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The colors that pay off

Renovations & maintenance

On the TV show “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon had many imaginary arguments over the years but perhaps none more relatable than the one where she muses about the couples on the television show House Hunters: “Why can’t people look past paint color?”

The simple fact is, they just can’t, and a recent report from Zillow even pinned a number on it: sellers can make up to $5,000 more per sale by choosing the right hues. Namely, neutrals, whites and blues. So while it’s easy to imagine that it will be just fine to leave the living room that neat purple and the kitchen bright yellow, that’s emphatically not the case. 

Color experts can tell not only the best colors to positively impact resale value, but why color matters so much to potential buyers.

Bonus: Choosing the right paint colors is not only a great — potential DIY— tool in a prep-for-sale arsenal, it can be more affordable while having a bigger impact than other upgrades. Painting a room can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, even less if an owner picks up the paintbrush. 

As Zillow’s home trend expert Amanda Pendleton recently pointed out in an interview with a Jacksonville television station: “Painting a bathroom is relatively inexpensive and yet it could provide a big bang for your buck when it’s time to sell your home.”

Paint is everywhere, so choose carefully

Kristie Barnett, known as The Decorologist, is a color expert who specializes in the art of staging homes, and is a virtuoso when it comes to understanding color’s influence on home sales. 

“The thing about color is: paint color is everywhere, it’s all around you, it’s not like a sofa,” Barnett explains. “It has more of a visual impact than anything else. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the info that we take in visually is related to color. It’s a lot more important than people give it credit for.”

So if a potential buyer or tenant walks through the door and is confronted with a color they don’t like, that could doom the deal. 

“It takes 50 milliseconds to make a first impression,” continues Barnett. “Before you have time to cognitively think about it, you have a gut instinctual reaction. That’s why it’s so critical to make the best, most positive first impression immediately. Because once you make that first impression, you tend to search out info that confirms your initial hypothesis.”

Barnett cites the concept of confirmation bias — seeking out factors that confirm existing beliefs — as a central reason why color choices are so crucial. 

“If you walk in and love the color of the entry, you’re going to go around and look for the positives,” Barnett explains. “If instead you have a negative impression, you’re immediately going to walk through and look for all the flaws.”

Why neutrals are a smart choice

Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams, agrees that first impressions matter. 

“Interior paint colors are often the first thing potential buyers experience when they enter a home,” says Wadden, “and can entirely impact their experience and perception of the space. You want the buyers to walk into the home — especially the areas they will spend the most time in, like the kitchen and living room — and feel like they can envision themselves living there. You don’t want prospective buyers to stop and think, ‘I have to change everything.’ ” 

Wadden notes that, in particular, “warm, neutral paint colors that feel inviting but still leave room to appeal to several different design styles,” are ideal.

Neutral colors in common living areas empower potential buyers to mentally transpose their décor into a new home without any road blocks. “Anything that’s a neutral is what buyers want to see in the main areas,” says Barnett.

Arianna Cesca, a Benjamin Moore color marketing and development specialist, also warns against brighter hues.

“Using brighter or more saturated colors for resale can make it challenging for buyers to see past the color on the walls,” she said, “and understand how they can bring their personal style and preferences into a space.”

Barnett recommends choosing an “Anchor Neutral” — a single shade — for the entryway, hallway and main living areas. 

“That neutral is the common thread that weaves its way through a home,” she explains, “and establishes a cohesive color design.” 

Conversely, if there are a bunch of different neutrals in different rooms, Barnett cautions that this can result in “a warren of rooms that have no relationship and lots of choppy breaks across your visual field, which actually makes any space appear smaller and sometimes chaotic.”

The Zillow report singles out grey as the most convincing shade for the living room. While grey is a popular home decor color at the moment, be advised: not just any grey will satisfy the experts’ “neutral color” direction. Make sure it’s not a dark, saturated grey that dominates the space. (Consult the Guide to the Right Colors below for recommendations from the experts.)

White is a safe bet for the kitchen

The Decorologist

(Credit: The Decorologist)

Zillow names white as the “best bet” for the kitchen.  

“White represents purity in color psychology, making it a perfect pair for the kitchen space,” Wadden said. “It acts as a blank canvas, allowing you to add your own creativity.”

Barnett emphatically agrees, but it’s not just the kitchen walls that make the difference. “White kitchens sell,” Barnett says. “That means white painted cabinetry. It goes back to the neutral thing, you can do what you like in a kitchen with white cabinets.”

At the same time, Barnett advises against a sterile feel that can result from an all-white kitchen. “You don’t want it to look like an operating room,” she says. To combat that, Barnett suggests painting the kitchen ceiling in a neutral that mirrors the veining in quartz and marble countertops.

Blues work well in bedroom and bathrooms

The Decorologist

(Credit: The Decorologist)

Zillow singles out blues for these crucial rooms, which makes sense according to Barnett, based on the preferences of both women and men. She notes that a Kissmetrics breakdown of color preferences by gender finds unequivocally that both genders are fond of blue above all other hues.

Light blues are a good pick for these rooms because they evoke a spa-like feel. Cesna explains that “blue has always been a popular color family — serene, versatile, and inviting — it checks all of the boxes.”

However, Zillow’s recommended dark blue for the bedroom may be a bridge too far. Barnett calls it “taste-specific,” and Zillow itself noted that it’s a “bold” choice, which would undermine the basic premise that a potential buyer needs to picture themselves in the space. 

“If people are looking to experiment with darker paint colors, blue is a great option to consider,” Cesna advises. “Although a bolder color statement, dark blues can be enveloping and cozying, which works great for bedrooms.” 

Experts recommend sticking to the light blue family of colors for the master bedroom in an investment property. On the other hand, if it’s a main residence, the bedroom would be the best place to try out a darker color.

“Paint colors can help set the foundation for a relaxing experience in the bathroom,” says Wadden. “Whether it’s five minutes in the morning to get ready or an hour at the end of the day to unwind. Using soft blue paint colors can create a calming and soothing environment while remaining fairly neutral.”

How to make that light, calming blue even more appealing? Barnett says: “Do the master and adjoining bathroom in the same color, because then it feels more like a suite.”

Experts advise bypassing the trendy colors 

Simply put, stay away from trendy colors. These can act as roadblocks that will prevent potential buyers or tenants from easily imagining themselves in the home. 

  • Skip the blush pink
  • Avoid all bright, saturated hues
  • Bright yellow, bright green and pink are egregious offenders

Even the so-called colors of the year should be avoided. According to experts, it can take quite a while for trend forecasts to trickle down to everyday preferences in a meaningful way, if they ever do. As Barnett says, a new color of the year “is not going to help you.”

Combine colors to make a home memorable

With such a strong emphasis on neutrals, it’s easy to assume that the best approach is to choose a single neutral and be done with it. Barnett cautions against this.

“What does not work for selling houses is just choosing one neutral color for the whole house,” she points out. “The reason is that you cull color in memory more than anything else. If a person is touring and every room is the same color, it’s hard to differentiate in your memory. A flood of grey is not a good thing.”

Instead, Barnett recommends incorporating a couple of other hues in strategic spaces. 

“Additional paint colors in rooms like bedrooms, dens, offices, dining rooms — complete a home’s color story after that initial anchor neutral is established,” she said. “Those colors create memory points that give a home personality and distinction, while the anchor neutral is the thread that ties it all together cohesively.”

Barnett’s recommendations for a memorable home tour include “a darker blue, charcoal, or a dark muted green — which won’t be offensive. If you do the same neutral in every room, nothing stands out.”

Chances are, if a potential buyer walks into a home and is immediately turned off, paint color will have something to do with it. The use of color goes way beyond personal preference, into the realms of behavioral science and psychology. Understanding the impact color has will help any real estate investor make smart decisions when it comes to interior paint colors. Consult our Guide below for pinpoint recommendations by experts.

A guide to the right colors 

There are tons of colors to choose from, and even in the world of neutrals the choices can be quite overwhelming. Behr released an entire palette of a dozen colors based on the Zillow report. 

Here are Sherwin-Williams’, Benjamin Moore’s and Behr’s top picks to boost resale value.

GREYS Wadden notes that “gray tones are so versatile and act as a neutral backdrop for homeowners to decorate within their spaces.” Gray is considered a modern neutral, as opposed to a more traditional beige.

Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray SW 7029 and Modern Gray SW 7632

Benjamin Moore Stonington Gray HC-170, Horizon OC-53, Revere Pewter HC-172, Classic Gray OC-23, Gray Cloud 2126-60

Behr Silver Mine PPU26-18 Platinum PPU26-11

BLUES“We are seeing a lot of bedrooms incorporate colors inspired by the earth,” Wadden says. Cesca points out: “Blues and greens are often seen as calming, tranquil colors, and a popular choice for more of a spa-like feel.”

Sherwin Williams Naval SW 6244 and Sleepy Hollow SW 9145

Benjamin MoorePalladian Blue HC-144 and November Skies 2128-50

Behr Ethereal Mood MQ3-52

WHITES Cesca advises: “When trying to achieve an all-white-painted kitchen, we often recommend using the same color on multiple surfaces but in different sheens for a subtle contrast.”

Sherwin Williams Alabaster SW 7008, Shoji White SW 7042, Accessible Beige SW 7036

Benjamin MooreFor Cabinets: Chantilly Lace OC-65, Simply White OC-117

For walls: Swiss Coffee OC-45 or Seapearl OC-19,

Behr Polar Bear 75

RECOMMENDED NEUTRALS“Sample, sample, sample!” says Cesna. “Many factors including lighting, décor and surround colors in a space will affect how a paint color casts. This is especially true for white, neutral, and gray paint colors. With so many different sampling options now available, be sure to take the time to sample in your space before committing to a color.”

Warren says she has seen a recent shift to a palette that evokes the outdoors.

“We’ve also seen an uptick in interest in greens, which are super versatile, from calming sages to dramatic emeralds,” she added. “Lighter and more muted shades of green create a calming and soothing effect, especially next to a classic white.”

Sherwin Williams Sanctuary SW 9583, Symmetry SW 9601, Evergreen Fog SW 9130, Cascades SW 7623, Pewter Green SW 6208

Benjamin Moore Coventry Gray HC-169Gray Owl OC-52

Behr Creamy Mushroom PPU5-13 and Brook Green N410-2

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