Shopping for exterior paint or stain can be confusing. Should you get oil or latex? Flat or glossy? Cheap or expensive? Here are a few guidelines that experts say will help you choose the right stain or paint for your house, deck or other exterior project:

  • Paint vs. stain. Paint forms a skin on wood that sheds water. Solid stains do the same thing, providing a thin coating for surfaces that need to be refinished often, experts say. But penetrating stains (also called semi-transparent) soak into the wood to act as a water repellent. The U.S. Forest Service says penetrating stains are the best choice for rough-textured wood, such as cedar shakes, while paint provides the most durable finish on smooth surfaces. AskTheBuilder.com's Tim Carter says he prefers penetrating stains because they never peel like paint can, so there's no scraping when it's time to re-stain. If you choose stain, make sure it is approved for the type of surface on which you plan to use it. For example, some stains are designed only for vertical surfaces such as siding; they won't work on a horizontal surface that gets more weather abuse, such as a deck.
  • Spend money to save money. Experts say a top-quality paint will last several times longer than a cheap one. If you plan to keep your house for years or hope to sell it without first having to repaint, premium paint is a better long-term value. Even in the short run, premium paint usually covers in just one or two coats, experts say, while you may need more coats of cheap paint to get the same coverage. The labor involved in painting your home costs far more than the paint, so spending an extra $50 or $100 on good paint can be a drop in the bucket.
  • Take paint warranties as guidelines, not gospel. Several manufacturers offer a "lifetime warranty" on their top-of-the-line exterior paints, but some don't specify what that really means. Others do specify, but the warranty winds up being limited -- and it pays only for the replacement paint, not the labor, which always costs much more than the paint itself. Veteran house painters say you can't expect even the best paint job to last a lifetime, but some report that they've had paint jobs last a decade or so when a top-quality paint was applied properly. Harsh weather can shorten the life of a paint job, too.
  • Buy 5-gallon buckets. If you'll need many gallons, the economy size is cheaper per gallon than 1-gallon cans, according to the editors at ConsumerReports.org. However, when we checked with retailers, we found the savings is typically less than $1 per gallon.
  • Get any color you want. Many paints can be tinted in nearly infinite variations of colors. If you want to match your existing color, bring paint, a chip or a picture to the store. Paint sellers have equipment that tells them which colors to blend to make an exact color match, and the service is complimentary.
  • If you're uncertain about color, buy some samples. Many retailers sell minuscule pre-mixed containers of paint for this purpose. You can see how a color dries on your house before buying massive quantities.
  • Match the existing type of paint. Experts generally say to use latex (acrylic) over latex, and oil (alkyd) over oil. If that's not a consideration, buy acrylic paint. Experts say acrylic paint is more flexible than oil and less likely to flake. However, if you are painting over many layers of old oil paint, a new coat of latex can actually cause the old oil paint to peel off in sheets, because the two types of paint react differently to moisture -- so this is one case in which you should stick with oil paint.
  • Choose the degree of luster you want. The main choices are flat, semi-gloss and gloss. The marketing terminology varies among brands, and it can be confusing. Paints marketed as satin or eggshell have more luster than flat, but less than semi-gloss. Glossier paints often cost more than flatter paints. Some painting contractors say you can simply choose the level of gloss that appeals to you (unless your homeowner's association has a restriction), while others say they use certain gloss levels for a reason -- for example, one Cape Cod painter says he doesn't use flat exterior paint because it seems to grow mold more quickly in the damp weather. ConsumerReports.org's top-performing exterior paints include both flat and semi-gloss sheens. Professional painters recommend asking your local dedicated paint store or a knowledgeable painter for advice concerning your specific situation.
  • Consider low-VOC paints. Health problems from paint fumes are more of a concern if you're painting indoors than outdoors, but volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) found in paints do harm air quality. Better paints historically have higher concentrations of VOCs, but ConsumerReports.org editors say there are now good low-VOC paints available, although no zero-VOC paints do well in ConsumerReports.org's tests. Manufacturers list the amounts of VOCs on the paint can. Other potentially harmful chemicals aren't usually specified. Acrylic (latex) paints have lower levels of VOCs than oil paints do.

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