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If you're planning to paint the exterior of your house, one of the most important things you need to know has nothing to do with scraping, caulking and priming.

It's this: Paint-color chips are vicious little liars.

"Don't believe the paint chip. Never believe the paint chip," says historical-color specialist Robert Schweitzer of Ann Arbor, Mich., who tells the story about a homeowner who handed her painter what she thought was a gray chip, left town and returned to find her house was lavender.

Funny: The chip certainly looked gray indoors.

Not funny: The repainting cost $15,000.

Choosing the right exterior color can be daunting, Schweitzer says. "It's not like painting a wall or buying an ugly shirt." If you choose wrong, "it's a very expensive mistake."

The alternative is for you and your neighbors to live with it for the estimated five to eight years the paint job will hold up, if it's otherwise done right.

Maybe that's why so many people choose to play it safe. According to the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute, white is America's most popular exterior paint color (34 percent), followed by beige (28 percent), gray (15 percent), blue (7 percent), green and yellow (6 percent each).

Judy Stone-Gaynor says it took her nine months to decide on a new color for the Arts & Crafts-style home she shares with her husband, Skip, in Toledo, Ohio.

"It was a light baby-poop yellow," she says. Now the body of the house is an olive green, the trim is a sand color and accents are painted in two shades of brown. "It really looks great," she says. "Everything just flows together."

They worked with Schweitzer to select the colors, starting with a decision on a new roof shingle. Based on the colors in the shingle, he suggested seven color candidates for the body of the house.

They bought a quart of each color, slathered them on big pieces of plywood and propped them in front of the house, Judy Stone-Gaynor says. "We drove by, we walked by. It became part of our life to look at those colors."

After narrowing the seven choices to two shades of green, they painted a large square of each one on the back of the house and lived with them, through fall, winter and spring.

Once that choice was made, the colors for trim and accents fell into place, she recalls.

"We have people stopping left and right and asking us for our colors, but you can't use (the color scheme) on a Victorian or a Four-Square house. It just doesn't work."

That's because the architecture of your home should be the starting point for choosing an exterior color, advises Donna Schroeder, a color marketing and design manager for Dutch Boy Paints in Cleveland.

"A Cape Cod, a Craftsman, cottage, Victorian — all those have different color schemes," she said.

"Ask yourself: What is the style of your home?" Study pictures in books, brochures and online for homes that look like yours, Schroeder says.

Once you determine the palette that is appropriate for the architecture, take a look around the neighborhood. Older areas of a city generally have a wider variety of styles, she says. A hodgepodge means that "Sometimes you don't have to do what's expected." A boldly painted door or bright accents could be right at home.

"In the suburbs you tend to have more uniformity," Schroeder says. "There are a lot of neutrals, earth tones, khaki and tans, softer whites."

A turquoise door might be as welcome in such a neighborhood as a skunk at the block party.

Schroeder advises taking color cues from brick or stone accents on the house or patio. Looking at the colors you've used inside the house also may help.

There are three types of color schemes, she says: monochromatic (shades of a single color, such as dark, medium and pale blue); analogous (similar colors that are side-by-side on the color wheel, such as blue-green, green and yellow-green); and complementary (colors that are across from each other on the color wheel, such as red and green).

"Traditionally you see the darker colors on shutters and doors as accenting pieces, a lighter or medium tone on the siding and even lighter on the trim," she says.

A Victorian-style home can have five or more colors, she says.

Schweitzer, who has taught architectural history and historical preservation at the University of Michigan, the University of Toledo and Eastern Michigan University for more than 25 years, advises homeowners to pick the body color first. To test a color, paint an area at least 4 feet by 4 feet on a piece of plywood. "You have to get it big enough to actually see the color," he says.

Schweitzer, who works with clients across the country, says he uses a 27-item checklist to come up with possible colors for a home. The list includes such factors as the roof color, the direction the house faces, the amount of ornamentation and neighboring houses in addition to the style and age of the home.

(Examples of his projects can be found on his Web site, www.historichousecolors.com. His client homes have been seen on the TV shows "Restore America" and "Curb Appeal.")

Schweitzer says his fee is $550 for home color consulting, which includes diagrams for painters to use as a map to make sure each color is applied in the right place.

"It was the best money we ever spent," Judy Stone-Gaynor says. The couple paid $400 for the service in 2002.

"People don't know how to get at what they like," Schweitzer says. They can recognize a house that looks awful, but can't look at a well-done job and say why it looks so good.

"One of the big problems is, they find a house they like and try to translate that to the colors of their house, and they aren't related (in style) at all," he says.

Sometimes the translation gets garbled because the proportion of body color differs so much from one house to another. A deep pumpkin might look great on a house with only 30 percent of the body color showing on the front of the house. But cover 80 percent of the front of the house in that color and it'll look like the world's biggest jack-o'-lantern.

Take pictures of your house and study them, he says. What percentage is the roof color, the body color, trim and accents? "Break down the pieces," Schweitzer says.

Just as you shouldn't trust a paint chip, he says, don't base color selections on an online color-visualizing program. Although it's great fun to "repaint" a house with a click of the mouse, the colors you see on your computer might not be true.

Once the hard work of color selection is done — and before the first drop of paint is applied — comes the even harder work of getting the surface ready for its transformation.

"The most important thing when it comes to painting your home is the prep work that goes into it," says Schroeder of Dutch Boy Paints. "It doesn't matter what color you paint it if there's damage underneath and you don't take care of that."

Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.