Smart decisions about paint and finish can keep your tenants happy without breaking the bank. The key is to look at a few factors: the age of the units, the frequency of apartment turnover, and the market segment to which the property appeals. With that information, apartment owners can make the right decisions about what kinds of paint and finish products are right for the job.

“People often don’t want to make the transition to something new when they’ve found something they like,” said David O’Leary, president of Buyers Access, a product-purchasing organization that negotiates with leading paint suppliers for the multifamily property industry. “People have a passion about paint. And as a result they sometimes make less than rational decisions about the products they use.”

For example, one nonprofit apartment developer based in San Francisco was spending $16 per gallon to paint the thousands of units in their apartment portfolio.
To show the developer that high quality work could be done with a less expensive paint, O’Leary ripped the labels off several paint cans and asked the developer to test each of the differently priced products, some closer to the standard $5-per-gallon price.

“The paint they liked best was not their original paint, nor was it the most expensive,” he said.

According to Buyers Access, it costs an average of $480 per unit per year to repaint and finish a standard one-bedroom unit. To keep prices reasonable, focus on a few key facts when preparing to paint an apartment:

  • Understand what paint is right for the job.
  • Try to standardize: Touchups don’t often work across manufacturers, even if you think you’re using the same color.
  • Focus on consistency: Paint changes by region and is affected by climate. Colors and types that work in Arizona may not work in Ohio.
  • Ask manufacturers about extended warranties on their products.
  • Keep the resident profile in mind: Consider how rough residents are on the units and how often the units turn over.
  • Don’t assume you should spend a lot to get the best quality: Sometimes a middle-of-the-road flat paint is better for a mid-level apartment complex.
  • You don’t need to hire an interior designer to know that color is crucial in how your property is perceived.

“Color is the first place to go,” said Glenn M. Renner, vice president of architectural marketing for Sherwin-Williams Paint Stores Group, one of the largest paint suppliers to the multifamily property industry. Colors are often darker in older buildings, so consider freshening up walls with a bright cream or a warm swiss-coffee-colored paint.
In common areas, consider using strategically placed accent colors on trim or walls. To differentiate a property from the competition, consider using one paint type on the wall and a different type on the trim.

“If you’re up the street from someone that is doing a flat wall and a dull trim, try using crown molding or a higher gloss paint,” Renner said. “Small changes can make for a strong differentiation point.”

In many markets, owners texture the wall before paint is applied.

For example, after the contractor puts up drywall, an “orange peel” type of texture can be applied so the wall has a randomly placed mix of bumpy textures. The walls are then painted with primer and an eggshell sheen latex. The result is a durable and interestingly patterned finish that is better at hiding imperfections and at being repainted than a standard flat paint, said Jay Clark, a vice president at RTKL Associates, Inc., an architectural design firm.

Apartment owners might also consider sprucing up one wall in a common area with a dramatic finish, such as brick veneer. “We experiment with different patterns to give a room a different look, all without a lot of cost,” Clark said.