Paint Primer: Quick, Affordable Change-Artist

Conventional real estate wisdom offers paint as an easy and inexpensive decorating tool to transform interior and exterior space. Help your clients find non-toxic options, the right colors, and appealing combinations to achieve their goals.

Life was simpler when the choice of paint colors was more limited. Thousands of shades with catchy names now vie for attention, from “Knitting Needles” to “Dead Salmon.” Even deciding to use white can lead to the question of which one. Paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore offers more than 250 variations on that popular theme.

And that’s just the first part of the paint quandary. Once a color is applied to walls and dries, its hue may not resemble what’s on the paint chips (the sample, also known as strip chips or color cards, displayed at many paint, hardware, and big-box stores to guide shoppers). The reason for this variation can be anything from the lack of a primer to conceal the prior color, which can bleed through, to the amount of light in the room or the color of furnishings, both of which alter the look. Even the amount of sheen in the finish selected by home owners can make a big difference in the final appearance.

By heeding the five steps below, buyers and sellers can improve the odds of getting the colors they desire, which will save them time and money by avoiding the dreaded task of repainting.

1. Get inspired.

Some home owners know exactly which family of colors appeal to them; others have no clue. Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams, suggests real estate pros offer clients Pinterest boards or room photos in magazines and store catalogues like Pottery Barn, to help them decide. She also recommends looking at paint manufacturers’ annual color forecasts for fresh ideas.


A home owner’s next step is to pick up a handful of chips, strips, or cards—enough to have some variety but not too many to be confusing—that appeals to them. Next, they should tack them to the wall of the room to be painted, study them at different times of the day, and narrow the selection before buying and applying paint. Many of the larger manufacturers offer software home owners can use to upload a room photo and see how it might look in various hues. Color expert Amy Wax of Your Color Source in Montclair, N.J., cautions that some of these programs make paint colors appear brighter than they do once applied to walls. But they can be a starting point.

2. Test-drive possibilities.

Due to the variations in both color simulation programs and to the fact that paint colors may look different on a small chip versus a full wall, experts suggest applying the actual paint being considered in a small area as a test. This means ensuring everything in the tester is the same, down to the desired finish—matte, eggshell, semi-gloss, or high-gloss—since this will also influence the final color. Eggshell or satin, for instance, will darken the appearance of most colors and highlight wall imperfections, Wax says. Since the existing wall color will affect the new color’s appearance, Andrea Magno, a color and design expert with paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore, recommends covering an area first with primer and applying two coats of the paint, particularly if a light color is covering a dark one.


Alternatively, some paint experts recommend using a large painted board that can be moved around the room to see how the color looks in all areas, since light and furnishings vary within a room. Chicago designer Emily Mackie of Inspired Interiors orders large painted sheets directly from manufacturers, while Tom Segal of Kaufman Segal in Chicago paints white poster boards himself, applying two coats.


3. Factor in other surfaces.

Since ceiling and trim colors often vary from wall choices, paint manufacturers usually offer palette combinations that work well together. But the combinations do more than just add harmonious hues; they can fool the eye in its perception of the entire space. If a ceiling is painted a lighter tone than the surrounding walls, it may seem higher; if a darker color is used, it may look lower, Wax says. Using the same trim color in every room can become “an important thread of consistency throughout a home when rooms have been painted different colors,” Magno says. Typically, trim is painted in a glossier finish than walls to add a noticeable finishing touch to the room.



4. Bring a color pro onboard.

If your clients still feel unsure about making selections, suggest they hire a color or paint expert who’s used to working with different palettes, knows which color combinations work well together, and understands how colors create different spatial effects. Such consultants typically charge by the hour or project. Los Angeles–area interior designer Nicole Sassaman estimates a charge of around $1,500 for suggestions covering a six-room house. If your clients aren’t ready to take the plunge yet still need professional help, suggest they head to a paint manufacturer’s brick-and-mortar store. Many employ staff skilled at recommendations, often free of charge.

5. Consider the paint’s health effects.

Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that evaporate during and after the painting process and may impact indoor air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and sources such as Berkeley Lab. VOCs can result in adverse health effects, especially for those with allergies or asthma.


To avoid these issues, some manufacturers now produce their full product line—or at least a collection—with low- or zero-VOC options. For example, Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony interior acrylic latex paint is a zero-VOC formula, as is Benjamin Moore’s Natura paints. And the good news is that more manufacturers are expected to make this change as states follow California, whose Title 24 represents a stricter green standard than found elsewhere, says Matt Power, editor-in-chief of Green Builder magazine. But he’s wary of the low-VOC designation, saying such reductions aren’t sufficient for interior paint, particularly as modern homes are built with tighter envelopes. “There’s no reason to sell ‘less poisonous’ products when VOC-free products are just as good quality, durability, and color,” Power says. Prices do run slightly higher, but he says they are worth it and that they’re just another step in detoxing the indoor environment. Advise clients to consult with paint experts, read up on recent scientific findings, and check labels carefully.


Repaint to Sell

The adage that sellers should go neutral when repainting seems to remain true. Christine Lutz, a broker with Kinzie Brokerage in Chicago, says many buyers aren’t able to visualize how a room may look in any color than the one currently painted on the walls. In such cases, the color—rather than the home and its architecture—becomes the focus and possibly a deal-breaker. Her recommendation to clients who’ve personalized their rooms with vibrant color is to repaint them before putting the home on the market. She often consults a stager about which neutrals are most popular at any given moment. White—once the go-to choice—has lost favor in recent years. Color expert Amy Wax says many view it as too sterile and even “unmemorable.” She prefers a little color in the form of cream, taupe, or gray, which, she says, adds just enough character.

Which neutrals do pros recommend? David Cieslak, owner of Signature Staging, prefers soft grays such as Benjamin Moore’s Edgecombe Gray, Revere Pewter, and Classic Gray for their warmth and their easy ability to pair with dark or light floorboards. Chicago designer Tom Segal also likes Edgecombe Gray, which he used in his own home, but chose Harbor Gray for his office. Sherwin-Williams expert Sue Wadden picks her company’s Accessible Beige and Kilim Beige as neutral favorites. Benjamin Moore’s Magno recommends her company’s muted Camouflage. And for trim and ceilings, Segal likes Benjamin Moore’s subtle China White, which he calls a good mixer for many wall choices. Cieslak likes Benjamin Moore’s Super White for trim and standard Ceiling White for the space above.