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Paints Buying Guides

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Getting started

Many aspects of paint performance depend more on the quality of the base than on the color. The tint base largely determines the paint's toughness and resistance to dirt and stains, while the colorant determines how much the paint will fade. But you don't need a chemistry degree or a pro's experience to put on paint that lasts. Here's how to pick the right one for the job.

Interior paint

We've found that lower grades--typically dubbed good, better, or contractor grade--haven't performed as well. If a top-line paint can cover all but the darkest colors in two coats, lower-quality paints might need three or four. The best now cover in just one coat. Some even claim to eliminate the initial, primer coat.

Don't buy strictly by brand. Manufacturers tend reformulate paints frequently to improve performance and comply with tougher regulations. That means the paint you loved last time may not do as well this time around.

Think carefully about color. A hue that looks great in the store could turn you off once it's on your walls. Use the store's color-sampling products and retailer and manufacturer computer programs. Most stores sell 2-ounce sample jars so you can test a paint before buying a large quantity. Manufacturers also offer large color chips, which are easier to use than the conventional small swatches.

Try out samples on different walls and at various times of the day. Fluorescent light enhances blues and greens, but it makes warm reds, oranges, and yellows appear dull. Incandescent light works well with warm colors, but it might not do much for cool ones. Even natural sunlight changes from day to day, room to room, and morning to evening. Color intensifies over large areas, so it's better to go too light than too dark in a given shade.

Breathe easier. Manufacturers are reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)--the noxious chemicals that make paint smell like paint--in their products, in response to stricter federal standards. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems. More manufacturers now make low-VOC paints that comply with the even-tougher standards set by California's regional South Coast Air Quality Management District. Earlier low-VOC paints lacked the durability and sheen selection of higher-VOC finishes, but some low-VOC paints now top our Ratings. Some paints even claim to contain no VOCs at all, but those we've tested haven't topped our Ratings. You'll find the VOC level listed on the can.

Exterior paints and stains

To find out which finishes are likely to last longest on your home, we painted and stained pine test panels and placed them on the roof of our Yonkers, New York, headquarters. We also faced the boards south at 45 degrees from vertical to intensify the effects of sun and the outdoors. One year of such severe testing is equivalent to about three years of normal weathering on a typical home. Most exterior paints held up well for the equivalent of at least three years, and the best still looked respectable after what amounted to nine years under the elements. Stains must typically be reapplied more often--some after as little as one year.

As with interior paints, manufacturers typically reformulate exterior paints and stains often, partly to meet tougher federal standards limiting volatile organic compounds. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to pollution, smog, and respiratory problems. But reducing VOCs in exterior paint without compromising performance has been a challenge. Whether you paint or stain, here are some tips for getting the best-looking, most durable finish possible:

Don't cheap out. As with interior paints, we've found that economy grades of paints and stains don't weather as well as top-of-the-line products from the same brand. Pinching pennies now may mean spending more down the road, since you'll need to refinish more often.

Consider lesser-known brands. Major brands have tended to wind up at the top of our tests. But some small regional brands have joined them at the top, while some national heavy-hitters have looked scruffy after the equivalent of just three years.

Don't scrimp on the prep work. Good preparation is critical to a good, long-lasting exterior finish, whether you're paying a pro or are among the roughly 20 percent of homeowners who do the job themselves. That means scraping, sanding, and cleaning the siding thoroughly. And while the best paints covered in one coat--and some claim to eliminate the need to prime the surface--we recommend two coats for long life and optimal coverage. Other materials may require different procedures. Stucco and masonry, for example, may need sealing beforehand. If you sand or scrape paint on a house built before 1978, be warned: Older coats of paint may contain lead, so you'll need to take extra precautions. Indeed, federal law now requires that painters you hire be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and be trained in lead-safe work practices.

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Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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