The Question of Exterior Painting and Deferred Maintenance

Published in the ECHO Journal, December 2007

One recent trend in HOA exterior painting can unfortunately summed up by a simple question: “When is it time to repaint?”

The unfortunate aspect to this question for associations is that generally by the time the board is getting around to noticing the condition of their building’s paint and surfaces and asking the question, it is already too late for a good paint job alone to renew their appearance.

In this article, I will be your professor of painting and together we will examine the criteria needed for you to know what immediate need for painting looks like. We will also discuss what the signs are that indicate a board should begin the specification, bidding and painting process for next season now. Of course, I don’t just mean that your association might be able to get together the money. That reasoning is still a symptom of head-in-the-sand logic that has allowed so much of the valuable real estate called homeowner associations throughout California to have badly deferred needed maintenance. So many aging homeowner associations do not realize that as their exterior painting continues to be deferred, other much more expensive problems will occur with increased likelihood inside painted walls and trim boards.

Let’s look at why waiting until the buildings shout “Paint me now!” with obvious visible problems is a much more expensive way to go than understanding the basics of why we paint in the first place. At the end of this article there is a short test on those key points to know about when it is time to repaint and what must occur on any excellent paint job, including problem prevention. Pay close attention as you read further!

When paint jobs are properly specified and done, they serve multiple functions. First and foremost, they are not just to raise your property value, although if well applied and with attention to correct preparation, durability and craftsmanship, an exterior paint job will measurably raise property value. The principal reason to paint, however, is to protect the materials that buildings are made of from both the sun’s radiation and water. Just as a rub-on waterproof sun block lotion leaves your skin unburned when you use it before going to the beach, your paint job blocks out the harmful UV rays of the sun to a sufficient degree that it prevents fade and failure (sun burn) for some years. It should also be a waterproof, but breathable, seal for the system of walls and trim. Few paints can do this for more than a few years without deteriorating, and none can do it unless surfaces are well prepared prior to the application of finish paints.

A good job done with premium paints will ideally last a full six to seven years before there is a need to repaint walls. Trims and fascia (roof edge trim), because they move and seams open on them first, may be ready much sooner, depending upon exposure to stronger morning and afternoon sunlight and/or cold fog or snow. Likewise, an entire building in the full sun may need to be redone while others in the shade of trees or a hillside continue to be in great shape. Whatever the exposure, you cannot rely upon an arbitrary number of years, whether determined from a reserve study or a calculation based on when the complex was last painted. Building elements move and surfaces can become compromised sooner for a myriad of reasons. An inspection by a construction consultant or a top painting contractor every two to three years is the best way to know for certain if painted and caulked areas are holding up properly.

It is the combined effects of the sun’s unseen ultraviolet and infrared radiation together with hot-to-cold weather cycling, rain and fog that most destroy paint jobs—they dry out and break down paints to cause chalking and peeling and also dry out caulked seams between architectural elements. Examples of the latter are visible at the joints of any trim boards on windows and doors and where they meet walls on their long sides and are a primary indicator that the time to repaint has already begun. Your buildings may also have settling, insect infestations, wood warpage, rusted nails, unadjusted sprinklers pointing at the walls, faulty building materials and dry rot, all of which result in the need to repaint sooner.

Boards face many problems in running an association, with its diverse personalities and legal challenges. You know some years have passed since you have painted, but you cannot really remember when it was last done. Was it just five years ago or was it eight? It still looks pretty good; so even though you are now a board member (or manager), you will not bring it up this year. There are other priorities. Does this sound familiar?

The challenge of paying attention to condition, not just appearance and finding out what is the true condition must become the rule if problems are not to escalate. Are there any discolorations or streaks on walls, high up or lower down? If you can find one, see if you can find others. What are the streaks coming from? Do they look dark or light, rusty, crinkly or wet? Learning the cause may require an expert, but if streaking is occurring in one or more locations, there may be something systemic going on that asks for further examination. You can generally bet it has something to do with non-beneficial penetration of water. This is how leaks are spotted inside units, and outside is no different.

The problem is rarely just that the paint in that spot somehow got discolored. It most probably will be that somewhere above or right there at the discoloration moisture got in and deterioration has begun. The most serious kind of deterioration on wood is the onset of the fungus infestation we refer to as dry rot inside the wood underneath the paint surface. This makes the boards look at first normal, but soon, they’ll appear a little sunken, not flat. If the discoloration you observe is streaked rust color, painted-over metal, whether it be nails, flashings, or pipes, has begun to rust. Worse situations await if the rust is on walls that are made of concrete with no nails or flashings in sight. This can indicate deeper water penetrations into the steel rebar reinforcement inside the wall structure, which can mean potentially large costs if the rust is accompanied by deep cracks and/or lifted concrete, known as spalling.

Vertical dark, straight seam lines along wall boards or panels indicate wood joints have opened up. Seams will also look dark where trims meet or at wall-to-trim joints where caulking has failed or is not present at all. These are the most serious ingress points for water to enter a building’s structure and dry rot to begin. But wait, we are talking about not having to wait this long before you paint, right?

When you rub the palm of your hand on the walls on most sunny sides of building(s), does any paint come off on it? If so, this shows the paint has lost its strength and is not holding out water anymore. It says the paint is dried out and has chalked. Obviously, it’s time to paint even if it looks good from a few feet away. Before this chalking stage, let’s say a couple of years, paint loses its shine and looks flat. If it has already gone flat, it will also look thin and bone dry. That was really the time to paint.

Seams with caulk in them will show wobbly caulk that is out of line with the seams and some open spots. That’s the time to caulk and repaint at least the trim boards, after the failed caulk has been completely removed and recaulked properly with premium material. Because seams are the most overlooked part of an exterior paint job, they are where the most awareness must be placed. You would not leave an open seam that leaks on your roof; so why would you leave multiple seams open on your trim boards? This is especially rough when the original construction left many or all seams uncaulked. It’s a shame such cheap contractor practices exist, but it’s your job to spot and remedy them.

Say mold is growing up under the eaves. It’s black and unsightly. Wait, it’s even growing on your tile roofs. Then it is time to kill it with a biodegradable mildewcide and power wash it away. Repaint time is probably indicated because mildew and molds dig mostly into weaker surfaces that have lost their ability to hold water out. In the case of cement-type tiles, waterproof, heat-reflective maintenance paint coatings on them can save them and prevent a full tear-off and roof replacement, with a huge cost savings. Of course, this is only true if all leaks are professionally repaired first.

Power-washing an entire set of buildings, top to bottom, every few years after a professional paint job will make it last longer since dirt and mildew will be removed and deterioration from these will be reduced. Dark dirt (road grime, dust, soot) concentrates the sun’s heat and is the food for flora (molds) to grow. Power washing will also let you see how far gone your current paint job is by revealing the general condition and any deterioration. This may be the best money you can spend between repainting cycles, but only if a quality painter does the washing and inspects the buildings for open seams and cracks that need to be resealed.

Inconsistent coating thickness of paints or stains over wood because of no primer, not enough primer or only one coat of finish paint or stain will be accentuated within two to three years following such a paint job. Walls will look progressively worse by showing the wall material and/or black, moldy streaking; they will continue to become less durable every year until properly cleaned and recoated. Such signs are a tip-off that the last painting contractor or builder either did not follow the specifications they had for the paint job, used cheap paints, failed to re-prime or used only one coat of finish paint or stain.

Speaking of cheap paints, “contractor grade” paints and most flat finishes in exterior paints that do not hold out water are a waste of money. Generally, paints provide only a hair’s thickness per coat when dry, literally 1.4 thousandths of an inch. Two coats at least will always provide substantially more protection. In Bay Area locales, around a third of each paint coat “burns” off due to the sun per year, with even larger deterioration at more exposed locations and climates.

If your goal is to optimize the years between repaint cycles, buy the premium paint and best job for the work required. Labor cost is the largest part of the cost of a paint job and is where to try to save, not by compromising paint quality. So long as you know what you are paying for and why, you stand a better chance of getting an appropriate job for the money spent.

So, it’s time now for your test:

  1. What is the primary reason buildings need to be repainted?
  2. What is the first tip-off that paint is deteriorating?
  3. What is the visual clue that caulk has begun to fail?
  4. What is the most costly indicator to overlook?
  5. What is the best indicator that water is penetrating wall surfaces?
  6. What is the best money to spent between paint jobs to know the last paint job is holding up or if there are issues now needing to be remedied?
  7. What is the best tool to help spot any deterioration in the painted surfaces and lengthen the life of paint if done early enough in the useful life of any paint job?
  8. What is the reason your buildings should have timely, quality paint jobs?

Michael Biel is the founder of the Ultimate Coatings Company, an ECHO member company. He has been a sales and marketing consultant to Paul Benson Painting.