If you are primed to give your New York City apartment a style upgrade, a fresh coat of paint will definitely do the trick, transforming a tired space into one that looks and feels brand new.
But how do you budget for a paint job? Painting rooms in New York City is very expensive, and even so, estimates can vary wildly. For example, one Brick Underground reader who has a 950-square-foot duplex on the Upper West Side wrote to say that she received estimates to paint her apartment that ranged from $3,000 to $7,500. That’s a pretty wide spread to consider. How do you know which one to go with?
Brick Underground can help: Use this paint primer to help you set expectations for how much you may spend and how to evaluate the estimates you receive.
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Size up your space
Knowing how large your apartment is and calculating how much paint you'll need helps you create a baseline for the price. (In case you need a refresher for figuring out the area of a room, for each wall, multiply the height by width and then add those amounts for the total).
Be aware that not all surfaces are priced the same: Walls, ceiling, and trim are standard, but baseboards, crown molding, wainscotting, cabinetry, doors, and window frames are more time consuming to paint and will bump up labor costs. Same for any closets.
Figure out paint costs
According to Bruce Stark, owner of Beacon Paint & Hardware, a gallon of interior latex paint will cover an average of 400 square feet (same for primer) and cost anywhere from $30 for commercial-grade paint (which many contractors use in rentals) to $100 or more for high-end products. Popular brands like Benjamin Moore (Bruce’s top pick) fall in between, at $50 for the entry-level (and zero VOC) “ben” line, $62 for Regal Select, and up to $80 for Aura paints. Primer costs $30 to $50 per gallon, the latter recommended for new sheetrock.
So for that UWS duplex, to paint a total of 2,000 square feet of walls (based on and estimated two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, and combined living/dining area) plus another 700 square foot for ceilings, you would need about 14 gallons of paint (for two coats). Depending on the quality, the cost of paint alone could be $420 for commercial grade, $868 for Benjamin Moore Regal Select, and $1,540 for Farrow & Ball, plus another $270 on primer.
If that seems like a lot, be warned: Skimping on cheaper paint may cost you in the end.
“It’s possible to cut corners and find a lower-cost paint that still looks polished, but cheaper paint may require more coats, which could end up costing just as much as fewer coats of expensive paint,” advises Laurence Carr of Laurence Carr Interior Design.
Instead, consider spending less on paint for use in private spaces like a bathroom or laundry room, and more on premium paint for public spaces, such as the kitchen or living room (and paint the ceilings a different color for added distinction). “Never skip primer, no matter what the paint product or the painter claims. Without it the color will not look as rich or last as long,” Carr says.
Communicate with the painter
Even if you do not choose a specific paint brand for your painter, “it’s important to specify at least the minimum quality you are willing to go with,” says interior designer Jennifer Morris of JMorris Design. “Otherwise the painter may go with a cheaper product and you wind up with lackluster walls.” Another option, Morris says, is to buy the paint yourself.
Be explicit about the finishes, too, as many painters will default to eggshell for walls (or perhaps satin in kitchens and bathrooms), flat for ceilings, and semi-gloss for trim.
“It’s hard to find NYC apartment [walls] with smooth surfaces, which is why I suggest sticking with flat or matte paint,” says Morris. “Anything with sheen, including eggshell, will show everything behind it.”
However, Stark points out that the “scrubbable” nature of eggshell makes it a wise choice for a kid’s room.
No matter which route you take, before purchasing gallons of non-returnable paint, you should view paint samples on your walls—or even better, as Carr suggests, hire a color consultant to nail your choice from the get-go.
“Color can change from dawn to dusk and from gloomy days to sunny day,” Morris says. That’s why she suggests applying the color to the lightest and darkest parts of the wall and observing how it looks at different times of day.
You can either do this yourself ahead of time, or by building in what Morris calls a “paint-color day” when the walls are being primed (you should not view color on top of another color). “The painter may charge you extra, but it will be so much better than having them paint an entire room in a color that makes you cringe.”
Factor in time and labor
Even the best paint won’t hide a shoddy surface or application. Any dings and dents, cracks and crevices will only be amplified by a fresh coat of paint, and so will need to be prepped first. Expect to pay an average of $50 (and as much as $100) per hour for quality painters.
Assuming it requires minimal prep work, that UWS duplex would take at least two days to paint, for a minimum of $800 in labor costs (and that is per painter). Some painters calculate the cost by square foot, with $2.75 being the average for NYC. Ask your painter about their rate.
“People often fail to look into the prep work when trying to make sense of fee ranges,” says Morris, “but it is a major part of any paint job. A handyman who comes in with a low bid is just going to be putting paint on the walls, which might be fine if you're a renter that’s going to move out in four years.”
Otherwise, buyer beware: For a more flawless result, you’ll want to hire a painter who will do the necessary spackling and sanding; filling in holes from nails and repairing hairline cracks takes little time and is usually baked into the price. Some painters tack on an hourly rate for more substantive repairs.
“To really make your home your own, especially one that is 100 years old and has had countless other inhabitants, it is usually worth the cost of having the walls skim-coated to near perfection,” says Morris. (But be prepared to pay 10 figures for this service.)
Carr also urges owners of prewar apartments or brownstones “to maintain the original architecture and historic elements, respecting the molding, woodworking, hardware, and so on. This will, of course, impact the project rate because it takes more time and skill to protect such elements from paint splatters, but the investment will help set your space apart from others.”
Be wary of bids that are too low
When comparing bids with widely different rates, Morris says to keep in mind that not all painters have the same business structure, or are paying a decent wage to their staff. “That's why I'm cautious about going to the lowest bid, as maybe they are not compensating their employees enough. Running a reputable company, especially in NYC, costs money.”
What’s more, painters are required to carry hefty insurance policies, often to the tune of $2 million (as dictated by many co-op and condo boards), which in turn costs the company thousands of dollars a year in premiums.
The level of experience and expertise will also be reflected in a painter’s rates, which is another reason to solicit more than one bid (but no more than three, otherwise you’ll be wasting their time and yours).
Never hire anyone without word-of-mouth recommendations from people you trust. Start with painters who have worked in your building. Seek out friends as well as brokers, designers, and contractors that you know for referrals. “Just don’t expect all painters to have Instagram-worthy photos of their projects, which would drive up their expenses by requiring a professional photographer,” says Morris.
Be sure to get your landlord or board to sign-off before hiring anyone (and forking over a non-refundable deposit). Renters should also look into paint-color restrictions.
You may also need to reserve the elevator for when the painters will be lugging all their equipment (nothing like having the meter running while they stand around the lobby), tipping the super, doorman, or property manager for their efforts. If you live on the top floor of a five-story walk-up, be prepared to shell out more money to the painter for the extra schlepping—and give your neighbors a heads-up that painters will be accessing the building.
Find out as well if you or the painters are expected to move the furniture and take the art and TV off the walls. “You’re better off spending the weekend before doing this yourself, rather than paying the painters for a few hours’ extra work,” says Morris. “You’ll also be more motivated to protect your belongings.”
The ultimate upshot
Figure out the best-case scenario that won’t strap your savings, and go with a painter who matches your style IQ—even if that means spending more now and reaping the dividends for years to come. “I often remind clients that one of the most budget-friendly things you can do is to do something right the first time,” says Carr.
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