Dispute Resolution: Paint Color Mismatch

Handle this: the customer gave you the paint for the built-ins; it doesn't match the trim; now the customer wants you to fix it. (This time, the story has a happy ending.) February 10, 2009

So I'm in the process of installing a rather large built-in unit in a very nice residential home. The entire house had just been completely repainted; walls and trim. The built-in was supposed to be the same color as the trim. I confirmed what paint, sheen and brand with both the home owner and the painter. I even received a gallon of the paint which was used personally from the home owner.

As it turned out the paint color is not the same as the existing trim! So now the home owner expects me to redo the entire wall unit on site. If I didn't have two people confirming the paint I would have gladly made a sample as usual, but in this case the thought never once crossed my mind. Any thoughts on how I should handle this?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
You would have been smart to show a sample with their paint before you finished anything. Both the owner and the painter are doing the CYA dance now. You will probably have a hard time getting this to work in your favor. Now to the most important question, did you get the owner or the painter to sign off on the paint you were given? Hopefully you can get this problem solved in under what your profit margin was.

From contributor L:
If they gave you the paint the deal is done. Oh, I'm sorry, I gave you the wrong color. But because it doesn't match you need to do this over at your expense -not. If the homeowner gave you the paint how is it even possible that it is your fault. They are just trying to screw you out of money.

From contributor T:
If the owner handed you a gallon of paint and said "use this" then he or she is responsible for whatever error ensued. Getting them to accept responsibility is another matter. If they can't live with it and insist it be repainted, then the question is can it be repainted on site with a brush? Then again, you may be digging a deeper hole - "now we don't like the brushed-on paint; this is fine cabinetry and we expected a fine spray finish." You get my drift.

Is it white when it should have been red, or just off by a shade? You need to determine what the customer really wants: a different color, or a break on the final payment? If they're trying to cheat you and using this as a false motive, take a couple doors and then stand your ground - final payment in cash in exchange for the doors. I always get a paint spec in writing, but if a customer hands me the paint, there would be no point to that.

From contributor W:
Give them an estimate for repainting – it’s that simple.

From the original questioner:
Yeah, it’s a sticky situation! The color which was given to me is a "bone white" while the molding color is more "bright white". The easiest solution is to paint the molding the same shade as the built-in. Everything is installed and the finish looks amazing. It was sprayed off site, laying horizontally and in a controlled environment. I've never had to refinish anything especially not in an upright assembled position. I really want the customer to be happy, but I really don't see any direct fault on my part. Yes, I should have made a sample with their paint but being handed a gallon of paint eliminated that step in my mind. The worst thing is that I'm owed more than $8k!

From contributor E:
I always thought that doing residential work is the hardest because people think that you should finish it. We are cabinet makers not painters. It is a completely different trade.

From contributor K:
Tail and dog, and who is wagging who? It’s sort of like repainting the Maserati to match the trim in the garage. If they gave you the paint, it is their responsibility. The waiter brings out the wrong food - your fault?

From contributor D:
I agree. If homeowner gave you the paint, then it's not your fault. I think your idea to paint the trim to match the cabinet is the way to go. I would give them an estimate to do that. Hope it works out for you.

From contributor T:
I think you're the one who is at fault here, or at least you are the only one who can keep these types of things from happening in the future.

The customer does not have a lot of practice writing specifications or negotiating these kinds of contracts. You do this all the time as part of your job description. It is incumbent upon you to make sure there are no grey areas subject to interpretation and, in general, if they show up it's your job to absorb those costs.

This particular scenario does push the envelope a bit but if you step back and raise your analysis one click this type of scenario is actually very similar to many others.

A long time ago we had a situation in my shop that was analogous to yours. A pigeon had flown in and perched itself on the suspended light fixtures where it proceeded to poop on everything below it. After a couple of days of this I decided to bring down my pellet rifle. Fortunately for the bird one of our part timers came to work with the brilliant suggestion of turning off all the lights and raising the garage door. The problem was solved in about ten seconds thereafter. The lesson from this is that when customers see daylight in a contract they will fly for it. Know this and have a plan for it.

We've never provided paint but we used to do a lot of plastic laminate. Since nobody ever had a color selected on contract day that part of the specifications read "to be selected". It didn't take long for customers to interpret this as meaning they could use any exotic Abet Laminate from Italy or to select a chromatic sweep in five colors of blue.

We soon put together a friendly interpretation addendum to our specifications sheet. It now read “PLAM: color to be selected. We are happy to work with any color you want, and as many colors as you want. For purposes of this bid we presume one color, matt finish as supplied by Formica or Wilsonart.” We had similar language for grain selection and cabinet accessories.

In this particular instance I would probably start with contributor W's advice. I think in this case you could make a good argument for getting paid for repainting. Looking ahead I would recommend some more proactive contingency planning.

From contributor K:
If they provided the paint, and it is in the agreement that paint was SBO (supplied by owner), then it is 100% their responsibility. If it not specified in the agreement that it was SBO, then it's a "little" grey, but IMHO is still the customers responsibility as that is the color they not only picked, but personally (not the painter) provided for you to use on the project.

That's like picking the color for a new car to match your houses exterior trim (including garage door), and providing them the paint to boot, but then when getting it home, not liking that it doesn't match. Do you honestly think that the car company will paint it over again for free, even though they paint cars all the time? They would rightfully look at them and say - "this is the paint you provided".

My question would be, why did the painter use a different color than you provided me if you wanted it all to match? Or better yet, why did you provide the painter with a different color than you provided me? It kind of clarifies the situation.

I would politely remind the customers that they picked and also provided the paint to be used, and that you recommend that trim be painted, as the custom piece you built was painted in a finishing environment, and the results would not be the same being repainted onsite. Trim is painted on-site all the time, and being that it is, would be the best way to correct the situation.

At most, even if you buy into that "grey area" argument, the most I say you would offer would be to pay the painter directly one day’s labor to paint (customer supplies paint) the trim after you have received your final payment.

From contributor T:
It’s idiotic to suggest the original poster is at fault. Sure, he could have possibly prevented it, but only by acting illogically - producing a sample from the can of paint that the customer handed to him personally! Sometimes common sense really should prevail, and sometimes customers really are jerks. If a customer specifies a textured or patterned laminate (to use your example) based on a chip and then says the countertops don't look like quite the chip (which is often true), then you would be at fault for not bringing the customer in to see the whole sheet in your shop and approving that, right?

From contributor L:
The only thing I can think of that might have changed the color of the paint is thinning. If you had to thin the paint a lot to get it to flow through your gun, then there is a good chance that the color you sprayed will be lighter than out of the can with brush. Live and learn.

From contributor S:
Is it possible that the painter used a different paint on the trim. Maybe he made a switch and forgot that you were using the other paint for the wall unit. If this is found to be true then he would be at fault and should repaint the trim to match the wall unit. You used what was given to you, and therefore should not be at fault.

From contributor J:
Tell the homeowner you're going to have to back charge whoever gave you the "wrong" paint and see what he says.

I mean, really - ask him. Did he give you the paint? Did he give you the right paint? Did he give you the wrong paint? Make him own up to his or the trim guy's screw up.

From contributor Z:
If you were to take this situation and try to describe it generically you'd find that there are three salient elements:

1. Customer is a jerk.
2. Customer's expectations were not managed well.
3. Customer is in charge of interpreting the grey area - they still hold the check.

These are not uncommon events which means nobody would surprised if (when) they show up again. None of this is new information either. We've all had this type of problem in the past and not so distant past. This situation is a little more interpretive because the customer furnished the paint but clause 1 and 3 are still in effect. My recommendation was merely to raise the analysis a click and instead of focusing on just this problem try to solve this type of problem.

From contributor B:
The answer to your questions are simple. But first answer the following question: did you in any way chemically alter the paint the customer gave you? If your answer is yes, it is your fault for not providing samples to be approved. If your answer is no, and the paint went straight from the can to the wall unit, it is someone else’s fault.

How should you handle this? If you answered yes: offer to paint the trim the same color as the wall unit at your expense. Explain to the customer the benefits of doing this as opposed to painting the wall unit on site. Paint the trim and get paid. Or, remove the wall unit and do whatever is necessary to deliver what was promised, at your expense, and then get paid.

If you answered no: explain this to the customer and get paid. Then, offer to paint the trim the same color as the wall unit at your customer's expense with customer supplied paint. Explain to the customer the benefits of doing this as opposed to painting the wall unit at your shop. Or offer to paint the wall unit at your shop at your customer's expense.

FYI, paint purchased in gallon containers often vary in color from one can to the next. This is why you should always mix all the cans together prior to painting. The manufacturer of the paint usually has this printed on the label.

From the original questioner:
Thanks everyone for your input. I'm working this out with my client, who is being somewhat reasonable. One of the biggest issues is her celebrity designer, who has mandated that the built-in be the same color as the trim. So I did suggest repainting the trim to the built-ins color. But apparently that just wouldn't work with the wall color.

The paint was not altered with the exception of a couple of oz./quart of "flowtrol". Typically I make a sample of the chosen paint/stain color on a piece of the chosen wood, score it in half, have the client sign it (paint sign up) then break the sample in half. So I get a piece and the client gets a piece. Go figure that the one time that I don't do this, I get worked over. At least I did get a check for all but 10% of the remaining balance.

From contributor L:

Well there is your answer folks. It wouldn't matter if the color was spot on, the designer is trying to look big and trying to show the client that she has earned her money.

From contributor G:
Fix it, get over it. Then look for other projects with the same "celeb designer" so you can make some real money.

From the original questioner:
I believe that even after this paint color issue is resolved, this designer will still appreciate that the work is clean and precise.

From contributor U:
I was going to chime in and agree with contributor Z until you indicated that you actually used their paint on the cabinets. I thought they gave the paint so you could compare with the paint you had made up for the job. I may have let my guard down in that case also.

Contributor Z is right though, you need to idiot proof yourself. So I think next time you know what to do, but this time you have enough ground to stand on to get paid. I mean, come on, you used the paint they gave, and you were not off a shade or two because of your application process, they gave the wrong color.

From contributor R:
I've been following and am surprised at some of the things that have not been mentioned. I learned a long time ago the hard way that just because someone gives me ''their finish'' does not mean it is right. Besides the solvent issue touched on in an earlier post, there are so many other factors that can and will effect paints and stains such as but not limited to; age of the finish - maybe what is new out of the can will match the old in six months, humidity and temperature being different at given application times, application techniques not the same from one guy to the next, unlike sanding processes, sunlight exposure, lighting, the list goes on and on. You never know what the original painter may have blended together just to finish the job.

From contributor C:
Put a lien on the house. When you get paid, then you can talk about refinishing it. If they don't pay, foreclose on the house.

From contributor E:
Contributor C brought up a very basic concept - the preliminary notice. In California the contractor or subcontractor is required to send a "Preliminary Lien Notice" to the owner. This lets the owner know that the subcontractor is a professional and will require that he be paid at the end of the job.

From the original questioner:
I'm finishing up the repainting of this mess. It wasn't that bad after all. It only took 1.5 days. The homeowner agreed to half of blame and will pay me a bit for the extra work. More importantly they’re happy and therefore retain my referral privileges with them. So I guess the moral of the story is always, always make a sample and keep your cool with the client.