After Gary Hollis' elderly mother passed away late last year, he and his wife, Michelle, decided to sell her Culver City home of 52 years.
Before the Redondo Beach couple listed it, however, Michelle spent a few hours each week over nine weeks removing most of the wallpaper in the 846-square-foot home, and painting. She painted the walls white; the bathroom, a sunny yellow. She also freshened up the exterior trim and gutters.
"It made the house look a lot bigger than it was," said Michelle, who estimated the cost of materials at about $300. "It looked lighter and newer. And when you walked through the house, it looked 10 times as fresh."
Home Depot ranks painting as the nation's No. 1 home improvement project because of its relative low cost, do-it-yourself potential and return on investment.
"It's safe to say that painting is the most cost-effective way you can improve your home's appearance and make it easier to sell," said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Realtors. Indeed, Remodeling magazine's Cost vs. Value 2001 survey, the most recent to examine paint, estimated the value recovered on an $8,300 exterior paint job, the national average, at 75%.
"But, obviously, if you do the job yourself, the return is going to be much better," Molony said. "It's safe to say you're going to recoup a couple hundred percent."
The Hollises listed the freshly painted home with agent Dannie Cavanaugh of Cavanaugh Realtors and received six offers within six days. They accepted an offer of $415,000.
"I asked Dannie if the nine weeks of work were worth it," Michelle recalled. "He said it was probably like $50,000 to $60,000 worth it. There were houses in the area going for $350,000 that no one did anything to."
Although painting seems like a sure bet for sellers seeking top dollar and a quick sale, buyers should not dismiss a house simply because it is in need of paint.
"It's in the buyer's interest to see a place that's unpainted because they will have less competition," said Ray Schuldenfrei of Remax Sunset Boulevard. "A scruffy, unpainted place eliminates a sizable chunk of buyers."
Another advantage to a home that's in need of a little superficial TLC: The inspector has a clear view of any problems.
"Most of the time people are painting to make the house look better," said Frank Overbeek of Bona Fide Home Inspections. "But sometimes there are defects they are trying to cover."
These can include moisture damage and leaks from windows and ceilings. Fortunately, a flashlight generally will reveal any irregularities.
A "red flag" is a small area around a skylight or an addition that has been recently painted, Overbeek said. "That's where you get roof leaks."
Another common problem is that sellers sometimes use latex paint over oil-based paint. "It's OK on walls. But it will sometimes peel off on doors and trim," Overbeek said. "You can easily scrape it off with your fingernail."
A fresh coat of exterior paint can be problematic too. "Sometimes there's dry rot that they paint over," Overbeek said. "And sometimes, if it's a very old house with a lot of coats of paint, you're painting over blisters when the surface paint should have been sandblasted or water blasted out first. The house might look nicely painted, but you could go around with a screwdriver and poke holes."
Sellers who decide to pick up a brush or hire professionals first need to select the paint. Consumer Reports ran an extensive feature on exterior paints in the August 2003 issue and another on interior paints in the September 2003 issue. Their advice: Stick to top-of-the-line paints, which are indicated by grades such as good, better or best, and apply two coats. For rooms that don't get a lot of use, select an interior flat finish. In kitchens, bathrooms and for trim, use a semi-gloss. And expect to pay from about $13 to $20 a gallon.
Before proceeding with any exterior painting project, however, make certain your community doesn't have restrictions or rules.
In Palos Verdes Estates, for example, as well as in a number of other areas, any exterior changes, including paint color, must be approved by the homes association, which works with an architect to make sure the proposed color is appropriate for the style and design of the house.
John Bercsi, known for doing major estate renovations such as the Buster Keaton/Cary Grant/James Mason home in Beverly Hills, always considers colors with regard to the specific property and surface.
"The key to colors is you have to put them up and live with them for a while," he said. "There is no way you can pick a color from a little paint chip. For one, it's not a big enough sample to get the true color. Two, you have to see how the color reacts to your surface. And three, you have to see how the color reacts with the architecture."
Ideally, Bercsi suggested painting an entire wall to get the most accurate read of a color. If that's not possible, he recommended "a good swatch at least 3 feet by 3 feet."