An exterior paint job can last up to 15 years. Here’s your no-stress guide to choosing a palette that suits your house’s style, expresses your own, and will weather the next two decades with grace.

By Petra Guglielmetti
August 24, 2020
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Maybe you’ve seen it happen in your neighborhood: A house you once viewed as blah—or worse, an eyesore—transforms seemingly overnight, all thanks to a fresh coat of paint. “It’s amazing what a difference a new color scheme can make when it comes to curb appeal and the market value of a home,” says Paula Monthofer, regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors in Flagstaff, Arizona.

First you have to choose a palette, which can be next-level intimidating: You want to commit to colors that you’re pretty sure you’ll still love in a decade or more, that reflect your personality (at least a little bit), and that make you feel content every time you pull into the driveway. Before you color yourself overwhelmed, read through these shortcuts to finding your home’s perfect match. Then your main challenge will be jealous neighbors throwing shade.

Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

Choose Your Hues

Unlike the inside of a room, an exterior is almost never a blank slate. You need to survey its fixed elements—things you don’t plan (or can’t afford) to change, like roofing, windows, soffits, gutters, and stonework. “These elements dictate your color palette,” says Cassie McDowell, co-owner of Brick & Batten, a virtual exterior-design firm. So work with them—or risk having colors that feel “off.” For example, if your home has a red roof, you should balance that out, perhaps by “selecting a warmer shade than you might have planned,” says Lisa Moon, owner of Paper Moon Painting in Austin, Texas. Looking carefully at your exterior, make a list of the fixed colors you see, including undertones in the roofing, brick, or stone. These will all become part of your palette.

Another factor you can’t ignore: the style of your house. A hunter green that would look just right on a craftsman bungalow or mid-century ranch could be overkill on a farmhouse. Bright, fun colors play well on beach houses in sunny locations, while Victorian homes lend themselves to more muted variations of those tones (for instance, a Caribbean blue in Boca versus a slate blue in Boston). “Look up your style of home on Pinterest or Houzz to get an idea of what works,” suggests Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services for Behr Paint Company.

Occasionally, it’s a good idea to strategically work against the style of your house. You can make a ’90s build with eclectic windows look less McMansion by painting it a crisp white, say, or reimagine a cookie-cutter new construction in statement-making black.

The most successful palettes also factor in a home’s surroundings, landscaping, and even climate. In places with tons of bright light year-round, avoid dark or saturated colors, which can fade more quickly and absorb heat (thereby jacking up your A/C bill). “Aim for colors that stand out without sticking out,” says Sue Wadden, director of color marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “If you have a beautiful backdrop of trees, consider deeper colors that blend with them, such as navy or even black. If you live in a desert climate, dusty beiges and terra-cottas may be a better choice for your environment.”

And if you live in a new development where the only trees are still saplings, neutral may be best. “When there’s less landscaping or shade, the quality of light may intensify colors and make them appear brighter,” Woelfel explains. “Neutral colors tend to be more harmonious until trees and greenery grow in, softening the overall landscape.”

“Your neighborhood can be a great place to find inspiration and help you determine an initial direction for your palette,” Wadden says.

“You don’t have to be tied down by the neighbors’ color schemes, but you should consider the neighborhood aesthetic,” notes Jamal Saghir, product manager and expert of siding and ColorPlus technology at James Hardie. “Bold color choices may look jarring in a neighborhood with a more neutral color scheme, while a home in more neutral tones can fade out in a neighborhood full of bright colors.”

Also, if you live in a historic neighborhood or a planned community, you may need to get your homeowners association to approve your color choice.

If this is your forever home, by all means “look for colors you love that pair with your interior,” McDowell says. “But if you could be selling your home in the next five to seven years, you’ll need colors that also appeal to the masses.” Think neutral or earthy shades (white, gray, beige), which will make your home more attractive to the widest range of home buyers.

There’s no need to mood-board endless combinations of exterior colors. “Choose three or four paint colors max: a base color, a trim color, and maybe an accent color for a spot like the door,” McDowell says. Simpler yet, just pick your siding color and let the trim choice flow from that: “The easiest thing is to choose your main wall color, then choose a color two steps lighter or darker for the trim,” Woelfel says. This also ensures the two hues share an undertone—usually, you’ll want to stick with either warm or cool colors so they don’t look jarring side by side. (Not sure what undertone your paint of choice has? Put the paint card on a sheet of bright white printer paper to help reveal the undertone. Or refer to the brightest color on the card— if it’s, say, burnt sienna, you know your color has a warm undertone.) Many paint brands offer helpful online tools for virtually applying shades to photos of your house so you can see how they look before you begin testing paint for real.

Once you select three to five potential siding shades, paint large swatches (at least a couple of square feet) on your house or big foam core boards. A good testing spot: the area between two windows or next to your trim, so the shade is relatively isolated from your existing color. Also, choose an area that gets both sun and shade. Over a few days, observe how the colors shift as the light changes. “Sunlight brightens colors considerably,” Moon says. “It’s amazing how a nice, friendly cream indoors can look as blinding as a sheet of paper under full sun.” If your favorite color proves too glaring, try going one or two steps down on the paint chip. “Make sure your accent, trim, and siding colors are varied enough to be discernible from the street,” Wadden says. “Cross the street to see what the colors look like from your neighbor’s perspective.

“Hands down, the least expensive way to instantly amp up your curb appeal is to paint your front door a new color,” says Deb Cohen, founder of the aptly named Instagram account @thefrontdoorproject, which is a virtual flipbook of inspiring exterior color combos. “Try a shade that complements the rest of your exterior but provides a nice jolt of color—use a color wheel to find good options if you’re not sure.” (Choose a hue that’s on the opposite side of the wheel from your siding’s tone.) Other prime places to incorporate your accent color are shutters, flower boxes, window grilles, and the roof of your porch.

The Frequent Front Door Color Swap

Left: Photo: Johnny Miller
Center: Photo: Johnny Miller
Right: Photo: Johnny Miller

“Painting is the least expensive way to make changes to your house—at least when you don’t have to pay the painter!” says Tess Gauthier of Bel Air, Maryland, who chooses a new color for her front door every three months and whose husband, Chris, wields the brush. (In lieu of payment, she lavishes him with praise: “He is an excellent painter, has a steady hand, and rarely needs painter’s tape.”)

Their colonial-style home is white-painted brick with gray shutters, which felt boring after a few years, so Tess started cycling through door colors to perk up the place: orange in fall, red in winter, pink or green in spring, and yellow in summer. The neighbors take notice: “I was out getting the mail once, and a couple stopped their car and said how happy they were I was outside so they could tell me they loved looking at our home,” she says. All of which gets her thinking: “What should our next door color be?”

Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

What to Know When Hiring a Pro

If teetering on a ladder in the wind or sun isn’t on your bucket list of DIY challenges, find a reputable painting company to get the job done. Search for personal recommendations in a local Facebook group, visit nearby painters’ Instagram feeds to view projects they’ve completed recently, or try proreferral.com, a website run by the Home Depot that matches your project with contractors and streamlines the process of requesting estimates.

As for how much we’re talking: The cost of painting a house varies widely by region, as well as home style, size, materials, and condition (and possibly even by season). But Moon’s starting figure is $3 per square foot of floor space—so $6,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home. Estimates generally include prep work, paint, and other supplies. Your contractor can color-match paint from any brand you’ve selected, and you can expect the project to take a couple of weeks (likely longer for large or detailed homes).

Surface Concerns

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: If your house is a “scraper”—covered in bubbling, cracking, peeling paint—the job will cost more. “Removing this takes far longer than the painting itself,” Moon says.

Helpful to use: A satin finish is a durable, flattering choice for siding, while semigloss helps trim stand out.

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: There’s potential for “tannin bleed”: Natural tannins from the shingles seep into paint and cause reddish brown discoloration. This can happen with redwood siding too.

Helpful to use: An oil-based primer designed to block tannin stains, like Sherwin-Williams Exterior Oil-Based Wood Primer.

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: Painting brick is a big trend. “We’re seeing brick painted white, gray, or even olive green all over the country,” Woelfel says.

Helpful to use: A masonry primer pH-balanced for brick and a block-filler primer to smooth nooks and crannies. “There’s a movement toward the old ‘German schmear’ technique, where you apply translucent paint and let shades of the underlying brick show through,” Moon says. She recommends Romabio Classico Limewash to get the look.

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: Yes, you can repaint composite siding, like Hardie board. “Usually just a good sanding of any trouble spots is all it takes,” Moon says.

Helpful to use: Stick with high-quality, 100 percent acrylic primer and acrylic latex paint.

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: Painting stucco can be quicker than painting siding because it requires less prep, but the rough texture makes paint colors appear darker.

Helpful to use: Consider elastomeric paint, a thicker coating that helps prevent cracking, mildew, and other moisture-related problems—especially in humid climes.

Sarah McMenemy

Helpful to know: Allow paint to dry for at least 24 hours before rehanging the door.

Helpful to use: High-gloss paint is easy to wipe clean, looks polished, and creates a visual contrast to the surrounding surfaces.