How to start up a painting business

A painter on scaffolding painting sash windows white

A painter on scaffolding painting sash windows whiteIf you've got practical skills and are looking for a varied working pattern, setting up as a decorator might be an option for you. Our guide gives you all the essentials for starting up and running your own painting and decorating business.

Price your services

You'll need to decide how you will charge for work done. For example, you might:

  • charge for your services on an hourly or daily basis, adding to this the cost of any materials that you supply
  • base your charges for certain types of jobs on the size of the area to be decorated
  • quote on a 'fixed price per job' basis; you might, for example, have a standard charge for painting, say, the outside of a three bedroom semi

You may decide to use different methods of costing for different jobs, depending on who the customer is and what the job is like.

It is very important that you set your charges carefully. You must make sure when deciding on what to charge that, assuming you get enough work, you will earn enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your drawings. Decorating is time consuming and labour intensive, so make sure when you set your prices that you will be working for a reasonable hourly rate. The same goes for any staff you employ - be sure that you will earn a reasonable margin for the business on top of the wages you pay them.

Also consider the following points when setting your charges:

  • what do your competitors charge for similar work
  • do you aim to win business away from your competitors with attractive pricing (this may be particularly important if you want to tender for contract work, for example)
  • will you vary your rate depending on the type and complexity of the work involved
  • will you offer special trade rates to clients such as local authorities and building contractors
  • will you build in wet weather contingency when pricing for outdoor work

Quote or estimate

If you give a quote for a job, that is a fixed price. Once it has been accepted by the customer the price can't be changed, even if there is a lot more work to do than you realised when you prepared the quote. So your quotes should give precise details of what is covered and make it quite clear that any variations or extras not covered by the quote will be charged for as extras.

An estimate is not a fixed price, it is just your best guess of what the job is likely to cost. You are not bound by it. It is perfectly acceptable to provide several estimates, each taking into account different circumstances from best to worst case scenario.

Where necessary explain to customers what could lead to the price for a job having to change - for example the discovery of crumbling plaster behind old wallpaper or previously undetected asbestos. And if the customer asks for extra work to be done during the course of a job, be clear about how this will affect the overall cost.

It is usual to provide estimates and quotes free of charge on a no-obligation basis. You might, though, decide to make a charge for more complex and time consuming consultancy work - perhaps you will refund this charge if it leads on to a substantial contract.

Special trade rates

Clients that are other businesses might expect you to offer them a special trade rate. Large organisations that invite firms such as yours to tender for contract work will also expect your rates to be very competitive. So you may decide to price work for trade clients in a different way to domestic work.

Think carefully about whether or not scaffolding will be needed on a job, and be clear about whether your quote includes this cost. Health and safety legislation means that there are strict limits on the types of work at height that can be done off a ladder.

Be aware that many of your clients will get quotes from several decorating firms, so you need to be able to quote accurately and competitively. However, don't cut your own throat. Many clients value good, efficient service and are prepared to pay a realistic price for it. Above all, make sure that you don't end up working at a loss because your quote was too low!

Special guides are available to help you when pricing painting and decorating work. They include details of paint coverage and give up to date advice on what rates to charge for particular types of jobs.

Research your target market

It's very important to research your market properly. Try to find out as much as you can about the level of demand for your services, and about how much competition there is to meet that demand.

Customers - who and how many?

Think about how many people are likely to use your services and why. Which of the following will your customers be looking for when choosing a decorator:

  • the best price
  • the highest quality work
  • the greatest breadth of service

Pay attention to the type of housing in your area. For example, are houses large or small? Are they old or new? Do they appear well kept or run down? Do the majority of exterior walls have a natural finish like stone, or are they painted? Are some buildings spilt into several flats? Is accommodation mainly owner-occupied or mainly rented? Is some owned by the local authority or by a housing association?

Which type of housing is likely to generate the most business for you? This will depend on the range of services that you offer.

Think about other buildings in your area. Shops, pubs, offices, factories, schools and so on will all require the services of a decorator at some point.

Once you have identified who are your potential customers, you could do a leaflet drop to advertise your services.

Trade customers

Large organisations who invite firms to tender for contract work may be reluctant to use a newly established business. Also, a young business may have difficulty in funding a large contract, as many things may have to be paid for well before any payment is received. But it may be worth finding out who is responsible for putting decorating work out to tender in large organisation such as housing associations and local authorities. Try to find out how the tender process works and what you would have to do if you wanted to tender for a contract.

Try approaching other businesses that might be expected to need a decorator's services. You could, for example, leave your details with local building contractors and interior designers. Use online directories such as Yell.com to find out about these types of business in your area. Look at local print directories too.

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your customers might be, you need to find out how well they are already served.

How many other painters and decorators are there in your area? A look through the relevant classifications on Yell.com and other similar online directories will give you an idea of how many painting and decorating businesses there are in your area. You could also look at local print directories. How many offer the same services that you intend to offer? These are your direct competitors. Check to see if any other types of business offer decorating services - what about interior designers and general builders?

Try to find out what your competitors are like. Sometimes you can get an idea of this from their advertisement in a directory or a local newspaper. You could also look at their website. Look at things like:

  • do they seem to be large, medium sized or small firms
  • what services do they offer
  • do they specialise at all
  • what sort of impression does their advertisement give you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and efficient, good value, upmarket)

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profiles

Depending on the range of services that you offer, you may have several different types of customer, for example:

  • home owners and landlords
  • other businesses (for example shops, pubs, offices and so on)
  • building contractors and property developers
  • housing associations
  • local authorities
  • other organisations (for example schools, colleges, the National Trust and so on)

You might also do some sub-contract work for other larger painting and decorating firms.

Some painters and decorators market their services by keeping an eye on local planning applications and sending a flyer to any applicants who they think might want to engage them.

How will your customers pay you

Some customers will pay you in cash, others by cheque, still others a mixture of both. Clients such as housing associations and local authorities will almost always pay you by cheque or by direct payment to your bank account. You might also decide to accept payment by credit and debit card.

You will probably ask your private customers to pay you when a job is completed, although you might sometimes ask for a deposit or interim payment on a large job.

Interim payments are a common feature of public sector and contract work, particularly when the contract is a long one. Final payment is usually received some time after the job is completed, depending on the terms agreed.

Some contracts may specify that a certain amount (often known as 'retention money') is held back for a given length of time, after which it is only paid if all the work is found to be complete and satisfactory.

Services offered

Like many painters and decorators, you may well find that you spend a large amount of your time decorating the inside and outside of private houses. Some of the decorating services that you might offer to home owners include:

  • basic painting - including brushing and rollering emulsion, glossing and spray-painting a range of different paint finishes
  • special paint effects (like rag rolling, marbling and so on)
  • traditional and heritage painting and decorating finishes
  • wall lining and wallpapering - and other wall coverings such as vinyl and fabric
  • minor repair work (for example plaster patching)
  • artexing and coving
  • floor coatings
  • tiling
  • decorative carpentry

You may well also undertake some or all of the above on trade contracts at premises like offices, shops, schools, factories and public buildings. You might decide to undertake specialist industrial jobs such as spray painting large areas like industrial units. Perhaps you intend to offer specialist services such as flood and fire reinstatement.

The range of services that you offer your clients will depend on your own skills and training - and on the equipment you have available. Some well qualified decorators advertise that they can undertake 'all aspects of decorating'.

You may decide to offer a range of other services if you find that there is demand for them. Some examples might include:

  • interior design service
  • site clearance (for example after building work has been completed)
  • waterproofing, mould treatment and de-humidifying
  • general building maintenance work

Some of these you may undertake yourself, others will require specialist input from an employee or sub-contractor.

Your work rate

Assuming that you get a steady stream of work, the amount that you can earn depends partly on the number of days you work and the length of your working day.

You may decide to stick to normal business hours, for example 8.30 am until 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and, possibly, 8.30 am until 1.30 pm on Saturdays. Or you may decide to work longer hours. Perhaps you are prepared to work very long hours when your services are in demand, taking some time off during quieter periods. There may be times when a customer wants you to work different hours - perhaps even overnight while a shop, office or industrial unit is closed or unoccupied.

If you have some experience as a painter and decorator, you should have an idea how long certain types of jobs will take you. It is very important when quoting for a job that you can make an accurate estimate of how long it will take. It's no good quoting for three days work if it ends up taking you five!

The speed at which you work depends on your own skills and experience, the type of work that you do and the quality of finish that you achieve. Your charges should reflect all of these things too.

Non-productive time

Unfortunately, not all of every working day will be spent earning money. Here are a few examples of reasons why you will sometimes find yourself working hard but earning nothing:

  • visiting sites to cost new work
  • finishing off jobs that take you longer than you had thought (possibly due to unforeseen problems)
  • re-doing faulty work
  • travelling to and from jobs, or to get tools or materials from a supplier
  • repairing tools or vehicles

Sometimes you will find that you are unable to work, because:

  • the weather is too bad to work outside and you have no inside jobs on
  • you are waiting for materials to be delivered
  • a vital tool or piece of equipment is broken, or your van is out of action
  • unforeseen problems crop up on a job - for example a building turns out to have serious damp problems
  • you are ill

Take all of these factors into account when you are estimating the maximum number of productive hours that you can work each month.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing decorating business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • tools, equipment and machinery are already in place
  • there are established customers
  • there may be ongoing contracts and/or upcoming work in the order book
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record which can help if you are looking for finance
  • staff may already be in place

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up.

Your market research into the sector as a whole and the locality in particular will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because he or she can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, plant, equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • the reputation of the business - it could be worth doing some searching on the web to see if you can find any reviews and comments from past customers
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller
  • who will be responsible for any call-backs from customers to rectify work done by the previous owner

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

If the business you're thinking of buying is a small one, look carefully at what you're actually getting for your money. Small decorating businesses may not have much in the way of assets, so you'll need to make sure you're getting good value if you're paying for things like goodwill, contacts lists and perhaps some ongoing long term contracts.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.