If a room has no flaws--it's not too sunny and the walls are perfectly smooth--it's easy to find a good, inexpensive paint. For other rooms, finding the right paint will take work. No paint does everything well, our tests show.
Many paints among the 63 we tested, including some top scorers, were poor for fading and are not the best choice for a sunny room. Other top brands left an irregular surface--fine if you're trying to mask minor flaws in the wall, but not if you want a smooth finish. Others didn't clean up well.
The reason for such variability is that paint manufacturers constantly readjust formulas to improve performance, cut costs, or comply with environmental regulations. Reformulations might improve paint in some ways, but detract in others.
For example, Ace Sensations, a flat-finish paint with Scotchguard from Ace Hardware, is supposed to resist stains. In our tests with grease stains, many other paints did better. But Ace Sensations performed well for other attributes.
Manufacturers continue to try making color selection easier and more accurate. Sample-sized jars, pouches of paint, and oversized paint chips give a bigger picture. Color-matching computers add science to the art: You supply a sample tile or a swatch of upholstery fabric, for example, and the computer comes up with a paint tint formula. But it is not an exact science, we found. (See You Need to Know, page 41.)
HOW TO CHOOSE
See First Things First, below, to size up your room. These should be among your considerations:
What gloss where? Shine is part style, part function. Semigloss paints put a durable finish on trim and shelves. In hallways and kids' rooms, low-luster paints are the best choice because many are very good at resisting stains and most do not scrub off when cleaned. Flat paints are best for low-traffic areas.
Choose the right color. Make the most of color-sampling products and services. Tape sample chips where you will see them in morning, afternoon, and evening light. Try retailers' color-matching computers, but be prepared to spend some time to get the color right.
Color intensifies on large areas, so if it's a toss-up between a darker and a lighter shade, go lighter. Gloss level also affects color. Flat paints and textured walls absorb light, so colors seem darker.
Buy the top of the line. Tested paints are the top of each manufacturer's line. We have found that lower grades do not perform as well.
Be flexible. A color does not have to precisely match the green leaf in the draperies. To look good, it needs only to be in the same color family Note whether the green has an undertone of yellow or blue. A paint with the same undertone will look good even if it's lighter or darker.
First things first Six room challenges, and the best paint to tackle them.
1 Flawed walls. Whether there's cracked plaster or visible drywall taping, always use paint with a flat finish. A glossier paint will emphasize imperfections.
2 Drastic color change. Your new house has a purple room and you're an off-white kind of person. Drastic color change, especially light over dark, calls for exceptional hiding ability. Many models in the Ratings are excellent for hiding with two coats.
3 Blotchy mildew, Paints sometimes contain a mildewcide to prevent mildew in damp bathrooms, laundry rooms, basements, and the like. Before painting, clean the area with a mild solution of one part chlorine bleach to three parts water. When the area is dry, apply a paint that scored very high for mildew resistance. Consider using an eggshell or semigloss finish instead of a flat finish; should mildew reappear, it may be easier to clean.
4 Tired trim. Glossy paints are best for doors, baseboards, and other trim because scuffs and stains clean up fairly easily. But some glossy paints remain tacky long after they are fully dry. Look for paints that scored well in sticking resistance to prevent balky windows and knickknacks that stick to shelves.
5 Lots of sun. Sunlight that floods a room can fade colored paints. Blues and yellows are notorious for fading, though other colors fade, too. Choose brands that resisted fading in our tests and consider colors without yellow tones, which are safer.
6 Telltale walls. Mudrooms, stairways, and kids' rooms don't get much TLC. Go with low-luster finishes, such as satin, that resist staining and, when stained or scuffed, don't come off when you scrub. Note paints that scored best for changes in gloss level. Significant changes in sheen can be as unsightly as a stain.
you need to Know
COMPUTERIZED COLOR CAN MISS THE MARK
You might think that if you use a paint store's computerized color-matching service, it will find the perfect paint, whether you're trying to match tile or existing paint.
But a perfect match is elusive, our tests show. We brought a shiny maroon bathroom tile to 10 stores in the New York metropolitan area that carry top-selling paint, asked them to match the color, and bought what they recommended. Many were close, but only one was right on the mark.
For each brand in our tests--Behr, Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, True Value, and Valspar--we bought paint at two stores in the same chain (Lowe's stores for the Valspar paint, for example). We found differences among formulas and mixes, even between stores in the same chain.
One Benjamin Moore paint was the closest match, but the same brand from a different store was among the worst. Tweaking is the trick. The paint expert who mixed the best-matching Benjamin Moore adjusted the computer-specified tints for an hour until she was satisfied.
Bottom line: Computer color matching is worth a try, but don't expect perfection. Some retailers will not give you a refund on a paint you deem a bad match. So ask them to work with you to adjust the tint.
Best overall in all gloss levels:
1, 26, 47 Behr $20 to $23
2, 28, 49 Kilz $16 to $18, CR Best Buys
4, 27, 50 Valspar $18 to $22
9, 32, 54 Dutch Boy $13 to $16, CR Best Buys
The Dutch Boy is the least expensive brand, but in the flat finish (9) it was less stain resistant. Many of the paints faded.
Best for walls that take a beating; all are CR Best Buys:
27 Valspar $19 (low-luster)
28 Kilz $17 (low-luster)
31 True Value $18 (low-luster)
32 Dutch Boy $15 (low-luster)
These had the best combination of scores for staining, scrubbing, and gloss change. Valspar (27), however, was the only one in this group that didn't fade.
Best for …