Dear PoP – Painting a Rowhouse a Good Idea?

Photo by PoPville flickr user ekelly80

“Dear PoP,

I live in a rowhouse on Warder St. NW Probably 95% of the homes in the area (and all of the ones on my block) have the original brick finish. But in a few of the homes the brick has been painted over. This typically occurs in connection with a renovation and flip. I’m wondering what people think about painting brick rowhouses for aesthetic reasons, when the brick is otherwise in good condition? And what color would be “acceptable”? I really like the look of brick. In addition, I’d be hesitant to be the only painted house on the block. And painting once means a commitment to repaint at regular intervals.”

Believe it or not this is a very controversial question. When it has come up before there always seems to be split opinions. Personally I like painted rowhouses. But I know many others disagree with me. I know this topic has come up a few times when we talk about Mt. Pleasant. I like the flavor they bring to the block but I do think that some colors look better than others.

Do you guys think that only certain colors should be used? Or should all paint be avoided?

84 Comment

  • ah

    It’s a shame to ruin good brick with paint that you’ll have to redo every 5-10 years. Paint also supposedly shortens the lifespan of brick by capturing moisture, leading to spalling/crumbling of the mortar. And once you paint you’ll never be able to go back to plain brick, at least at reasonable expense.

    • I’ve been looking at potential houses for the past year and a half, so I’ve seen a lot, and the painted ones almost always command a lower price and sit on the market longer. Something about the paint cheapens their exterior appearance.

    • double amen. you can never go back to straight brick once you paint. it’s like a tattoo. you better be 200% sure you’re gonna love it, or forget it.

    • I beg people not to paint. Painting adds a significant and unpredictable variable to the maintenance of an old brick rowhouse. That is, it might turn out fine, but the odds are greater that it won’t.

      Most modern, off-the-shelf paints are not formulated to co-exist with historic masonry. Historic masonry consists of clay bricks and lime-based mortars. Lime-based mortars are soft, flexible and self-healing. Water vapor passes through mortar without damaging brick and without condensing on inside surfaces. As water vapor passes through mortar, the mortar reconstitutes itself and self-heals very small cracks before they become big cracks.

      Modern latex, elastomeric and vinyl paints are plastics derived from petroleum. They will adhere to brick, but also choke off the water vapor permeability of the brick. Vapor hits the inside surface of the paint, gets trapped, condenses, and goes through some freeze/thaw cycles. Eventually this leads to large blisters of separated paint, spalling brick, a failed paint job, and worst case, a destroyed brick wall that needs massively expensive repair.

      Most fly-by-night painters will look at you dumbly if you ask about this.

      If painting is ABSOLUTELY necessary, you need to select a mineral-based paint. Lime based is one. The paint is made from the same lime that the mortar is made from. Tinted to any color, it make a perfect and compatible bond with mortar and brick and allows for water vapor to escape. Look for Virginia Limeworks and Pennsylvania Limeworks, which both carry lines of lime-based paint. Another paint from Europe is a silin paint made from silica, which as a mineral based paint is very compatible with masonry. The key-word in this paragraph is “mineral-based.”

      If sustainability is your bag, off-the-shelf latex paint is one of the worst things you can purchase for your home. The amount of BTUs spent to manufacture latex paint (which comes as a by-producet of refining petroleum) is off the charts.

      The downside is that old lime-mortar has a life span of about 100 years. After 100 years, enough lime has leached from the mortar you need to repoint. Paint won’t fix that and neither will pointing with portland cement. Both paint and portland cement will in fact make the problem worse. Hate to say, but 100 years old means repoint, but you won’t have to do it for another 100 years.

      • Wow – great explanation – thank you for posting it. What about painting over a concrete wall? 2 year old construction, cinderblock with a skim coat? I’m assuming not the same mortar-breathing issues, but I’ve been given all sorts of different advice & recommendations. (I want to paint a mural on it.)

      • Will it have the same detrimental effect if non-mineral paint is used on the interior basement brick walls of an old rowhouse? We recently bought one that had paint on the interior…I had no idea…now I’m a little worried!

      • I really appreciate your expertise on this. I have to say I’m somewhat skeptical though, and I mean that in a productive way.

        Why arent houses across the city having major problems because of painted bricks? I know of a lot of painted houses that are doing just fine.

        Do you know if Sherwin Williams sells any of the paint you say is ok in a pinch?

        Part of my house is painted, part isnt – I bought it like this. Its all brick. What do you recommend?

        • Oil paints performed OK, but were essentially outlawed within the last 10 years. Oil paints offgassed VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which were a large contributor to carbon emission and greenhouse gasses in the city. If you try to buy a gallon of oil paint online, they won’t deliver to DC, Virginia or Maryland. But they’ll deliver to WV. The paint industry is only now starting to develop new oil paints that are VOC compliant. In a couple of years, we’ll see if these work.

          Bottom line is oil paint worked and explains why so many old paint jobs still look in good shape. Latex has filled the gap left by oil paint being taken off the DC market. If you see a good exterior paint job around town it’s either an old oil paint, a lucky latex paint, or a new latex paint that hasn’t failed yet. But give many of those time.

          A key thing in my explanation is that latex will not certainly fail, but that it’s so unreliable that there’s a decent chance it will become a maintenance nightmare and waste of money. I’d paint my metal or wood trim and my windows, but I wouldn’t paint my masonry.

      • The amount of BTUs spent to manufacture latex paint (which comes as a by-producet of refining petroleum) is off the charts.

        Question. How much petroleum do regular latex paints have in them?

        I know that latex paints are water-based/water-soluble, non-toxic, non-flammable, and contain acrylic binders. I also know that unlike oil-based paint, acrylic doesn’t require any special disposal protocols.

        I’ve also read that most latex paints in the U.S. are either 100% acrylic or vinyl acrylic. Would not ‘100% acrylic’ infer that it contains no petroleum – only acrylics?

        I would think that if latex paint DID contain petroleum, there would be all sorts of warnings connected with it. Also, oil and water don’t mix, so I don’t know how you could thin acrylic paint with water if it had petroleum in it.

        P.S. I’ve just looked at some Material Safety Data Sheets for two Sherwin-Williams exterior latex-based paints, chosen at random. Neither has any petroleum in it.

  • IMO, it depends on the neighborhood. Every house on my block is natural brick color, except 1 thats painted dark red. Doesnt bother me in the slightest though b/c it was professionally done. Obscenely bright colors, like that baby blue house on Warder bother me tho. The only problem with painting that I can see is that it can potentially effect the resale.

    • Seriously, if I painted my house. I would totally paint it an obnoxious color just to piss everyone off who complains about what other people do to their homes.

  • Where was this picture taken? I love it!

    In general, I really like the variation that paint gives to row houses. That said, I understand that it requires more maintenance and can be too taste specific for future buyers.

  • That picture is from Cliffbourne right off of Calvert. The elderly couple who live in the green one own the yellow and red ones as well. She worked at Millie and Al’s for 30 years. Apparently an artist owned all four, and when he died, his family’s only request was that they didnt get painted “boring colors.” I think the old dame’s name is Mary, she is willing to dance or have a beer with anyone passing by..

  • Ashy Oldlady

    Historic preservation by-laws may preclude you from painting your street-facing facade.

    • Wrong. You don’t even need a building permit to paint. If you use a scaffold, THAT needs a permit, just the scaffold. The historic preservation regulations only regulate paint when it involves an unpainted masonry landmark (in which case you DO need a permit, but hp would probably deny the permit). If you have a regular rowhouse in a historic district, you can paint it whatever color you like.

  • i strongly dislike the boring wardman houses that are not painted. a coat of paint really brings the house alive.

  • I am from NOLA and loved fun, painted houses. Saying that, if my house had been unpainted I wouldn’t have painted it. It wasn’t cheap. Why waste the money and have to worry about future repainting.

    I will say that some brick just isn’t attractive. Sometimes you see that lighter colored brick which I don’t find attractive at all. Also, some bricks included iron turning them a bit blue – so there is a checkerboard affect. Both of the those types generally look better painted (depending on the colors) at least to me, but that is because I don’t like those bricks.

  • I really like that picture.

  • Our house on Princeton was already painted so we didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I do like the look of painted houses. If ours had been original brick, I think I would have gone the route of just painting the window trim and details – I’ve seen some really great examples of that around town, and it looks fresh and new without having to do the entire house in a new color.

  • I will be painting my house. I like it. I think the problems with painting the brick are vastly over exaggerated.

    • what is your evidence of that?

    • See my lengthy post above, or you’ll be sorry.

      • then how come the majority of rowhouses in DC are painted, appear to have been painted for many decades (like mine, which has about a dozen different colors if you start to chip it away), and are fine?

        I’m asking sincerely – over the years I’ve seen several dire warnings about painting rowhouses that just don’t seem to square up with what I observe on the street.

        • Oil paints performed fine until they were outlawed by DC and local states. Of the dozen coats, all but the most recent one were probably oil.

          And a dozen coats of paint in 100 years vs. repoint once in 100 years captures my point of maintenance burden pretty well. Once painted = always painting.

  • I like the painted brick houses because a whole row os brick houses looks so blah. That said, it puzzles me when people paint their brick house red…..

  • Do it! I love painted row houses. Painting is such a great way to highlight the architectural features of your house. You can have a lot of fun with color without going neon. Plus, you have a row house, not a detached house. You only really need to paint one side; leave the back bare to lessen the maintenance costs.

  • We thought and thought about painting ours because we both love the rows with color. However, we would be the first and only one in the row.

    Not to mention, I think historically preservation is so important. Even though we are not marked historic – yet, it is important.

    This time around we went with having the trim and porch edges and ceiling painted only. Next time I think we are going for it.

    As for the re-sale point, well if you don’t like the color re-paint it. I doubt it would be a deal breaker for a new home buyer.

    Love the picture. It reminds me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco.

    Watch out Warder Street…

    • +1

      I always think the same and think of our houses as the ‘Painted Ladies of DC’

      The east coast can be so conservative at times.

  • There’s obviously no clear cut right or wrong answer. I prefer painted brick but I haven’t painted my house for a few simple reasons
    -my house is unpainted
    -very few houses on my block are painted
    -it costs at least $2000
    -I have a laundry list of repairs and renovations that could use 2000

  • How often do brick houses need to be repainted? Is there a way to paint them that also increases heat retention? THAT would be worth investing in.

  • Our end of the block used to be full of candy colors: bright yellow, purple, peach, kelly green. I honestly kind of miss it since most of them have been flipped and painted neutrals – although I admit that I, too, would be less likely to buy, or even look at, a screaming purple house.

    I also really dislike that yellowish/brownish, lighter brick on a lot of houses in lower Petworth/North CH. I’d probably paint that, even if I was the only one on the block, but I’d try to keep it neutral.

    • I dislike those colors too (I happen to have a red brick house in Petworth). But I think if the trim was painted more often with a dark red, rather than white, I think that those brown houses would look a whole lot better. I’ve seen one or two that way, and it makes a huge difference.

  • We have a house in the same neighborhood, and I’ve been asking myself the same question about painting. Our problem is the previous owners weirdly decided to paint only the porch area gray and leave the rest of the house unpainted. I love the unpainted brick and think painted brick is really for Victorian houses, not a Wardman-style house like mine. The solution I’ve come up with is to find a paint color that matches the brick as closely as possible and paint over the gray paint (not ideal, but better than painting the whole house, in my mind). I would much rather have a front door painted a great color and leave the brick alone.

  • Our rowhouse is painted, and we very much like the color. The original brick on our particular house is failry ugly.

    I too agree that the warnings about painting brick are sometimes exaggerated. There is more maintenance than unpainted brick of course.

  • Unless the brick is amazing looking, who cares. Live a little, enjoy your house in and out by painting colors, changing them, etc. If properly painted, It should last you 10 years or so. I had to repaint after 7 years of ownership. It is like a new house every time you paint it.

  • I’m a recent purchaser of a 3 story victorian rowhouse that is painted. If I had to guess, there’s more than one layer of paint on there.

    I’m curious whether anyone has experience with removing the paint – in particular the cost of removal and how effective the effort is (i.e. is it possible to actually remove the paint). I figure we’ll have to repaint several times (especially if the earlier poster’s 5 year estimate is correct), so I’m wondering what the long term cost comparison is.

    • it is possible to remove the paint. I’ve forgotten what the term is, but several of my neighbors have had this done. Basically, the paint is sanded off the bricks. Very expensive project.

      • From what I’ve seen around my neighborhood, sheets are placed over the brick of the entire exterior. It’s similar to using a paste when you strip paint from a door or any other smaller wood item. I’m not sure if any sanding was done after the fact.

        The ones I’ve seen don’t look all that great. Frequently bits of paint remain in the cracks or just dont’ come completely off the brick face. It ends up just looking like a house where you tried to remove the painted but werent’ entirely successful.

  • What do you recommend if you have unpainted brick with dark water stains on near the roof? We live on a block where the houses aren’t painted and all of them have this issue. I wouldn’t mind leaving it original but the stains look like crap.

  • black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow….

  • On most of the blocks of Warder, the houses are all this kind of neutral/gray brick color. its very bland in my opinion, especially since none of them have any significant architectural detail. natural brick seems to look better if its the darker red colored bricks.
    Painting would make a house stand out better in this instance, in a good way. It also seems to signal that the house is being renovated or flipped in that area. Like “hey look at me, I am the house in newer condition on the street”

  • My house is painted brick and I love it! It was last painted in 1996 and about last year started showing signs of needing to be repainted.

  • I bought a flip and it was painted – badly. On top of that hey painted a nice patterned brick. Now I’m saving up to get the paint stripped off.

    I would rather live in a place where people are free to trash their quality brick work with paint than be told by the city what to do but 9 times out of 10 it’s a bad move.

    I think of 12th Place NW as a rare exception.

  • When looking for a rowhouse in Petworth (2008) I would have preferred unpainted, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker… and we ended up with a painted one because it was the best. The one next to us (a previous flip) is painted… I don’t think it is a big deal. I say do it if you want to (especially if you are not going to stick out!).

  • When I was house shopping I often thought that painted brick was covering the sins of the past such as mismatched repairs and shoddy masonary work. If it rest of the block is not painted, you shouldn’t do it.

  • Really? there are a lot of donkey posts here. the paint won’t hurt a thing and there is nothing more blah then a row of houses that all look the same. If you want to paint it, do it. If you want to sell just find a buyer who agrees with you.

  • I’d say go with the flow of the block. There’s something of neighbor-relation issue here, too. The look of the block is probably part of what drew people to it.

    That said, there are no tough questions for me. I live on a candy-colored street where the assortment is so great that anything will go as long as it doesn’t clash with the immediate neighbors. So my own question is *which* color to pick next.

  • How’s Mary doing? What an awesome block! Her houses rock.

  • A long row of unpainted row houses is drab. I know, I live on one. Fortunately, the brick does have good character. I like painted rowhouses if they’re done right. A little house on Buchanan west of Sherman Circle just went on the market they painted it, and it made the house pop. Really helps if there are decorative pieces on the house. I think most people would rather spend the time, money, and energy inside these houses. Please, no more dark gray flips.

  • I’m normally all for house painting. But in your case, don’t. I’ve lived in mine for nearly a decade and had the front painted, twice. First time was because I was a reddish colored house in the middle of two other shades of red painted houses. Second, because my first color had faded and turned pinkish. I didn’t want a pink house. However I paid the local handyman and it cost $300-$400 for labor if I supplied the paint. I painted the rear a dark and sort of purple color about 7 years ago and it is still fine.
    If your house isn’t painted then don’t paint it unless your soul is dying to express itself with large sums of paint, and you can find someone who can do it for less than $1k. There are other forms of exterior expressions, such as an ornate handcrafted door (ie, not something special ordered from Home Depot) maybe with stained glass from a local artist, or paint the window and other trim with bright colors. Also consider window boxes.

  • Many houses have been painted to hide mismatched brick, where windows and doors have been bricked over or moved, or where brick additions have been built. It’s almost impossible to find brick to match that which was used 90-100 years ago, because the quarries that supplied the clay for them are long gone.

  • I say leave the brick alone — focus on yard, beautiful plants, an art sculpture, wall hanging, window boxes, window treatments or wreath, etc… if you’re looking to add character. (Not all of those things, pick)

  • I wouldn’t have commented but for the interesting (and random) wiz khalifa reference — gotta love the site for this (as well as the sheer amusement from deciphering the veiled elitism in some of the responses).

    my thoughts? do what you like. i also live in bloomingdale; my victorian’s unpainted, but only bc i really like the brown pressed brick and recessed mortar joints. at the same time, i also ended up dealing w/ some gripes when i affixed a trellis to the exterior wall. i really do respect community bldg and cohesive neighborhood aesthetics, but, at the end of the day, i’m the only person responsible for the mortgage…

  • Crin – can you respond to this article I found on the Internet?

    “Brick should be painted with latex paint or a lime wash. Both are considered breathable coatings. They allow water vapor, but not liquid water, to pass through the masonry. Waterproof (as opposed to water repellant) coatings should not be applied to above ground masonry house sections.”

    • Im not trying to be a pain, but this is something I really want to get to the bottom of because I dont want to screw up my house.

  • Sorry about that. Even I get things mixed up between my brain and my typing fingers. The worst paints for historic masonry are elastomeric paints or anything formulated for 100% impermeability. Most latexes aren’t as bad and are breathable enough, just like that article says. Some of my other comments about latex were about how bad they are for the environment. It takes tons of energy to manufacture and, out of all construction materials, is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses. If your rowhouse is brick, and you care about the environment, your best environmental choice is to leave the rowhouse unpainted. Also, latex is not a very durable paint. Mineral paints and acrylic paints are much more durable. I should have been more clear that latex is not a bad choice, but there are far better choices.

    Now let’s talk about milk paint, which you can make yourself if you really want to go over the edge.

    • Thanks, Crin! I do care about the environment, but I already bought the paint. Its latex but meant for exteriors. Unfortunately, the house needs to be painted because part of it is already painted.

      I appreciate your help.

  • anon, take it easy! i didn’t write to suggest that my opinion was better than anyone else’s. i just wanted to offer another vote in the “do what you like” camp — not quite sure what was ironic or elite about my reaction to those that envision themselves as architectural purists, possessing a better sense of how the neighborhood should develop.

    my intention wasn’t to write off anyone that offered up helpful advice on long-term maintenance of painted brick. get your own crib, then do what you want w/ it. period.

    i just don’t think very highly of those that simply suggest that the painted brick is distasteful (under the guise of adherence to historical standards).

  • I don’t mind the look of painted brick houses. I think painted row houses give the street character. When my husband and I were looking to buy a house in Petworth last year, it didn’t matter to us if the house was painted or unpainted. When we finally bought a house it was unpainted. That being said, we have chosen not to paint the exterior because of cost and up keep. We have a lot of projects to do and our money would be better spent in other places. I say if you want to paint your house, paint it. Have fun.

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