Friday Question of the Day – To Paint or Not To Paint?

3642 New Hampshire Ave, NW

We’ve occasionally debated painting brick in the past but for today – let’s just talk about this specific house. It’s a row house that is being developed into condos just south of the Petworth metro. It’s a complete renovation and was starting to look really good. I really dig the windows. Now for the record, I’m normally pro-paint but one day I walked passed here and noticed it had been painted gray. Side note: Has “flipper yellow” become “flipper gray”? Anyway, you can see how the original brick looked below. So what do you think – should they have kept the original brick or painted it gray or painted it another color?

Color of original brick

Original brick on a neighboring house

53 Comment

  • its normally a bad idea to paint brick just because it locks moisture in. freeze/thaw cycles can really age a brick wall quickly.

    • people make this claim, yet thousands of DC rowhouses are painted with no apparent problems. My house has been painted for decades and the brick is fine. So, I wonder how true or relevant it is.

      • Yeah. The front and back of our end unit house are paint while the side is not. The bricks and mortar are in much better condition on the painted areas than the unpainted.

      • I would say that this is a myth, or rather that the risk of damaging moisture is much higher comging from the outside in. A properly constructed house should not have moisture issues seeping from the inside out. A good quality exterior paint preserved the bricks as well as the morter and descreases the need for repointing more frequently. Just my 2 cents as a homeowner in an older building! Buy good quality paint now and it saves you in the long run.

  • I would have gone with another color of they really were set on painting it.

  • saf

    I never approve of painting hard brick. Why take a lovely low-maintenance material and turn it into something that requires you to keep it up so much more>

    • I am with saf – painting it once basically means future owners are going to have to paint. I would have left mine natural if someone hasn’t painted that a bad mint green.

      I think flippers thinks the house looks better but all see is future maintenance. Also, it cost them a pretty penny to paint that and unless the brick is but-ugly (and some are) I can’t see why they wasted the cash. I assume they think it improves curb appeal with translates into more cash.

      And Todd is right – they need to work on that area above the window where the porch was removed – the bad paint job (and possibly bad fix) just calls attention to that and may make potential buyers go – I am going to have to pay to fix that.

      • how much does painting a house cost?

        and how much does re-pointing brick cost?

        if you don’t know the answers to these questions you are way off base saying that painting will increase future maintenance costs.

        • Yeah, but you’d have to re-point the brick a small, small fraction of the times you’d have to paint it.

          • Exactly. Re-painting, unless there has been an exceptional job done on surface prep, is on a five to seven year cycle. Re-pointing is like every two decades, and can be spot-patched. With paint, once one spot gets bad, you have to re-paint the whole thing, while it’s just the opposite with re-pointing. Much of the mortar in these rowhouses has never been repointed and is in perfectly fine condition.

            I’m not a fan. Flippers do this only because it is a fast and cheap way of making a place look much “cleaner” or “nicer” in the short term.

          • if we accept your comments as fact, that’s a $2,000 paint job every 7 years, or $6,000 every twenty, vs. $14,000 every 20 years for repointing.

            the fact is that paint protects the mortar from water. my rowhouse is an incredibly persuasive empirical example of this fact. dc is full of rowhouses that have been painted for decades with no harm to the brick.

  • I don’t really care for the shade of the original brick. The gray looks much nicer, I think.

  • Those houses weren’t constructed to maintain the exact uniformity they were built with. Painting them is a tradition by design.

  • The former orange brick-white windows combination looks dated – I really like the gray with the black, quality windows. I also hope I am not simply being swayed by a fad.

  • I think the black windows with original brick might have been interesting. But People want their house to stick out in a row. Painting does this. Also the large porch roof was shortened. Sad, there is nothing better than a big front porch but it seems to have been done to allow and entrance to a basement unit, The brick under the original porch roof looks rough possibly another reason why painting was done. With that being said, a pretty classy flip, other fippers in DC specially Brookland should take note.

  • The first house to be painted on our block got ‘flipper yellow’ when the renovators got a hold of it. Unfortunately, all the houses on that side have the rust-red bricks with recessed mortar, and the yellow looks terrible–very jarring. But more to the point, the flippers painted the house to hide the terrible condition of the mortar, and I really feel sorry for the new owners.

    So first, if you feel you have to paint, point first. Don’t compound problems for these old row-houses. Second, if you happen to be on a block with uniform brick color, do your neighbors a favor and pick a color that t least looks like it belongs. In this case, a burgundy red or tan would have been better.

  • Well it needs a second coat…that’s for sure. Crappy paint job.

  • I’m definitely pro-brick. Especially the nice flecked brick on this house. Glad I prevented my developer from painting over it.

  • Most brick buildings of this era were not intended to be painted and use a soft lime based mortar. The paint, as someone previously said, is hard on this mortar and can cause moisture problems. It may not in every case, but as a general practice, it’s not the best idea. And many flippers do indeed paint to hide poor mortar conditions because tuck pointing is expensive – although a good investment considering it lasts about 90 years. Are there many houses that have been painted with seemingly no adverse effects? Sure. Although look closely at many of those and you will see layers of paint, mortar and other repair materials that may have been avoided if the building had just been properly pointed to begin with.

    Why condemn yourself to years of repainting when you don’t have to? Tastes change to be sure, but if the brick has not previously been painted and is in reasonably good condition, it should really be left alone.

  • LOVE It!

    Not my choice in colors in this case but it works well. We are struggling with what color to paint ours, but loooove the painted brick.

    • So are we. We are waffling between medium gray with black and burgundy trim and dark navy with white trim. If we had natural brick, I probably wouldn’t touch it (unless it was the ugly sand beige brick), but unfortunately our house was already painted bright red…ugh.

  • The bricks were beautiful. The grey is hideous. I really don’t understand how anyone could prefer the bland to the classic. To those who say these bricks were meant to be painted, that’s clearly not true because the original builder never painted it, nor did any over the ensuing hundred years. Also, it looks like there are some mortar problems on the upper level. So, this house was likely painted to mask problems from the buyers. A really sleazy move.

    • “To those who say these bricks were meant to be painted, that’s clearly not true because the original builder never painted it, nor did any over the ensuing hundred years.”

      We’re talking about a Petworth row house. They weren’t built one at a time, and are distinct for being built identically by the thousands for blocks upon blocks ( For over the little less than 100 years they’ve been around (they were built in 1919), inhabitants have, as expected, modified their own to taste. They’re were developed to be affordable and modifiable, and while many of the thousands made have survived unchanged, the neighborhood is known for having colorful blocks of customized shells.

      Having said that, the bricks on most are usually a bland beige; the ones on the house above are unusually rich in color.

      • I really fail to see how your post about Petworth row houses in general refutes my comment about this particular Petworth row house. As I said, the original builder didn’t paint it, and so plainly the original builder didn’t intend for it to be painted. Your response is a non sequitur. But thank you anyway.

        • who cares what the ORIGINAL builder wanted. This is not a museum piece or a historic landmark — it’s a freaking house. paint, gut, do whatever you want once you own to make you happy.

  • I don’t hate painted brick, but when I see a grey, yellow, or beige house, I automatically think: flipped; especially if it has a blue front door. I wonder if future generations will look at painted brick the way I look at painted molding, “what were they thinking? the natural material looked great before the paint.”

  • Non-painted on this house looked better.

  • Definitely pro-paint. It looks much nicer, cleaner and up to date.

    • “Cleaner and up to date,” meaning a trendy 2013 aesthetic that will look dated in 10 years, whereas the original brick is classic and timeless.

  • how is the paint “masking problems” from buyers? we are sitting here looking at small fuzzy pictures and identifying problems with the bricks.

    And again I categorically reject the idea that it is cheaper to leave brick unpainted. I recently had the unpainted back of my rowhouse re-pointed with historically accurate mortar and it cost me $14,000. A bid to paint the front and side of the house came in around $2,000, but I’m not going to bother since the paint is actually in pretty good shape even though it’s at least 10 years old. Clearly nothing is going wrong with the mortar behind the paint since it is obviously in the exact same condition it was in when painted.

    • You sure about that? Did you talk to the mortar? Ask how it feels on the inside?

      • yes, it is clearly intact behind the paint, unlike the exposed mortar which has been eroded by water (or was until I spent $14,000 repointing it)

  • Will someone post a pic of a yellow painted brick house? That sounds like a really bad idea. Unless it’s a really pale yellow. I do like a yellow door though. This house could use a door ofa different color, like yellow or green.

    • Flipper yellow is a soft yellow.

      • My house is “flipper yellow,” although I didn’t know that was a thing until reading this post. A few houses across the street are also a similar shade of yellow, and they were indeed flipped around the same time. Ours is a soft, creamy yellow. I actually like it, and we will probably choose a similar shade when we repaint next year. We painted the door bright red.

  • I prefer painted brick as well. I like the gray used here. I also like the dark navy blue color, I’ve seen on some other flipped houses…..

  • gotryit

    Both look nice. Unpainted looks more traditional and painted looks more modern.

    It’s also not that hard to take off a layer of paint – I’ve seen it done across the street from me. They used a big bucket of gel paint stripper, rolled it on with paint rollers, waited a bit, then pressure washed it off.
    I don’t think the maintenance (either pointing or painting) is a big deal.

  • They might have had to paint it. I appears that they created a basement entrance and shortened the front porch. You can still see the porch line to the left. The brick might have been damaged and/or they had to put in new bricks where the roof joists were attached.

    • Yes, pretty much. To save money, sh*t bricks were used where the porch roof was attached. The developers back in the day figured, “What kind of numbskull would ever remove the porch roof?” You take out the porch roof, you expose the sh*t bricks, necessitating the VERY UNFORTUNATE paint job.

  • I am generally opposed to painting brick. I feel because it is essentially irreversible (without an enormous effort/expense) that it commits the building & neighborhood to a change that isn’t necessarily desirable for forever. In this particular case, I am completely opposed to the painting. This house already had a beautiful color, which is now lost. I know some people complain that brick is too typical and boring, but this is not a common brick type used in DC, so that claim doesn’t apply here. (Not to mention that grey paint is pretty broing too.) If the house heeds spricing up, absolutely paint up the trim, but leave the brick alone

    If I had had any input on this decision, this house would never have been painted.

  • I find these orange bricks far more attractive than the standard red, or “Washington dingy off-white” bricks that are pretty common around here. I’d never paint them, unless I absolutely had to, to hide mismatched bricks.

  • I’m generally anti-painting if the brick is in good condition for reasons already cited (unnecessary maintenance costs primarily).

    That said, I painted my house because the brick had terrible black water stains (from years of neglected roofwork– typical on the entire row) and it was a particularly gross shade of speckled gray that was only en vogue for a brief period of time in the 20s. Furthermore, my porch columns were in such bad shape that they had to be partially rebuilt and it was impossible to match the brick. All of these reasons led to me painting, and I have to admit, it looks far, far better now.

    Final thought– DC would be a very boring place if none of the houses were painted.

    • Also, that is one terrible paint job. Never go with the cheapest painters. Good painters won’t get paint from Home
      Depot and will apply a primer coat. Anything less will look like crap in no time.

  • You’re absolutely right; in this case, they should have kept the unpainted brick. Shame.

  • The paint damaging brick is pretty suspect.

    There are bricks all over the world that have been painted for years.

    It all comes down to personal taste. Dont let people with little evidence but a lot of words convince you. If it doesnt make sense, there’s probably a reason for that.

    • From a technical standpoint, the building envelope on a house like this is/was an active one. Mortar “erosion” in these houses over time is less due to an external source (albeit if there’s a external issue such as broken spouting, the erosion is external) than it was due the wicking of moisture from the innards of the building out. Under these well-maintained circumstances, eroded mortar is mortar doing its job — bricks made at that time were hard fired only on the face, so the brick itself was softer (certainly softer than contemporary bricks) and via the dynamics of freeze/thaw, sacrificing softer-than-brick mortar was preferred to the brick itself as water would wear out the mortar vs spalling the face of the brick. Following that thread, painting a house (as well as re-pointing with cementitious material) would trap the moisture inside wall and potentially force moisture into the brick itself, thus failing the brick. But as technologies “improved” over the years, these variables have changed the designed envelope of the building. In terms of the specifics of this question, that technology would be the HVAC system. This mechanical intervention now handles the internal moisture of the building, thus, to a certain degree, putting the mortar out of a job and making the painting to the degree of brick “health” a bit moot. (To the point of developers using paint to cover up issues, I’ve seen numerous “painters” use more caulk than paint on a facade.) But that said, once painted, the original integrity of the brick facade is gone forever. And although it seems that once a house on a block paints, the others paint and with all painted it’s not such a shame, painting any one house is a shame when the brick is otherwise quite perfect.

  • Latex, oil or mineral paint. Quick, which one will destroy your mortar. Hint: you can go with your gut and some of the ill-conceived opinions on this page, or look up what the National Park Service, GSA, or actual real masons say. Oh what the hell:

    Fools and their money, yada yada.

  • My house has that exact same brick color, and I like it a lot, so I will not paint it. I’m also a bit, um, frugal, and probably won’t want to pay the several thousand dollars every six-eight years to maintain it. That said, I may have to do the back of my house, where the brick was parged over and painted. It generally looks awful, so I hope to get that done soon. However, I think some of the painted brick houses look really nice, and I enjoy looking at the nice colors people have chosen.

  • At least they maintained a portion of the porch and roof. I can’t stand when these row houses are flipped and stripped of the front porch, e.g. the recent flips at 15th and Harvard.

  • I like it both ways in general, but probably wouldn’t have painted this particular house. That said, it is interesting how houses seem to be painted 90+ per cent of the time in DC’s most chichi neighborhoods (see, for example, Georgetown).

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