Last Updated on October 7, 2022 by Alex
By the time I was a senior in college the only thing I knew what that I wasn’t even remotely prepared to face making a decision about what career to pursue. So for two years I worked as a self-employed painter and made more money for less work than I ever thought was possible.
Watching my friends go to corporate interviews and take jobs in big companies literally made me shudder. Eventually I would go on to graduate school and develop a career as an environmental professional but it took a few years for me to find my direction and be happy with it.
In the meantime, I had to live and the easiest and most lucrative work I could come up with at the time was house painting. It was a decision I have never regretted.
Painting houses is something a lot of us learned as teenagers from our parents, and it’s something that everyone can learn because it frankly isn’t that hard. It just requires some basic skills, practice and attention to detail. With the proliferation of high quality YouTube tutorials the right information is at everyone’s fingertips. Being a self-employed painter is not only quite lucrative but has lifestyle advantages.
My Experience as a Self-Employed Painter
I advertised my services the old fashioned way—with flyers in people’s doors and mailboxes. On the flyer I identified myself as a college student (I started towards the end of the school year), stressed my reliability and low prices.
Typically I got two to three phone calls out of each 100 flyers I would distribute and one to two jobs.
Most of the painting was interior but occasionally someone needed an exterior job. Exterior painting was far more lucrative, once earning me $100 an hour, and usually coming in at about half that. But I never earned less than $20 an hour on interior jobs either.
Of course no one would pay that amount per hour if they were paying by the hour. I did all my work by the job. I learned on the job to estimate with a good degree of accuracy about how long and difficult a particular segment of the job would be—a kitchen, a bathroom, living room, etc. I would calculate a price for each room or section and add it all together.
Painting by the job is far superior to working by the hour as you know exactly how much you will make and the customer knows exactly how much they will pay. You can then work at your own pace, not worrying that the customer thinks you are slacking off.
Why did anyone hire me? To start with it was because commercial painting companies charged much more than I did. On the rare occasion when someone told me they had an estimate that was close to mine I would drop my price. I didn’t always get the job, but usually I did.
Self-employed painters have virtually no overhead fees, while companies have large costs. It isn’t hard to undercut them.
For a time I worked about two weeks a month and took two weeks off. I would make $2000-$2500 to cover my expenses for the month, then spend time doing other things.
It was a nice lifestyle. Many years later, I still miss it because I had money and freedom both, had no bosses and enjoyed the satisfaction of manual labor without having to sacrifice time for reading and other pleasures.
The cost of becoming a self-employed painter is negligible so if you think you might want to give painting a go, there is no reason to hold back.
You will need:
- A basic set of good brushes, including small cutting brushes-$20
- Rollers, pans and drop cloths-$22-$40 depending on how many drop cloths you buy
- A folding 6 footstep ladder—$100
- Paint scraper—$10
- Painters tape—6 rolls for $20
- A screwdriver for open cans of paint—$5
Total cost: under $200
Depending on the job you may need some other items like primer, sand paper, spackle or wood filler and putty knife, a drill and tape measure, and, if you are doing an outside job, a long ladder. But it isn’t necessary to purchase these items until you need them.
You will also need clothes appropriate for this work, which means clothes you don’t mind getting splattered with paint. You don’t need to go out and buy painter overalls.
You will also need to have a car. Without a car, it doesn’t make sense to be a house painter. Not only do you need to drive to the jobs, you need to lug around your painting gear and heavy cans of paint.
The crappier the car the better because you’re likely to make a mess from time to time, unless you are a lot neater than I am.
Find Your First Job
You can advertise yourself as a self-employed painter any number of ways but I recommend that you start with the lowest tech approach of all and the one I used: put flyers in people’s mailboxes or by their doors. Design the flyer yourself, make the flyer a bit catchy and emphasize reliability and being inexpensive.
Try to distribute 200-300 at a time and see how it goes.
Some neighborhoods are better than others. In my experience middle to upper middle class neighborhoods are the best. The lower income households can’t hire you and the high income households aren’t trying to save money.
Then put up flyers anywhere people congregate where it is allowed to advertise—churches bulletin boards, by grocery stores (some grocery stores still have boards) and so on.
And then of course online—Craigslist, etc. Here is a list of 50 ways to advertise for free online.
Go for it, but don’t rely on it. The door-to-door approach works well for a one person business like this.
What to Charge
There is no universal formula.
It depends on the local economy (I painted in Northern Virginia where incomes and therefore prices were high, and also in Syracuse, NY, where I earned less though still decently), the competition, and even the particular person you are dealing with.
I would sometimes get into negotiations that let me figure out where the client’s financial limits were. Since I only had to hit a low financial target each month myself I would take jobs that paid relatively little. By doing so I got more experience and another reference.
You can try using a calculator.
But my advice is try to find a few small jobs first so you get a feel for how fast you can get a certain kind of room done. Offer to paint a friend’s kitchen, or paint your own. Paint your parents’ garage or bathroom. Then go from there.
That said, an average size living room could go for $500, a kitchen for more, a bathroom for $300.
The most important thing to look at is not size—large surfaces go fast, no matter how big they are.
Instead, pay special attention to corners, window frames, doors and the like. These are time consuming.
Also, usually you will use a latex paint on the walls and an oil based trim paint for the windows and doors. This will take more time. So count the windows and doors.
In order to undercut competitors I would usually pick one relatively easy room in the job and calculate a nominal price for painting it, say $100.
As a self-employed painter it is pretty easy to outbid the competition because your costs are lower than those of professional painters. If you are in an area where there are a lot of self-employed painters you may need to go a little lower than you’d hoped but this is actually a pretty rare situation.
In a densely populated area there will be some self-employed painters like you, but usually not enough to put a downward pressure on what you can charge. Instead, it’s the professional painters who are setting the market price and these guys are easy targets.
Painting is Flexible and Fun
Being a self-employed painter is a fun job. You are your own boss and it is inherently satisfying to see work get done hour by hour, day by day. You can do it full time but it’s also a job for students or anyone who has a few days a week or weekends to spare.
Especially at a time when you should be preparing for the coming recession learning a new skill like house painting can mean the difference between getting crushed or making it through in better shape then you were when it started.
Painting is also relatively easy and only a little experience will go a long way. Anyone can learn to do it well, just pay attention and become detail oriented, at least as far as painting goes.
My last word of advice for any aspiring self-employed painter: take pride in your work and go as slow as you need to in order to do a good job. The jobs and money will come, and so will that one great job where you make a $100 or more an hour.