Painted ladies—Victorian homes with ornate details—get their name from the explosion of colors used to highlight their architectural features. But using those same bright colors on a plainer home like a ranch or contemporary would look silly. That's why it's important to consider the style of your house and the character of your neighborhood when you're planning a paint job.

Although there's no magic formula for picking a palette, there are some rules of thumb. Color experts create palettes using a number of colors, but for the rest of us, use more than three or four colors on a house and it starts to look chaotic. Here's what to keep in mind:

Consider the elements that won't change. As you narrow your colors, be sure to account for the existing colors—the roof, stonework, and landscaping. Colors with similar undertones unite these elements, and contrasting colors highlight detailing. 

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Look at the bigger picture. Take cues from your neighborhood, and imagine how your colors will fit in without being too close to the colors of the homes next door.

Factor in the natural light. It plays an important role and makes colors look lighter. Paint a swatch on the front of your home where it's in full sun and not where there are shadows, such as the porch. Look at the color at different times of the day to see how the light affects your take on it. 

To find the best palette for your architectural style, read Preferred Palettes, below.

Preferred Palettes

Consumer Reports talked to some color experts about winning color palettes for a variety of house styles. Use them to start your search for the perfect palette. And go to paint manufacturers' sites for a look at exterior palettes they suggest for a variety of architectural styles. If you find colors you love from a brand that's not your top pick, know that your go-to paint store can match almost any paint color and come very close to the original.

Colonial. Try gray-blue siding, white trim, and glossy black on the shutters and front door.

Contemporary. Go with griege siding, warm gray accents, and a jaunty orange door. 

Craftsman. Think about using muted green for the siding, cream trim, and deep green for window trim and doors. 

Farmhouse. Consider barn red siding, greenish-gray trim, and an ocher door.

Federal brick. Pick up the color of the mortar with cream trim, green shutters, and a darker green door. 

Midcentury ranch. Emphasize the modern lines with charcoal siding, white trim, and a teal door. 

Spanish colonial. Try out warm tones like tan siding, mossy green trim, and a russet door. 

Tudor revival. Update the look by painting siding pale gray, trim dark gray, and the door blue. 

Victorian. Be bold with a trio of smoky purples and stone.