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Why is it so Expensive to Paint a Car?

One of the biggest costs of building or restoring a car is paint. Even a simple base coat/clear coat can be anywhere between $3,000-7,000 dollars in the Midwest. In Arizona, the prices range from $3,000-8,000. The more exotic or "custom" the higher the price. For example: a chameleon fade to black with House of Kolor brand paint can easily exceed $10,000. If you happen to live on the coasts, the cost can easily double into the $8000-$16000 range. And that begs the question: why is it so expensive to paint a car?

Labor Rates

One of the biggest factors affecting cost is the overall labor rate. The labor rate is not just the hourly wage of the painter, it factors in things such as business overhead (cost of shop rent, utilities, insurance, etc.). This cost varies significantly by location. The west coast has a higher labor rate cost compared to other states because of higher cost of living, higher utilities and rent, plus the higher cost to dispose of prep and paint waste. It also varies based on rural vs. urban, where urban shops tend to cost more.

Training is also a big cost-adder. The new waterborne paints require a different technique, curing conditions and prep. They tend to be more prone to fisheye and under-curing due to moisture sensitivity. And, cars today use more exotic materials than in the past. Materials like carbon fiber, certain plastics and multi-stage finishes require more knowledge to paint properly than steel and aluminum. All of this adds up to a labor force that must have the correct skill set and training—which also means higher costs.

Prepping carbon fiber for paint

Environmental Impact

The past few years has seen a dramatic shift in the environmental costs of paint and body work. Urethanes have been a staple for decades, but now waterborne paints are coming to the fore because they have less VOCs (volatile organic compounds). But waterborne paints tend to cost more and are a bit harder to work with. California has some of the strictest environmental codes in the US, and there is a cost associated to that. However, this topic is about to become a moot point as most states are adopting similar rules which help protect the environment from some of the more toxic aspects of paint and body. Most dealerships have already adopted these regulations as have a vast amount of chain/franchised body shops. The environmental laws proposed in the Midwest mimic the ones in California and are slowly making their way through legislation. Each state is adopting them at their own pace, but they are coming.

VOC warnings on paint can

Waste disposal costs have risen over the years. Most of the paint wastes are eventually incinerated in a disposal facility. Companies such as Safety Kleen have programs to help shops take care of their waste. Costs vary based on frequency of pick-ups and amount per pick-up. Included in the fees, which range from $100 per pickup to $2000, includes a "recovery fee." This fee includes a significant fuel surcharge based on location, insurance, security and other administration fees.

In the Midwest, most dealerships and chain body shops are using waterborne paints as a standard, matching what is happening on the coasts. But some of the smaller, rural shops have a bit more flexibility for the time being.


Material costs have risen significantly over the past decade. This is in part due to VOC regulations, and also in the production costs of the paints themselves. Pearls, flips, glass, flakes all have become more common but that also adds a significant cost to the paint. For example, a simple white is about $70 per quart while a pearl white is about $160.  While waterborne paints are only slightly more expensive than solvent based, and waterborne paints tend to require a more controlled paint booth, driers, etc. which do increase cost.  Manufacturers have already switched over to California-compliant products. House of Kolor, Akzo Nobel and DuPont have been the leaders in this change. This means that costs are starting to even out across the country. So, if you’re looking for a deal on a paintjob, you’re running out of time.

Vehicle Paint materials

Are waterbornes better quality than solvents? That depends on who you ask and what type of paint job is required. I have used both. For simple 1 or 2 stage paints with minimal pearls I use waterborne paints. Anything with flakes, heavy pearls, or multi-stage finishes I use solvent based paints. Some painters like waterbornes, but custom painters and airbrush artists tend to use more solvent based paints because of the quick dry times and color fastness (how resilient they are to fading). Waterborne paints tend to be a bit thicker build so jobs that require a lot of taping might take more coats of clear to bury the lines.

Pearls and metallic pinstripping paint

Equipment is the same price regardless of where you are. But note that good paint guns such as Iwata Supernovas can be almost $800 each and shops tend to have dozens of quality guns. Respirators, air dryers, etc all add up quickly.

Sweat Discounts

If you have the patience and are handy, you can save up to 50% by prepping the car yourself. This is because most of the labor in a paint job is in the prep.  By pulling the trim, glass, weather strip, handles, etc., and sand the car down so the paint shop can just clean it and shoot it.

Wet sanding car for paint


There are a lot of books and websites that walk through the process and the body shop you are talking it to will usually offer advice. Not many shops are cool with you bringing in your own paints as they can't be held liable for the finish. But, if you find a shop that allows you to supply materials, sites like are a great resource.

Out-of-State Painting

With the costs of painting on the coasts so high, does it make sense to send the car to a state where the labor rates are less? Yes and no. If you are shipping within a few hundred miles, then it probably does make sense to do it. But if you are shipping a car to the Midwest from California, then no, because the cost of shipping a car round trip in a hauler like Pilot or Reliant can be around $5000. But there are exceptions: if you are after a wild custom paint job where the labor costs are going to be over $10k, then it might make sense for you. 

paint close-up

General Paint Advice

Paint and body work is more art than science and good quality commands a higher price. It is in your best interest to really, really do your homework on what shop to partner with. Go to car shows and ask owners about who did their paint and how the process went. Ask how long the person working on your project has been painting, and if they have worked on anything similar to your project. If your project is a show car, then the painter should be experienced in show car quality finishes. Ask what paint systems they are using and how long they have used it. Ask about warranty. Ask about care and maintenance (and follow those guidelines to the letter). Paint work is a decision not to be taken lightly and each project is different, so don't rush the homework process.

Click here for some good advice on how to remove scratches from your car's paint.

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