Tips for Choosing Exterior Paint Colors for Your House

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Picking house paint colors isn't just difficult; it can be terrifying! If you choose colors that are boring and blah, your house will seem flat and featureless, but if the paint colors are too bold, they can overwhelm the architecture or might even infuriate the neighbors. The potential rewards are substantial, though. Getting it just right by choosing the perfect exterior house color and trim combinations can change your life.

As you consider paint colors for you home's exterior, keep in mind that the best paint colors are those that highlight the most beautiful features of your home. That's one reason to know a little bit about residential architecture since history can tell you a lot about what colors have worked for various house styles over the years. Also remember that skillful use of color can sometimes disguise design flaws, boosting the curb appeal and market value of your home.

Tips for Choosing Exterior Paint Colors

How do you find that magic color combination? Professional designers suggest 12 specific techniques. And please note that no expert ever suggests buying a paint color because it's on sale or because your painting contractor can get you a deal!

Honor History

If you're planning to paint an older home, you'll probably want to use a historically accurate color scheme. One way to do this is by a simple form of archeology—you can hire a pro to dig down to old paint layers on your siding and trim to analyze them and recreate the original color of your house. Or, you can refer to a historic color chart and select shades that were common at the time your home was built.

The more simple your house architecture, the fewer colors you'll need. For an elaborate Victorian house style with ornate trimwork, you might plan on using four to six colors, while a simple ranch home might call for only two colors. Do some careful observation of color combinations by visiting some historical homes, such as Roseland Cottage in Connecticut. If you are intent on thinking outside the box and picking brand-new or unusual colors, remember that this decision will become part of the lineage of your home.

  • Tip: Photocopy a sketch or photograph of your house. Use watercolors or colored pencils to try color combinations and narrow your choices. Then use free tools to help you choose.

Consider Jazzing Up the Past

In some neighborhoods, it's common for homeowners to fly in the face of history. Instead of choosing historically accurate colors, they paint with modern colors to dramatize architectural details. Using bright colors on old architectural details can produce startling and exciting results—if your local historic commission approves. But before you buy 10 gallons of bubblegum pink, it's a good idea to look at what your neighbors are doing. A fluorescent colored Victorian that looks splendid in San Francisco can seem wildly out of place in more conservative neighborhoods of the Northeast. The bright pink stucco that is common in Florida might truly startle neighbors in Washington State—which can be either good or bad. Remember that what's deemed as an acceptable color scheme may be dictated by region and neighborhood, not just historic architectural style.

Consider Your Neighbors

The house next door can give you paint color ideas, but it's a bad idea to copy your neighbor exactly. Choose colors that set your house apart but that don't clash with nearby buildings. Look around your neighborhood. Does your house's architecture look like the house next door? Are you in a suburban development with houses all around, or are your neighbors the trees? Or does your house stand apart within the neighborhood, like an original large farmhouse now surrounded by newer ranch- style mid-century homes?

Choose house colors with an eye to what is around you. This can mean deliberately blending, complementing, or even contrasting with the colors used by the surrounding neighbors. The key is to make your selections with intent and not allow the color effect to be accidental.

Borrow From Nature

The landscape around your house is blooming with color ideas. The prevalence of trees may suggest an earthy palette of greens and browns. A beach setting might suggest using vivid blues and turquoises or even shades of pink. A front yard garden can inspire exciting color combinations for your house based on what appears in the garden at tulip time. Where does the sun shine onto your house? How is your house positioned in the environment? Production houses usually aren't optimally positioned on their lots, so do what Australian architect Glenn Murcutt tells us to do—follow the sun. Remember that color needs light, and the quality of the light always has an influence on color.

Check the Roof

Your house is your canvas, but it is not blank. Some colors are already established. Is your roof asphalt? Shingle? Metal? Terracotta? Slate? Clay? Roofing materials have their own colors. Your exterior siding paint color doesn't need to match the roof, but it should harmonize. An expansive brick paver or cobblestone driveway with beautiful browns and reds may also have an influence on your selection of house colors. When choosing exterior paint, start with what's there already. House paint is easier to change than a roof or driveway.

Consider the Colors of Unpainted Materials

Every home has some features that will not be painted. Is your home brick? Stone? A combination? Does it have a dominant chimney? Vinyl windows? A natural wooden door? Construction materials have their own colors. Will the steps and railings on your home remain their existing colors?

Choose a color scheme that harmonizes with colors already present on your house. In the words of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, "Wood is wood, concrete is concrete, stone is stone." Wright would rather go au naturel in all things, but most homes have some materials with colors that are naturally beautiful without any paint at all. Keep these materials in mind when choosing colors for the elements you will paint.

Find Inspiration in Your Living Room

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the colors of natural materials, yet he used his favorite Cherokee red color everywhere, including the Zimmerman House in New Hampshire. Consider the color schemes that are used inside your home, and choose exterior colors that harmonize. It may seem comical to paint an entire house based on the pattern of a pillowcase, but this approach actually does make sense. The color of your furnishings will guide you in the selection of your interior paint colors, and your interior paint colors will influence the colors you use outside. Once again, your goal is to harmonize.

Attend to the Details

To emphasize architectural details, paint them with an accent color that has an intentional relationship to the background color of the home. This can be a matter of using a complementary color, a contrasting color, a hue within the same color family, or sometimes even a clashing color, depending on the effect you're trying to achieve.

Strategically, this decision begins with identifying the architectural details of your house. Do you have brackets? Shutters? Imposts? Swirls? Dentil molding? More importantly, are there key architectural details missing that should be replaced before you begin painting? Are these details attractive enough and historically relevant in a way that calls for highlighting them? Or is it better to use a subtle color variation that allows these details to complement the home without screaming out?

Depending on the size and complexity of your home, you may want to choose two, three, or as many as six colors. In addition to color for your siding, select accent colors for shutters, moldings, doors, window sashes, brackets, columns, and porch decks. Remember that storm windows and screens can now be purchased in a variety of colors. This principle is more important than you may realize: Too many colors will overwhelm your house, while too few can make your house seem flat and uninteresting. House style can have a big influence here. A simple ranch-style rambler might look best with only two colors: one for the siding, and a slightly darker color in the same color family for the trim. An ornate Victorian house, on the other hand, might look wonderful with as many as six different colors—one for each of the different types of trim work and ornate details.

Use Light to Add Size

It's no wonder that large, grand estates are often painted white. Light colors make a building look larger, and white is the favored color for traditional classical architecture. (Remember, for example, that there's a very famous White House in Washington, D.C.) You can add to your home's sense of size and dignity by using white or a pale cream color. Use darker colors to emphasize shadows and lighter colors to project surfaces or details into prominence.

Go Dark For Drama

Dark siding or dark bands of trim will make your house seem smaller, but will also draw more attention to details. This technique of accented banding can be found in many of Frank Lloyd Wright's interiors. For exteriors, accent the recesses with darker shades and highlight details with lighter tones. Traditionally, the window sashes of Victorian homes are painted with the darkest of the chosen historic color combination.

  • Tip: Large surfaces always make paint colors look somewhat lighter, so consider selecting slightly darker shades for expansive areas, rather than relying on the apparent colors of paint samples.

Make Use of Color Families

Contrasting colors will draw attention to architectural details, but contrasts that are too extreme will clash and actually detract from details. To be safe, consider staying within a single color family—a group of assorted lighter and darker shades based on the same color hue. For some accents, try using a darker or lighter shade instead of an entirely different color. Brush up on the differences among tints, tones, and shades.

Strike a Balance

A burst of a single color on just one part of your home may give it a lopsided appearance. Strive to balance colors over the entire building. Some experts disagree with this, but most color experts advise that you should avoid extreme contrasts. It's usually best to choose colors that are related. Use available software programs to visualize combinations. Remember to check with your historic commission about color combinations that are historically accurate.

Tips for Choosing Paint

You thought you only had to pick paint colors? Sorry! Here are a few pointers to keep in mind as you choose paint for your house painting project:

  • House paint durability: Remember that very bright or very deep colors will fade. In fact, the color may change altogether as the paint gets older. For example, a deep, slate gray may turn more green or blue as it ages, even if the paint is an expensive name brand. The more intense a color, the more likely it is to fade. After a few years, vivid blues and deep reds might seem more subdued. Dark colors can also pose more maintenance problems. Dark colors absorb heat and suffer more moisture problems than lighter shades. And because dark paint fades, it can be difficult to match exactly when you do small touch-ups. This doesn't mean you should necessarily rule out dark colors, since there are also advantages. Dark colors don't show dust and stains as readily as light colors do, and dark hues also give your house a sense of dignity or drama.
  • House paint sheen: House paint comes in several sheens, ranging from glossy to flat. The glossier the surface, the more likely it is to show imperfections, brush strokes, and touch-up marks. On the other hand, glossy surfaces are easier to clean—an important factor if your house is right on the road in the snowy winter. Many homeowners opt to use flat paint for the wall surfaces and semi-gloss or glossy paint for columns, railings, and window sashes.
  • Color deceptions: Color swatches look very different when they are brought out of the store and viewed in natural sunlight. Also, colors always appear lighter on large surfaces than they do on small samples. Chances are that you'll need a darker color than the one you first picked when comparing samples. Study color samples outdoors, but never in direct sunlight, because bright sun distorts the color. Always test your selected color on a section of the house before buying gallons of paint. Live with the sample color for a week or two and observe it at different times of the day before making your decision to paint the entire house.

Have Fun!

Remember that paint is only paint, and that your house can always be repainted somewhere down the road if you find you don't like the color or if your preferences change. Take your time. Be creative. Have fun! Painting your home is an opportunity. It's like a blind date—the process gives you a chance to really get to know where you live. Your house can be your canvas and a model for learning about architecture and architectural details.

Don't be afraid to make house painting a family project. Let the kids be responsible for painting a specific architectural detail—what's the worst that can happen? It's only paint. Above all else, don't forget to finish the job with a dose of camaraderie and a great sense of and humor. Love equals patience.