You Ask, We Answer

Dear Doug,

We’re going to have our house painted this year.  It’s an antique house built in the early 1900’s.  Over the years we’ve had a hard time getting a paint job to last very long.  We’re considering the permanent coatings you hear about on the radio all the time.  Will that be a good investment?  What is the best time of year to have the work done?

Dan, Wellesley

Hi Dan,

Well, antique homes are a labor of love, that’s for sure!  Exterior paint is one way to really bring out the charm of an older home, but it’s also one of the most difficult jobs to perform.  There are many factors that can affect the longevity of an exterior paint job, and most of them come into play on a home that has been around for many decades.

Here are some factors to consider as you plan your project:

How much old paint has built up over the years, and how will it affect top coats of paint?  As paint ages, it loses its elasticity, which is a recipe for constant chipping and peeling.  This is especially true of older oil-based paints that were manufactured before 1980.  On an antique home, chances are there is a significant build up of old, brittle paint.  It’s not always easy to scrape and remove this paint without damaging delicate layers of old wood underneath.  There should be a careful balance between aggressive paint removal with power tools versus hand scraping and sanding.

Another alternative is using chemical stripping methods to remove as much of the old paint as possible.

Finally, it could be more cost effective to simply remove and replace old siding with new pre-primed wood siding products than it would be to attempt to salvage old siding that has too many layers of old paint.

How well is your home insulated, and how much moisture is escaping from between the inner and outer walls during the spring and summer?  Older homes are prone to moisture build up in the walls during the winter.  Sources of moisture may include steam from cooking and taking a shower, steam from your heating system, and even moisture from breathing.  During the colder months, this moisture is trapped in the walls.  During hot weather, that moisture is usually drawn out through the exterior siding.  On an older home with lots of old built up paint that has been covered with newer products that don’t breathe well, this moisture will literally push the paint off the home.  Many times, this will exhibit at areas where old paint hasn’t peeled before but isn’t adhering well enough to hang on when pressure from moisture below builds.  For this reason, it’s always a good idea to wait until at least mid July to paint an old home.  This will provide ample time for your home to dry out.

Should you hire one of the fancy new “permanent coatings” companies?  Well, if you are considering going that route, I’d recommend getting a quote from more than one and getting a copy of their full warranty.  Usually, if something is too good to be true, it is.  If your home has old layers of paint, moisture problems, or rotting wood, chances are the “permanent coatings” won’t be so permanent.  As you consider the price premium you’ll be paying for a lifetime rated paint job, you’ll want to ensure it really is covered for life and that there is nothing in the warranty that will exclude your home from future service.

Again with the investment level in mind, it would be wise to have your attorney review the contract and the warranty before you proceed. Remember that your home likely has lead paint!  The older a home is, the more likely it is to be covered in lead paint.  The EPA and the state have strict laws in place that apply to renovations and painting on homes containing lead paint.  Contractors and painters are required to be certified by the state before they may work on projects where lead paint is present.  Insist on a copy of the credentials of the company AND the crew that will be working on your home.  These laws are designed to protect you, your family, pets, and neighbors from lead poisoning and should be followed carefully.  The law itself is 48 pages of fine print, but in a nutshell it’s really important to remember not to generate a lot of lead dust, and to contain all dust, debris, and chips while working on lead jobs.  Clearly, mechanical grinding or paint shaving on the exterior of a home with lead paint is not a good idea.  As you consider the cost of lead compliance PLUS the cost of mechanical or chemical stripping of old paint as mentioned above, replacement of exterior siding and trim covered with lead paint becomes a more attractive option.  This is because the new paint job will last longer, and it will be safer for your family and the environment.  It may even cost less in some cases.

The bottom line:  Living in an antique home is a lifestyle choice, and it’s not for everyone.  Routine maintenance is to be expected.  Think carefully about the balance between aggressive preparation or even replacement versus a more modest approach of hand scraping and preparation.  With the later, you’ll most certainly experience some routine peeling on your home.  A good painting contractor will cover the routine peeling with a written warranty, and be honest with you up front about the fact that older homes usually have some problem areas that are always peeling.

Go with the flow and remember, a little bit of uneven paint or some peeling areas are part of the charm of an older home.


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