When to Touch up, When to Repaint

by Brian Sodoma

Touch-up or Repaint

It makes a paint contractor look bad. A customer calls for a quote, but when the estimator goes out to assess the job, what the customer thought was a small touch-up is really so much more. The hard upsell looks bad in any line of work, but unfortunately, even the most honest estimator in the paint business can be misunderstood when explaining why a wall or room needs a complete repaint instead of a touch-up.

“If all they have in mind is to pay $300 and they have to pay $1,000, you could do the most amazing work, but the customer is still going to feel like they paid too much,” said Peter Buttenwieser, owner of a CertaPro paint contracting franchise in Westchester, New York.

Buttenwieser is sensitive to customer needs and budgets. He has learned that compromise can be a slippery slope in the paint world. And he knows compromising quality to get a job is a bad move.

“Sometimes we just have to walk away from touchup work because we know the outcome is not going to be what the customer expects,” he added.

Buttenwieser doesn’t walk away from many potential jobs. But his firm and fair approach to matching outcomes with realistic expectations for customers is apparently working. He is routinely in the top 10 for sales volume among CertaPro franchises—this year he is ranked fourth—and there are more than 300 CertaPros nationwide.


To a contractor, painting half a room seems silly. But it could also be a win-win for both parties. Usually, getting a customer away from thinking about touching up a wall and painting it instead is victory enough, says Buttenwieser. He gives a recent example of painting one entire side of a house where the original thinking by the owner was to only paint an 8′ x 8′ patch.

“Is painting only one side of the house ideal? No. But something like that can work,” he added.

For outdoor jobs, paint can fade pretty quickly, especially in sunny, hot climates, says Steve Burnett, founder of Burnett Painting of southwest Florida. His firm specializes in high-end residential repaint work. The leftover paint from an exterior paint job is likely no longer a clean match on a south-facing wall after only a year, Burnett tells customers. On a north-facing wall, he says the original paint might last up to two years for touch-ups because of less sun exposure. But dirt and other elements can still have an impact as well.

“You really can’t mix a batch of dirty, faded paint,” Buttenwieser added.

Buttenwieser compares touch-up jobs with older paint to wearing a Band-Aid.® If the eye gives the area a little extra attention, it notices something is off.

In addition to sun exposure and other elements naturally altering paint color, changes in ingredients can have an impact as well, adds Burnett.

“Paints improve and change all the time,” he said. “The color can skew slightly.”

Debbie Zimmer, a paint and color expert with the Paint Quality Institute—a trade group focusing on educating consumers and contractors on paint and coating quality—says the types of binders and the pigments found in color tints can impact how slowly or quickly a paint fades. A 100%-acrylic paint will help resist color fade better than others, she added, particularly on wood surfaces and interior drywall.

In the past, alternatives like vinyl acrylics and styrene acrylics gained popularity in Europe and Asia partly because they were less expensive, and some reports surfaced about them possibly showing better performance on masonry, stucco and metal. But many studies only focused on certain aspects like scrub resistance or dirt pick-up resistance, among others, not giving a full picture of whether the paints were better or not. So Zimmer, and many other paint experts, still say 100% acrylics are the top choice for paint Pros and for battling paint fade.

Randy Fornoff, president of MTS Painting in Mesa, Arizona, finds himself engaging in the paint-quality conversation with customers quite frequently. He says it’s important for consumers to know there can be a wide variation of quality even within a specific brand.

“Lower-end acrylics fail sooner,” he said. “Some will start to chalk up in two or three years. … You might have a bad experience with a certain brand, but it’s probably because you just used their lower-end product.”

Fornoff says consumers can also become confused about paint quality and price when they see extremely low-priced contractor grades, which can cost sometimes half the price of higher-quality, higher-priced paints. Fornoff says some customers will use these paints, but it’s important they know that a repaint may come far sooner than they may think.

Burnett uses paints that offer the best ‘written’ guarantee. His company also offers a 9-year materials and labor warranty.


Once a client sees that a paint can’t be matched because of fading, he or she is more likely to accept that it would be better to paint an entire wall instead of a small area. But the conversation gets tricky with bigger rooms.

Buttenwieser likes to walk into rooms to get a sense of where the eye naturally roams, and look for natural breaks in lines of sight. Sometimes customers may end up needing to repaint a much larger wall than they’d like, in addition to some added trim in the area.

“Ideally, you have everything painted that’s in the same glance when you look at a room. If you look at a wall, what else do you see? What connects to it? Is there crown molding? It’s helpful to paint all of that,” he said.

In the case of ceiling stains, he looks to see if the ceiling flows into another room or if there’s a natural stopping point like a dropped wall in an area.

“It’s difficult to create that artificial stopping point, if you have to,” he added.


In Arizona and the desert southwest, stucco surfaces are far more common than wood or block exteriors. Fornoff works to educate customers on when an exterior paint is expiring by showing them how chalk shows on the surface.

“A lot of times I’ll get a call and someone will want a phone estimate. They’ll give a certain square footage and tell me it’s a 2-story, and I need to touch up the house,” he said.

When repainting stucco, a cement sealer is needed before paint is applied. But more importantly, a thorough pressure wash is required, sometimes even a media wash, to get all of the chalk residue off the surface.

“If you put up new paint without pressure washing, it will pop off in large sheets in six months to two years,” he said.

Fornoff also says exterior paint isn’t a solution to cracked stucco. Many paints can help ‘bridge’ cracks, but he shies away from saying a paint product is a solution for cracks. Cracks are often the result of builders not allowing for enough cure time for the stucco cement. Patching cracks and applying an appropriate masonry sealer are key to making sure the next coat of paint covers well and lasts longer, he added.


Fornoff has, however, seen success with touch-up jobs, too. It’s largely due to some homework on his part. The 30-year paint business Pro is known for keeping an eye on subdivisions and watching what painters are using.

He is not afraid to walk onto a job site and snap pictures of paint buckets. Sometimes he can narrow down his information to the exact store that formulated the paint for a subdivision.

“Each location might tint it slightly differently,” he added.

Some contractors will also take on exterior door and windowsill touch-up work. Some customers may be looking less for aesthetics and more for temporary protection on exposed surfaces before heading into the cold season. Most people know that leaving wood exposed through a cold season will only make for more difficult prep work before the repaint down the road.

“You find most interior work is about changing a color. But outdoor work is about protection,” added Buttenwieser.

Even still, he likes to paint an entire trim board and not just spot-touch it. Sometimes his crews can distress, or scuff a board in order to get it to look like similar faded boards around it.

Buttenwieser says the quick, 30-minute touch-up job is one he tends to leave for the handyman. His cheapest package is what he calls ‘painter for a day,’ which gives the customer eight hours of service from a paint Pro.

“If you offer discounts on the front end, you get the discount shopper. We’re not the cheap guys. We feel we sell quality and value, and we don’t want to be the cheap guy. A true discount shopper in the paint business is a do-it-yourselfer,” he added.


Each customer has a different need and budget. Is your customer trying to sell the home? Or does he or she intend to live in it for the next 20 years? Being mindful of these goals could help you create life-long customers.

For those trying to sell, get them out of the touch-up mindset for worn interior surfaces. Painting corner to corner on a wall will make the space look good for showings. And if you remind them they’re not painting the whole room, you’re showing you care about their budget as well as the sale.

The same holds true for exteriors on a for-sale home. Help the customer prioritize. Badly weathered fascia board on the front of the house is more important to address for curb appeal than scuffs on the side of the house.

Some long-term residents may just want a touch-up for now; that could mean a full repaint down the road for you. But be clear about the benefits and limitations of the touch-up work today.

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