Consumer Guide To Exterior Paints

Painting your house? Color is only the first step in choosing your paint. Learn the differences between latex and oil-based, glossy and flat.

Painting a house almost always makes a striking improvement in its curb appeal. A fresh coat of paint can take years off a home's appearance, bring it in line with the style of the neighborhood, and give the look of new siding without the expense. It's not a quick and easy project, though--every inch of the surface needs to be carefully prepared and painted, involving ladders and many hours of labor. It makes sense to do the job right the first time. Choosing the right paint product is the first step. Before rushing out to the hardware store, know whether your surface requires latex or oil-based paint, and what sheen suits your project best. Think also about any extra features you want and how long your want your paint to last.

Latex Paint

Latex paint is by far the most common type of paint used. Exterior latex paints, like their interior cousins, are water-soluble. That means that they can be thinned and cleaned up with water, eliminating the need for noxious chemicals that can be damaging to people and the environment. Latex paints also allow moisture to pass through and allow the painted surface to breathe, which makes them good for areas with moisture problems. Latex paints are also flexible after they've dried, and resist cracking as the siding shifts or expands and contracts. Finally, latex paints dry relatively quickly and with fewer odors than other types of paint.

Oil-based paints

Oil-based, or alkyd, paints do not have the flexibility and ability to breathe that latex paints have. Painters using alkyd paints need to clean up using paint thinner instead of water, which can be harmful to the environment and makes it difficult to dispose of leftover chemicals. However, there are times when using oil-based paints makes sense. Oil-based paints dry to a shiny, durable finish, and can be scrubbed clean in a way that latex paint cannot. Some people therefore choose to use oil-based paint on trim and doors. To prevent paint failure, oil-based paint is necessary in areas that have several coats of oil-based paint on them already. While you can put a coat of latex paint over one or two coats of oil-based paint, never apply oil-based paint over latex paint; oil-based paints do not have the flexibility found in latex paints, and the paint will flake off as the surfaces move.


Once you've decided whether you'll use latex paint or oil-based, deciding how much sheen you want is the next step in your painting process. Sheen is the level of shine your finished project will have. Paints with more sheen are glossy and more durable, but show imperfections because of the way they reflect light. They are best for areas you will need to wash more frequently or for trim. Paints with less sheen are not glossy and are not as washable, but they hide imperfections and are thus good for covering imperfect areas, like dented aluminum siding. Different brands of paint have different levels of sheen and different names for them. However, the following list will work for most brands:

§ High-gloss: the shiniest, most durable finish. Good for woodwork and trim.

§ Semi-gloss: a bit less shiny and durable. Also good for woodwork and trim.

§ Satin or Eggshell: A faint sheen, fairly easy to clean. Good for newer siding.

§ Flat: No sheen. Easier to touch up than to clean. Good for siding that is worn.

Other Features

Chalking or Non-Chalking?

Exterior paints are formulated to clean themselves by chalking, or by slowly wearing away. The dirt comes away, but so does the paint. As paint chalks, it makes a powdery substance that makes the paint appear lighter. The chalky residue can be cleaned up with a power-washer, but it may make sense to use a non-chalking paint.


Some paints are formulated to cover in one coat. They are thicker than other paints, and require a primed surface in order to work like they say they do. If you have to prime anyway, it will be cheaper and easier to use one-coat paint.

Blister-resistance and color retention:

These are the areas where more expensive paints make sense. A more expensive gallon of paint will look better for a longer period of time than a gallon of less expensive paint. Painting your house is hard work. If you live in an area where the weather is brutal and paint is subject to failing before the color has gone out of style, spend the extra money and buy paint that will last.

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