Q: My house has popcorn ceilings. What should I do about them?
A: So-called popcorn ceilings have a bumpy coating that was popular from the 1950s into the 1980s. Spraying on the texture spared builders the expense of carefully smoothing over drywall seams and nail or screw divots, and then priming and painting - all jobs that are harder and therefore more expensive to do on ceilings than on walls. The coating was sold to home buyers as an acoustic benefit: By adding a lot of different angles for sound to bounce off, it helped deaden noise.
Today, though, a popcorn ceiling makes a house look dated. If the coating is popping loose, it's also a health hazard. And even if it's in good shape, it can complicate home repairs and make a house harder to sell, because potential buyers know popcorn ceilings often contain asbestos, a known carcinogen. So should you live with a popcorn ceiling? Remove the coating? Cover it with paint?
To answer these questions, it's important to recognize that a popcorn ceiling poses no danger if it is intact. So if you're a renter and your ceiling is in good shape, you can relax. In case the coating has asbestos, use a gentle touch on cobwebs, and don't let kids bounce balls off the ceiling. If the coating is crumbling, though, ask your landlord to have the coating tested. If asbestos is found, the landlord should hire a certified asbestos abatement contractor to have it removed, repaired or encapsulated with paint or other material that basically glues the fibers so they don't become airborne.
If you own the home and the coating is in good shape, you can also relax. But if you lose sleep with worries over whether it's safe to proceed with a remodeling project or whether the coating will lower your home's value, have the material tested. Asbestos was banned as an ingredient in ceiling sprays sold after 1978, but builders were allowed to use up supplies, so get a test even if your home is several years younger.
In some states, you can prepare the test sample yourself. In others, you must hire a pro. To get specifics for where you live, search on the Environmental Protection Agency's website (epa.gov) for "state asbestos contacts."
Testing is relatively inexpensive, especially if you live where you can collect the sample yourself. It cost my daughter and her husband only $40 earlier this year after they bought a house built in 1978 near Seattle. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which sets rules for the area, allows homeowners to do certain asbestos-related tasks themselves, provided they live in the house and aren't renting it out. Following the steps detailed on the agency's website, pscleanair.org, my daughter and her husband filled a spray bottle with water and a few drops of dishwashing detergent, dampened a few small sections of ceilings throughout the house and scraped one-inch square sections of the coating directly into a self-closing plastic bag. They mailed the mixed samples and a check for $40 to an asbestos-testing laboratory. A couple of days later, an email came back: 8 percent of the sample was chrysotile asbestos, one of six main types.
Removing a popcorn ceiling is very messy, so the best time to do it is before moving in. A home inspector had said it might cost $10,000, which was too pricey for this young couple. But they hated the look. So they considered removing the coating themselves, which is legal within the air agency's jurisdiction, as long as it is done with a permit and follows all of the safety protocols on the agency's website. They would need to cover the floors with thick plastic that extends up the walls, then tape more plastic over the walls, overlapping the plastic on the floor. They'd need a second layer of plastic on the floors, so all of the droppings from the ceiling could be bundled up and removed without risk of spilling anything on the carpet. And my daughter and her husband would need to don protective clothing that covered their hair down to their feet, complete with respirators and rubber boots, ideally disposable. They would need a variety of tools to spray the ceilings with water and scrape off the coating, and specially marked plastic bags (available by special order from Home Depot) to dispose of the waste at the spot designated for their town.
It seemed overwhelming, so they decided to see what professional removal would cost. For their 1,100 square feet of popcorn-covered ceilings, one bid was $4,600. The second was $3,300, which, by then, seemed like a bargain, so they went for it. The work got done in one day the following week, which left two weeks before they needed to move in. That's when the wisdom of hiring professionals really sank in: With the popcorn gone, all the finish work the builders could skip now needed doing.
The joints were taped and the nail or screw holes were filled, but with only one coat of drywall mud. To make the surface even enough to paint, they needed one or sometimes two more coats. By using lightweight drywall mud, they could smooth the dried surface with a damp sponge, thus eliminating the clouds of dust that sanding would have created. The professional removal team had sprayed the ceiling with a sealer after the coating was scraped, but the air agency warns to avoid sanding for fear of freeing any remaining fibers.
Was it worth it? My daughter says yes, definitely, especially because they were able to get it done before they moved in.
Would it be worth it for someone already moved in? If testing shows no asbestos, it's really up to you. You could leave the ceilings alone or have the coating removed. You could do it yourself one room at a time, as the redecorating urge strikes. The process would be basically the same, but with far less need for plastic and protective gear - and with no disposal complications.
If the test is positive and the coating is fraying, you do need to do something. Explore the cost of removal and encapsulation. But an encapsulated coating won't absorb water readily, so if you or a later owner decides to remove it, the job will be more difficult and expensive.
If the coating contains asbestos but is in good shape, leaving it as-is is better than encapsulating it. If you want to remove the coating for aesthetic reasons or if you need to cut into the ceiling for a remodel, get bids for removing it throughout the house and for the room or rooms involved in your project. If you opt for whole-house removal, you may also want bids to have movers to put your furniture in the garage or in temporary storage while the work is done.
If professional removal is too expensive and you live where you can do the work, consider tackling the job one or two rooms at a time. It's important to bundle up the debris the same day you remove it, so it doesn't dry. Dry fibers easily become airborne - and that's when they become dangerous.