The first step in an exterior painting project is to remove all cracked, bubbling and otherwise nasty old paint. If your house was built before 1978, there's a very good chance that at least one of its many paint layers contains lead, a known neurotoxin that can seriously impair brain function and development, especially in children.
To test your paint for lead, consult this list of EPA-approved labs and call the nearest one to find out how to mail in a sample. If it comes back positive, you'll need to take special precautions when scraping off the old, damaged paint. The best solution is to rent a product called the PaintShaver — a motorized grinder that quickly strips paint from wood surfaces and sucks the dust and debris directly into a sealed vacuum bag [source: Hurst-Wajszczuk].
Even if you aren't dealing with lead paint, you'll still want to minimize mess and avoid inhaling paint dust. Buy yourself a nice painting respirator so you can breathe easy. Then invest in some canvas drop cloths like the pros use. Unlike the cheap plastic versions, they don't rip and you can reuse them over and over. Lay the drop cloths below your work area and drape them over shrubs and other landscaping to protect landscaping from falling paint chips [source: Hurst-Wajszczuk].