A can of paint, a brush, some rags, a ladder, and you. Painting projects can turn you into a home improvement artist, transforming a room or providing an exterior makeover at the cost of creativity instead of cash. But before taking the painting plunge, consider the following:

Inside or outside? Inside there are solid floors, reachable ceilings, and uniformly bright, working light. Outside, uneven ground makes it difficult to set ladders and reach roof overhangs. Nature isn’t your friend here either: Morning dew can cause paint adhesion problems and storms can ruin still-wet paint.

One room or the whole house? Applying one coat in one room is a reasonable DIY Saturday project (especially if you have help). If you multiply the time spent moving furniture, prepping walls, and sanding old trim by the number of rooms in the house, you might want to hire folks in painter’s overalls. It’s the same outside. You can probably tackle one garage wall that needs a little scraping and sanding, but covering all surfaces of the house is usually best left to a pro.

One or two stories? Painting one story may be within the scope of a DIYer. Two stories means extension ladders and scaffolding—probably contractor territory.

New work or repair? If a remodeling contractor leaves smoothly finished drywall, prep work is eliminated and the painting can begin. The same-sized project can take twice as long if walls or siding need a lot of scraping, spackling, and sanding.

Same color or stark change? Repainting with a similar color rarely requires more than spot priming and one finish coat. Dramatically changing the color usually requires at least two coats, doubles the painting work, and generally necessitates extra time for drying.

Mostly walls or woodwork? A roller makes quick work of unobstructed walls. Rooms with wide baseboards, elaborate window casings, and cornice molding at the ceiling demand more time and effort. Ample trim means a lot of brushwork—even more so if the job includes cabinets and shelves—and edges into the realm of professionals.

First-rate or second-best? Take a look at painting projects you’ve tackled in the past. Is the trim as smooth as you would like it to be on the new project? Are the walls uniform and free of lap marks? If you want results that may be difficult and time-consuming to achieve solo, hire a good contractor.

To help you find a pro who will do the job right, use Checkbook’s ratings of local painters. For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area painters to Inquirer readers via Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Painters.

Have several reputable contractors inspect the job and provide proposals. You’ll likely find huge price differences.

A Checkbook undercover shopper got bids for two separate jobs: (1) Re-caulk and repaint all exterior wood trim, including 27 windows, on a two-story 3,000-square-foot home; and (2) Repaint the walls, ceiling, and trim for a foyer, hallway, two bathrooms, two stairwells, and three bedrooms.

Prices include paint and supplies. For the exterior work, prices ranged from $1,830 to $6,800—a difference of $4,970. For the interior work, prices ranged from $1,175 to $4,780—a difference of $3,605.

Don’t assume that low prices signify lousy work: Checkbook finds that companies that perform top-quality work are just as likely to quote low prices as companies that do shoddy jobs.

Ask companies to include all details in writing. Although that sounds simple enough, too many contractors submit just dash off “paint house for $3,000.” A friendly contractor may offer a reassuring handshake and promise that the crew will take care of all the details—starting on time, working every day, cleaning up, etc. That’s great, but why not include each point in the proposal?

Good contracts include descriptions of prep work and repairs; paint specs by brand name, type, color, and product number (check Consumer Reports’ paint ratings; in its tests, some relatively inexpensive paints performed better than more expensive ones and cost $10 to $20 less per gallon); number of coats; and a full description of the work, including frequently omitted items such as cabinet interiors and shutters.

Minimize delays by specifying that, weather permitting, work will be continuous. Get a payment schedule that minimizes the down payment—the more payment you can withhold until the end, the more leverage you’ll have to get the job done well and per your specs. Insist that contractors provide proof that they carry both general liability and workers’ compensation coverage.

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Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local housepainters until Oct. 6 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Painters.