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Painting Estimates & Paint Cost Per Square Foot

Why it Doesn't Work & What to Do Instead

Eric Barstow
Published Date: 09/17/2019

The most common way painting contractors estimate painting is by square foot. This is something that has always baffled us, because it’s simply inaccurate!

Estimating interior and estimating exterior painting costs (and especially commercial painting) by square foot has somehow become an industry standard.

In this article, we’re going to cover the fundamental problems with estimating painting by square foot and provide a better solution.

The goal with estimating is to provide a competitive and profitable price. It’s not about the price you need to win the job. It’s about the right price.

The right price is the price you need to deliver the work at an exact cost and make a healthy profit margin.

What’s in This Article

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Why Estimating Interior & Exterior Painting by Square Foot is a Problem

Before we get into examples, let’s review the problems contractors run into if they are only estimating by square foot.

If you want to learn to learn exactly how we estimate paint jobs (and teach thousands of painting contractors to estimate accurately) click here to download our free estimating forms, formulas, and guide.

Let’s dive in.

Prep Work: Not all exterior (or interior) homes have the same amount of prep work. Some houses are in great condition, others are in terrible condition. Some jobs you might spend half a day on prep. Others might take two full days. If you are not accounting for the amount of prep you’ll end up charging too much or too little.

Some contractors will bump up their per square foot price if there is more prep. This is better than nothing, but still not very accurate. Instead, it’s best to estimate the exact amount of prep time and estimate accordingly.

Type of Materials: All paint is not created equal and it’s not priced the same. If you are not accounting for more expensive material, your price will not be accurate. Some painting contractors will break out material and do it separately, or have customers buy the material. But this is also a mistake.

For sales, it’s best to provide your customer one price that is all inclusive. To provide different options, you will need to estimate the different costs of paint to come up with an accurate price.

Detail Work: This is a big one! This is where price per square foot can really get screwed up. Trim takes a lot of time. Square footage pricing doesn’t take into account how much or how little trim is on the house. Adding multiple colors also adds time to the job and more detail work.

Hazards and Obstructions: Estimating by square foot doesn’t account for obstructions or hazards that will make painting the house much more difficult. For example trees or bushes that are up against the house and need to be tied back or worked around. Some homes have steep slopes on the sides which makes moving ladders a lot slower.

Height: Square footage does not account for height. A 20 foot interior ceiling or vaulted ceiling is going to be a lot more time consuming to paint than an 8 foot bedroom ceiling. Trim that is 25-35 feet high takes longer than trim that’s on the ground.

You can see that there are a lot issues with pricing painting per square foot. Sometimes it will work. Sometimes you’ll be too high and you’ll lose business. Sometimes you’ll be too low and lose money.

The goal of estimating is accuracy. This makes sure you are charging the correct price for your profitability and for your customer.

Now we’ll look at a couple quick examples for interior and exterior house painting and how significantly prices can vary.

Exterior Painting: Why cost per square foot doesn’t work.

Let’s consider two 1500 sq ft houses (House A & House B).

Paint Cost Per Square Foot

Both houses are the same square footage. If we are using a square footage pricing model, the prices for both homes would be the same.

We’ll also assume that we are paying $20 per hour for labor for this price comparison.

House A:

  • Prep Work: The house was painted only a few years ago and this customer is doing a color change. There is minimal prep work on the house.
  • Materials: The client is only doing a color change to sell the house, so they want to use inexpensive materials. $30/gallon for $450 total cost of paint.
  • Detail Work: The house has vinyl windows with no trim around them. No labor hours for trimming out windows.
  • Hazards: No hazards.
  • Height: No significant height issues.

House B: 

  • Prep Work: The house hasn’t been painted for 12 years and is falling apart. It will take an entire day to prep the house properly. Add 10 hours of work. Add $200 in labor costs.
  • Materials: The client just moved in and plans on living here for at least 10 years. They want the highest quality paint. $55/gallon for $825 total cost of paint.
  • Detail Work: The house has old wood windows and a lot of them, 15 to be exact. Add 12 hours of trimming windows for $240 in labor.
  • Hazards: Bushes line one entire side of the house and need to be pulled back. Even pulled back, it makes doing the work slower. Add 2 hours for $40 in labor cost.
  • Height: No significant height issues.

House B has $480 in additional labor costs and $375 in additional material costs. That’s a total cost difference of $855. If you’re a business owner, you don’t do jobs at cost… That’s just the extra cost to you.

This is just one example. Some homes could be a way bigger gap than this. Larger homes with more trim could be $2,000-$3,000 different in price.

Interior Painting: Why cost per square foot doesn’t work.

This is much easier to make the point.

Here are 2 interior floor plans for 2 houses / rooms the exact same size by square footage.

Interior Painting: Why cost per square foot doesn’t work

Interior Painting: Why cost per square foot doesn’t work

This is an extreme example, but applies to all interior jobs. Both images above are the same square footage. But the second floor plan has a LOT more walls. That’s a lot more space to paint, a lot more paint you’ll need, and a lot more trim.

This is one reason why estimating interiors is difficult, and why estimating interior painting by square foot doesn’t work.

But there are other factors you also need to consider which square foot pricing does not take into account.

These factors include:

  • Crown Molding
  • Wainscoting
  • Built-ins, closets, and shelving
  • Windows and doors
  • Unique wall textures
  • Unique ceiling textures
  • Vaulted ceilings
  • And all the other factors we mentioned above

We did a quick Google search and found the “average” listed prices to repaint a 2300 square foot home interior ranged from $1300 to nearly $8000.

Let that sink in.

There is a $6700 disparity between the upper and lower ends of that range. Same square footage.

This is why it’s important to use a different estimating method that takes into account the details that are not addressed with pricing per square foot.


>> Click here for our proven estimating forms, estimating formulas, and guide <<

Paint Cost Per Square Foot

Estimating Commercial Painting by Square Foot

In this example, we’re referring to any job that you are doing for a General Contractor.

If you play your cards right, and “get in good” with a local builder, you can find a steady stream of income by painting new homes before they hit the market. The problem is contractors operate in the language of square footage. And when you supply them a price for a job, they will want the paint cost per square foot breakdown.

“We’re paying $3.00 per square foot for the interior painting.” Or they’ll ask “How much per square foot?”

Your job is to come up with the correct price, then translate it into their language. Don’t bid based on square foot, because not all jobs are created equal as we saw above.

When estimating New Construction Homes, follow our estimating guides.

Once you have your price for the job, you can translate it. If the house is 2,500 square feet and you come up with a price of $7,500 following accurate estimating formulas, you can tell your GC that it’s $7,500 which is $3 per square foot.

It’s important to communicate to the builder, however, that your paint cost per square foot is for the current home layout. With that being said, if the builder decides to add 300 feet of crown molding or shutters to every exterior window, he can expect the price per square foot to change.

For commercial jobs, you need to be very detailed. Going too high on a commercial job will ensure you don’t get the job. Going too low can create huge problems for you and you can lose a lot of money.

You need to estimate commercial jobs following very detailed estimating procedures for every unique substrate you’ll be painting. If you don’t already know how to estimate commercial painting, we recommend avoiding commercial jobs until you can learn how to estimate commercial properly.

There is plenty of work. Stick to what you know and remove your risks.

Paint Cost per sq ft

A Better Way: How to Provide Accurate Painting Estimates

Estimating is a science, not an art. The goal is a very accurate price to maintain good profit margins while remaining competitive with the market.

To deliver a very precise estimate requires more detail in the estimate.

For example, an exterior job will be broken out into every single part of the job… We’ll be measuring linear feet of trim, square feet of siding/body, counting shutters and windows, estimating prep work, accounting for obstructions, considering the type of window (wood windows take a lot longer), and even the type of siding we are applying the paint to.

For 14 years we’ve been working on improving our own estimating formulas to provide accurate prices. Thousands of painting contractors have downloaded our estimating guides.

Take the guesswork out of your estimates, and download our free estimating guide today. We’ll also send other important information that we didn’t cram into this article.

Make sure you grab our estimating guide and stop using ineffective pricing models in your painting business immediately.

Downloaded by over 40,000. Earn 10-50% more profit/job


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