Peeling or alligatoring paint problems: How to fix them

Last Updated on May 29, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

If you buy an old house, chances are you will run into alligatoring paint, cracking or peeling paint, or a combination of those three problems. It’s tempting to just slap another coat of paint on top of the bad paint, and if you do, it will look better for a while. But it only takes a couple of years, or even a few months, for alligatoring paint problems to start coming back. In this blog post, I’ll talk about how to fix peeling or alligatoring paint.

I’ve had people tell me I needed to strip all the paint off one exterior wall of my house. I’ve had others tell me I needed to replace the siding entirely. Fortunately, there’s a better way. There’s plenty of advice out there on dealing with failing paint, but the problem is, nobody seems to mention where to buy the stuff you need.

The quest for the right primer

You can solve peeling or alligatoring paint problems with the right primer. Specialty primers will stick the paint back down. Then you can sand it a bit, then paint over it again to avoid having to strip all the old paint.

I found some advice that told me to scrape the loose paint away, then stabilize what was left with a high-build primer. After about 30 minutes of searching, I found a recommendation for a brand: Mad Dog primer. The reviews were glowing. I found an authorized dealer 30 minutes away. I drove there and found they no longer carry it, but they had two other brands, priced at $50 a gallon. Ouch.

I really didn’t want to pay $50 a gallon for something I knew nothing about. So I went looking for an alternative that might be cheaper, or at least more readily available.

I found one: Zinsser Peel Stop. Both of the major big-box chains carry it. Not every location has it, but at least they can order it for you. Pricing varies but it’s a lot less than 50 bucks a gallon. I paid $30.

Fixing alligatoring paint problems with the right primer

Conventional wisdom with paint is that new paint won’t stick down the old paint. That’s why you have to strip off the old, failing paint first.

But what if I told you that you can stick down the old paint? That’s what these primers do. They act like glue as much as they act like primer. You still need to scrape off the really big pieces that are about to flake off, but after you scrape, apply the primer with a brush. Really work the primer into the area near where it peeled, trying to get it under any loose edges that may be there.

For areas where a lot of paint peeled off already, brush a heaping coat of the primer into the void. Let it dry, then follow up with another heaping coat, and repeat as necessary until you get the void level with the surrounding paint. This is time consuming, but easier than trying to feather the edges to disguise the difference in thickness. High-build primer is a trick that car restorers use to deal with pitted, uneven surfaces. You can use the trick on a house too.

Even if you don’t have a lot of voids, it’s not a bad idea to roll on another coat or two of the primer to even things out a bit if the paint was severely cracked or peeling.

The primer remains slightly tacky after it dries, and it also has a lot of elasticity. Combined with a latex topcoat, the paint does a better job of expanding and contracting, making it hold up better over time. All of these primers say they can make a paint job last twice as long.

Concerns about lead-based paint

Being able to stick down the old paint is a boon on old houses, where some of the peeling, flaking paint may contain lead. Cracking, peeling paint means it’s oil-based. It doesn’t mean it’s lead. But people will assume any paint that’s failing is lead. I’ve had those conversations.

Lead paint won’t hurt anything if and only if it’s sticking to the wall and it’s covered with a modern, non-toxic paint.

If you’re a landlord, priming your old properties with a Peel Stop-type primer and then painting over it with a quality satin exterior-grade paint will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Satin paint will look better than semigloss because semigloss paint accentuates any flaws in the surface you painted. The lower the sheen on the paint, the better it is at hiding flaws. Satin paint is a bit more durable than flat, so it’s a good compromise.

Mad Dog primer problems

I have heard of Mad Dog primer problems, or two problems, to be specific. It works better if you use a satin or semi-gloss paint on top of it. If you use flat paint, it can crack. You also need to use latex paint with it, not an oil-based paint. Latex paint is more flexible, so it’s less prone to cracking and alligatoring. Other brands of primer vary, but I would recommend using a latex paint regardless due to the flexibility.

The need to use satin or semi-gloss paint means there’s no cheap solution to alligatoring paint problems. Mad Dog primer is expensive, and so is satin exterior paint. But paint is much cheaper than replacing siding, and priming and repainting is much less labor intensive than removing old paint. It’s also safer and better for the environment.

How repainting saves money

A fresh coat of paint makes a surface look new, as long as you can get a relatively smooth finish. It’s much faster and much cheaper to scrape and then prime and paint your wood siding and/or garage door than it is to replace them. And the advantage of painting old siding is that when the paint fades, you can apply a fresh coat of paint. Once vinyl siding fades, it gets expensive to do anything about it. There are significant caveats to painting vinyl siding.

Fixing alligatoring paint problems isn’t super cheap, but it’s an inexpensive way to dramatically improve a property’s curb appeal. This increases the property’s value and decreases the amount of time it spends on the market. Unlike many home improvements, you’ll get the money you put into the project back out in resale value.

And since these types of paint problems scare people off, if you find them, you may not have much competition for that property, and the competitors you do have will offer low because they’re factoring in an expensive renovation.

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