A great exterior paint job should make you think, "What a lovely home!" - not, "What great colors!"
If you get it right, your house will be in harmony with its surroundings, nature and the neighborhood. Get it wrong and passersby will wonder, "What were they thinking?"
"You want to try to do something you feel will have longevity," says Barbara Richardson, director of color marketing for ICI Paints/Glidden. "If you want funky, limit yourself to the front door."
You can get a long way down the road toward a harmonious color scheme if you keep a few guiding principles in mind - such as starting with the colors you can't change.
Color consultant Paul Helmer helps clients pick paint shades. Helmer, who charges $250 for a consultation, says it's crucial to take the following "givens" into account:
The roof. Think of it as a big chunk of color - the steeper the pitch, the more noticeable it is. If the roof is dark-charcoal composite, Helmer says, it's best to choose a color with heavy gray undertones. Conversely, if the roof is a light-colored composite, the house color shouldn't be too dark or it will look like the roof is trying to fly away.
Richardson advises using a color wheel to find colors that contrast with the roof in a pleasing way.
"If the roof is a warm shade of brown, find that brown and look at the opposite of that - a blue-gray or a grayed green," she says.
Exterior stone, brick or metal. If your house has orange-tinted bricks, it will look good with warm tones, whereas rose-tinted bricks will look better with cool tones. Ornamental wrought iron can be tied into the scheme by repeating its black or rusted tones on shutters or trim.
Vinyl windows or siding. Remember whitewall tires? Your house might end up with that look if you paint it a deep color and the windows are white vinyl, Helmer says.
If you have vinyl siding, don't think you can't change the color scheme. Richardson color-styled her sister's home, which had light yellow siding.
"I made the trim - the corner trim and the window trim - a darker, more subtle shade of yellow and painted the door gloss black and the shutters a purply eggplant," she says.
The landscape. Just as the wrong-color shoes or scarf can wreck the look of a coordinated suit, the wrong flowers or landscape plantings can detract from your home's paint scheme. Burgundy-leaved shrubbery would look ghastly against a yellowish-green house, for example.
When Richardson color-styled her sister's home, she pulled out all the red flowers and replaced them with yellow, purple and green plantings.
"The reds were killing it," she says.
Neighboring homes. Color experts agree that your home's paint should neither clash with nor match the houses to the left and right.
For most people, it's very difficult to pick out pleasing colors from thousands of possibilities. Paint companies spend a lot of money hiring people like Josette Buisson, artistic director for Pittsburgh Paints, to develop color combinations based on prevailing color trends and science.
It makes sense to take advantage of that free design assistance rather than trying to coordinate colors yourself.
"To start from scratch is too hard; people don't have enough time," Buisson says.
Painter Bill Ruisinger has seen plenty of near and actual color-picking disasters.
"A lot of times, people wait until the last minute and then rush through it. They think it's going to be easy, but it's not," Ruisinger says.
"We book two months in advance. People have plenty of time to figure it out, but they don't. If I have to repaint it six months later, that's a $2,000 mistake."
Paint companies offer color-selection tools on their Web sites.
For example, at www.benjaminmoore.com, you click on "For Your Home," then "Personal Color Viewer," then "Let's Paint," then "Home Exterior." Next, select from the 14 home styles presented the one that most resembles yours and click on "Save/Load Combinations" to view up to 57 color combos.
Richardson, of ICI Paints/Glidden, says some popular exterior-paint colors are trending in these directions for 2007 and 2008:
Yellows are deep and rich, crossing over into gold.
Oranges are rusty and earthy.
Reds are very toned down and sophisticated.
Blues have loads of gray in them (pastel blues only work in southern Florida).
Greens are moving toward deeper mid-tones with a touch of yellow to keep them from being too blue.
Browns are getting darker and richer; brown is the new taupe.
Grays have a lot of depth; if they are too light, they look dirty.
Experts see several mistakes in exterior-paint selection over and over again - such as using a color that's just too bright.
The more complex a paint color is, meaning the more different colors it contains, the better. Never use colors that are very pure or that have a high intensity, the experts say.
When painting garage doors, don't make them more prominent than the front door. Paint them the same color as the house if they aren't architecturally beautiful.
And remember: Neutral isn't always so neutral. A color that looks beige on a paint card might look pink or orange on your house. Always test a color by painting a large piece of poster board and propping it against the house. Be sure to view it at different times of the day.