperfections, like cracks.
    • An eggshell finish has the slightest sheen to it and is easy to maintain. It is best used in high-traffic areas, like kitchens and bathrooms.
    • Sometimes a satin finish is referred to as an eggshell finish. Yet there is a difference. Satin finishes have more of a gloss to them. Like eggshell finishes, they're easy to clean and are ideal for kids' bedrooms. If you don't like the look of semi-gloss or gloss finishes, then use a satin finish on your trim and doors.
    • Semi-gloss finish works especially well on trim, cabinets and furniture. It is even easier to clean than eggshell or satin finishes. So if you don't mind the shine found in a semi-gloss finish, you can also use it on the walls of your kids' bedrooms or play room. If there are any irregularities on the surface, though, do not use semi-gloss paint. It highlights imperfections.
    • The brilliance of a gloss finish gives a polished look to trim, doors or specialty features in your home. If you are feeling daring and are using a dark paint color for your wall, like a rich green or navy, purchase a paint sample with a gloss finish. Test an area, and see what you think.

How to calculate the cost of painting a room


The basic formula for calculating square footage is length multiplied by height:

    • Length x Height = Square Feet

Factoring doors and windows

To calculate the painting square-foot cost of a room, first calculate the square footage of the windows and doors of the room using the above formula.

If you have, for instance, two windows of the same size, then calculate the square footage of one and multiply the answer by two. 

Next, add the door square footage total to the window square footage total.

Keep the door and window calculation handy.

Square footage of walls

Calculate the wall square footage of this luxury penthouse. Photo by tulcarion on iStockphoto. To calculate the square footage of your walls, follow these steps:

    • Measure the length of all walls and add the amounts together.
    • Measure and record the height of the walls.
    • Multiply your wall length sum by the wall height. 
    • Subtract your door and window square footage total from the wall square footage.

The industry average for 1 gallon of paint is 350 square-feet of coverage. So:

    • Divide the above amount by 350.

You now have the number of gallons of paint you need to paint your room. When you know what paint brand you want, you can produce a more accurate painting square footage cost.

The 21st century has made some of this much easier. There are now apps that will help you visualize what your painted room will look like, calculate costs for materials, and even show you where to find the right paint in the right shade. Some of these apps are specific to a certain brands or manufacturers, others can be found in the Apple App Store or on Google Play for Android. Using modern technology, you can save yourself a lot of mathematical hassles and likely come out with a more accurate assessment of your needs.

Nonetheless, the easiest way to get these estimates is simply to get bids from a number of painting contractors.

How much does it cost to paint a room?

Your final steps are:

    • Estimate how many coats of primer paint you need.
    • Estimate the cost of additional supplies.
    • Calculate the square footage of the ceiling. 
    • Calculate how much trim or baseboard you need to paint. Don't forget to include the trim around your door and windows.
    • Add these amounts to your gallon(s) of paint cost.
    • Factor in the labor quotes you received from painting contractors.

Painting the interior or exterior walls of your home is a great way to give it a quick facelift and increase your return-on-investment with little work. Your painting square-foot cost will vary based on many factors, but you can usually make the painting prices work in your favor regardless of your budget, tight or mighty.

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Photo credit: 1. creisinger; 2. adventtr; 3. Gelpi; 4. archideaphoto; 5. tulcarion; 6. amoklv. All images via iStockphoto.