What the best exterior paint does

  • Covers easily. The best exterior paints cover existing hues with minimal coats. Many top-of-the-line house paints are self-priming, meaning one coat of paint can act a primer coat, too, and can get most jobs done in no more than two coats. Exterior paints with great coverage are also best at disguising underlying flaws, such as small nicks or dents in siding.
  • Resists dirt and mildew. If you're painting in an area that receives lots of rain or moisture, consider an exterior paint that resists mildew. Also, the ability to withstand dirt is another hot selling point, especially if you live in a busy city or urban environment. 
  • Lasts for years. Experts place a huge emphasis on durability in independent tests. Paying extra for paint that can withstand the elements over the years can save you money in the long run, as you'll need to repaint less frequently.
  • Dries fast and smooth. Sometimes a house paint can dry unevenly, even if you apply it correctly. The best exterior paints dry quick enough to prevent dripping, and provide a rich, smooth finish.
  • Has low VOCs. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the harmful chemicals found in paint and other products that are damaging to the environment, are facing increasing scrutiny. As such, both federal and state regulations are lowering allowable limits. The best exterior paints contain 100 grams per liter of VOCs or lower, which complies with most of the strictest standards.

Know before you go

Spend money to save money. Experts say a top-quality exterior paint can save you money in the long run over cheap paint. This is because premium paint generally lasts several times longer, and you'll have to repaint less frequently. That said, you don't need to spend $70 per gallon or more; many top-rated exterior paints range in price from $30 to $40 per gallon and perform just as well as or better than the priciest options. Even in the short run, spending a few dollars more for a quality paint usually does the trick in just one or two coats, experts say, while you may need more coats of cheap paint to get the same coverage.

Match the color you want, or buy some samples. Many paints can be tinted in nearly infinite variations of colors. If you want to match your existing color, bring a sample of the paint, or a paint chip, to the store. Paint sellers have equipment that tells them which colors to blend to make an exact color match, and the service is usually free. If you're uncertain about which color you want, or whether or not it'll look good on your house, buy a sample. Many retailers sell small pre-mixed containers of paint, so you can see how well a paint looks when dry before buying larger quantities.

Match the existing type of paint. While latex (acrylic) paints are preferred over oil (alkyd) paints in general, experts recommend matching the existing type of paint if you're repainting a surface. Use latex paints on existing latex finishes, and use oil paints on existing oil finishes. This is because if you're 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 paints react differently to moisture.

Consider a wood stain for decks. Deck stains are ideal for when you want to show the wood grain of a deck or porch. Clear (or transparent) stains accentuate the wood grain the best, but are the least durable. Solid stains are the most durable because they're the most penetrating, though they hide the wood grain the most.

Proper prep matters. Regardless of the quality of the paint or the skill of the painter, failing to properly prepare surfaces for painting will doom the job to failure. Surfaces need to be clean and dry and any loose paint needs to be scraped away. You'll also want to repair any damaged surfaces. FamilyHandyman.com has a primer on the steps to take to do the job right.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Exterior Paint | Best Exterior House Paint | Best Deck Stain | Our Sources

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