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Painting one of San Francisco’s iconic Victorian homes is a six-figure odyssey

Meet the colorful characters that bring one of the city's most beautiful looks to life

Two painters, one on a ladder and one below, are working on colorful architectural details.
If you want to do it right, painting a Victorian involves paying six-figure sums and enlisting the help of “color consultants.” | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Given the city’s distinctive look and notoriously prying neighbors, painting a home in San Francisco comes with a lot of pressure. It also comes at a cost rivaling a down payment in most parts of the country.

The hidden fees associated with owning a home in the city, including utility bills, insurance coverage and maintenance fees, are higher than ever. The same goes for putting a fresh coat of color on a Victorian.

According to veteran San Francisco house painter Alex Davison, a gallon of good-quality paint costs around 20% more now than before the pandemic, approximately $100 a gallon.

While the average single-family home paint job in San Francisco will run about $30,000, the current rate for a Victorian starts at $100,000 and could easily run to $300,000, if an owner wanted the original paint completely stripped, Davidson said.

“Imagine maintaining a vintage sports car versus a generic hand-me-down,” Davison said of working on Victorians.

A hand is painting the edge of vibrant, multicolored architectural features.
Foreman Gabriel Camacho applies gold leaf to a small portion of an old Victorian home in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A person on a ladder is installing trim above a green garage door, surrounded by construction tools and materials.
Gabriel Camacho adds copper flashing to a garage door in Noe Valley on Tuesday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The historical category generally has far more architectural features and tighter spaces to work with compared with modern homes. That means more colors, more detail and more potential for issues. San Francisco has nearly 50,000 Victorian and Edwardian homes, a signature of the city’s quirky mishmash of architectural styles.

“Prepping a site is 60% of the job,” Davison said. For one, the entire exterior of the house must be power-washed and sanded down before a single brush of paint is applied. On a Victorian project, Davison said he prefers to staff five painters besides himself, and labor costs continue to rise for his crews.

Other expensive costs include: scaffolding, netting to soften the impact of wind, tape to seal the windows, protective equipment for the staff and professional vacuums that can suck up poisonous debris. Once the preparations are complete, his team applies both primer and waterproofing products before painting on two to three coats of the new colors.

A man stands before a colorful, partly scaffolded Victorian house with a clear blue sky behind.
Alex Davison has spent over two decades painting homes in San Francisco. He said the bulk of work comes in preparing a site for painting rather than the painting itself. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A person on a ladder painting a decorative column blue, with paint cans and scaffolding nearby.
Gabriel Camacho applies gold leaf to a column while painting a Victorian home in Noe Valley on Tuesday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

An often overlooked part of his team’s job is to ensure the experience goes as smoothly as possible, which means not making too much noise during the day or leaving a mess.

“You’re happy to have your house painted, but your neighbors might not be,” Davison said. “Every block has at least one crazy person, and when they call the city, the city has to come. So we try to be nice and not to piss them off.”

Colorful characters

San Francisco homeowners often find themselves paralyzed by the sheer amount of paint options at their disposal. For this, there is an industry of bespoke experts known as color consultants who can help.

Luke and Kawthar Duncan had a striking realization one day while eating in the dining room of their newly purchased Victorian in Noe Valley. They set down their utensils, looked up at their eggshell white walls and said to each other, “Gosh, this is so boring!”

The couple knew they wanted their house to be imbued with feeling, but how exactly to accomplish that was a separate matter. So they called the man whose artistic fingerprints are all over the city: Dr. Color.

A woman is reflected in a round mirror with a red frame on a green and cream wall, under an arched alcove with a hanging light.
Kawthar Duncan poses in the front living area of her newly painted home in Noe Valley. She and her husband enlisted Bob Buckter, a color consultant, to help them choose a new color scheme. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A dining room with a long wooden table, blue walls, framed posters, and a mid-century style clock.
The Duncans' dining area used to be painted white. A veteran color consultant advised they go with Whipple Blue and aluminum silver trim. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The good doctor, whose real name is Bob Buckter, arrived on a cloudy afternoon in January with a flip phone held to his ear, a small digital camera in his pocket and a handful of papers in hand.

Throughout his over-50-year career, Buckter has advised thousands of San Franciscans like the Duncans on what colors to paint their homes. The consultations themselves only take a couple of hours, but are focused on intense discovery, Buckter said.

He starts by snapping pictures of the home’s exterior and interior while asking clients about their favorite colors. As they talk, he notes how they dress and their chosen decor. He might even ask about their favorite memories. During his walkthrough, he considers how a room looks in different qualities of light throughout the day.

All this goes into an internal formula that helps select the right mix of shades that suits the client and stands apart from every other house on the street.

For his typical fee of around $1,200, Buckter prints out photos he takes of clients’ homes and marks by hand what colors to use and where exactly to use them. Essentially, he creates a “color by numbers” guide for painters like Davison to refer to.

Out of context, these documents look somewhat like deranged scribblings, but Davison knows there’s a method to the madness.

A hand holds a paper with photos of staircases, each marked with numbers for steps.
Alex Davison's team uses Buckter's color-by-numbers diagrams to figure out where and what to paint. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A man in white painter's clothes is climbing out of a dark attic onto a sunlit roof.
Gabriel Camacho navigates scaffolding at Luke and Kawthar Duncan's home in Noe Valley. In total, his team will have spent six weeks on the project. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Bob is definitely not tech,” Davison said while supervising the painting of the Duncans’ two-story Victorian. “But he’s a genius and an increasingly rare breed.”

For the living room where Luke Duncan, an engineer, likes to do his reading, Buckter chose Cactus Green with 23-karat gold leaf applied to the crown molding.

“We would have never thought to go for gold there,” Kawthar Duncan, a teacher, said. “But he told us to trust him, and we’re glad we did.”

During a recent visit, the previously drab eggshell-white dining room was transformed into a Whipple Blue space with aluminum silver trim.

Fully painting the Duncans’ two interior rooms and the entire front facade will take Davison’s team approximately six weeks to complete. Other projects can take up to three months, weather permitting.

For their home’s exterior, Buckter advised the Duncans to go predominately with Caribbean Blue Water and Majestic Blue. Classic Burgundy, which is Kawthar Duncan’s favorite color, dots key spots like the window frames and the bottom of the front staircase. For an added pop, Buckter also recommended finishing the top of the house with more gold leaf.

“Even though the colors are updated, what I’m trying to achieve is the feeling like they could’ve been there all along,” Buckter said. “It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to turn it into a dollhouse.”

Suffice it to say, there is no other home like it on the Duncans’ street. Outside of a handful of other houses also designed by Buckter, the neighborhood is largely monochromatic.

Victorian houses on a sunny, steep street with a parked car in the foreground.
The house in the middle does not have a color scheme designed by Bob Buckter. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
Two workers on scaffolding outside a window, viewed from an indoor room with a desk and computer.
Outside of the Duncans' Noe Valley home, painters put the finishing touches on the three-level restoration project. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Gray is the modern thing to do,” Buckter said. “But it’s also a color for people who are too chicken shit to do anything.”

The Duncans chuckle when they think about their interactions with the brash Dr. Color. Their time together was short, but they’ll always be thankful to him for making their home feel truly like theirs. After this job is done, they plan to hang a plaque outside honoring their color consultant.

“It’s a big chunk of money, for sure,” Luke Duncan said. “But it’s worth it. This is going to be our home for a long time.”