What you need to know about how to remove popcorn ceilings, the costs, the concerns, the benefits, and the after-effects. —-
It’s great at the movies, but popcorn is not so welcome on your ceiling when you’re trying to sell your home.
“It’s the first thing young buyers notice,” says Mary Stewart, a Sugar Land, Texas, real estate agent who works with 82% more single-family homes than the average Sugar Land agent.
What is popcorn and why is it so bad?
Stewart lives in a neighborhood built in 1972, so she knows all about popcorn and the expensive, messy task of removing it. She’s also aware that if homeowners know they have popcorn ceilings, by law they are required to disclose that information to the buyers. And “one of the first things buyers do is scrape the ceilings,” she points out.
Also referred to as cottage cheese, stucco, or textured, popcorn ceilings were installed from the 1950s through the 1980s, but really came into vogue in the 1970s as a way to muffle sound and hide imperfections in the ceiling surface, such as cracks, leaks, poor workmanship, or other damage. It was inexpensive and easy to apply. According to the Mesothelioma Center, if your home was built between the 1950s and 1980s, there’s a good chance that your popcorn ceiling contains asbestos.
Like many other ‘70s trends, popcorn ceilings have gone out of style — but there are more practical reasons for their fall from grace than mere fashion.
Not only do they not perform well in moisture, making them a poor candidate for bathrooms, but they have other issues as well. Popcorn ceilings are known to:
Contain asbestos, if installed prior to 1978. Because it’s a potential safety hazard, numerous laws limit exposures to asbestos
Create harsh shadows due to the bumpy texture. To mitigate these shadows requires the right type of lighting
Discolor over time, creating a dingy appearance in a room
Attract and catch dust and dirt on its jagged edges and crater-like surfaces
Disintegrate, loosen, and drop bits and pieces onto furnishings and flooring alike
Look dated instead of modern and inviting
Although asbestos in popcorn ceilings is not a danger as long as the ceiling remains intact, according to the EPA, if the ceiling has any damage, it can be a health hazard. For this reason, many homeowners want to remove their popcorn ceilings.
Whether a homeowner is worried about asbestos or they’re updating a house, preparing it for sale, or repairing damage, removing a popcorn ceiling can be a messy, expensive job typically costing up to $3,000 — although it can range even higher in some regions. To guide you, we researched and spoke with experts like Mary Stewart and Nicholas Gregoire, owner of Master Plasters LLC in Laconia, New Hampshire, to provide some recommendations for pulling the plug on your popcorn ceilings.
Popcorn ceiling removal cost overview
There are many variables to consider: total square footage, geographic location, type of ceiling, and more. This chart provides a starting point for calculating costs.
Average cost to remove popcorn ceilings
Low and high end cost range
Average cost per square foot
Average cost per hour
$899 – $2,844
(calculated based on cost ranges provided)
$900 – $2,840
$900 – $2,500
$20 – $50
(calculated based on cost ranges provided)
Home Advisor: Cost data is based on actual project costs as reported by 3,272 HomeAdvisor members
Angi: Method of calculating cost estimates is not provided by this service.
Fixr: Based on information gleaned from specialized publications and websites, cost studies, U.S. associations, U.S. government reports, contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, and other vendor websites
HomeGuide: Information derived from tracking estimates provided by local companies to HomeGuide readers
Major cost factors to consider
The biggest factors influencing the cost of popcorn ceiling removal are project size, labor, and the materials needed. But there are several considerations that can impact the cost beyond these basics. For example, different types of ceilings may add to the cost; vaulted and cathedral can raise the price by 50%. High ceilings can add to the cost due to the need for taller ladders and additional prep.
The complexity of the job increases the price. Removing popcorn ceilings that contain asbestos or lead takes additional work — at additional cost.
The room itself may determine the cost. Basement ceilings tend to run higher, particularly if they are exposed, necessitating painting around beams and ductwork. Painting the trim or crown molding increases the cost.
We’ll dig into several cost factors to better prepare you.
Labor: $15-$60 per hour
Labor costs vary across the country and not all contractors charge the same rate. Gregoire considers his company is on the high end at a rate of $60 an hour, but he lists the detailed process of removing popcorn from a ceiling: “Demolition includes scraping, using a utility knife to cut the corners, removing screws, and throwing away the debris.” That requires renting a dumpster. It’s an invasive process.
If the popcorn doesn’t scrape off well or evenly, a contractor has to fill. With a plaster ceiling, that can get heavy and possibly result in falling.
“The most effective way is to remove the studs and install a new ceiling,” Gregoire explains. In New England, that’s most likely to be a plaster ceiling (which helps with sound deadening), but in other areas, it’s probably going to be drywall.
Once the new ceiling is up, it will need a skim coat. “That’s the cheapest, fastest option,” Gregoire says. He likes to use Gardz by Benjamin Moore because it’s a “problem surface sealer,” he says. This clear sealer prevents delaminating, which wet popcorn tends to do.
Once the surface is smooth, it’s time to sand and paint.
Ceiling paint: $150-$350 (or $20-$60 per gallon)
The average price to have the ceiling painted runs from $1.05 to $2.44 per square foot, materials included. Paint alone costs $0.80 to $2.15 per square foot. For an average 12-foot by 12-foot room ceiling, expect to pay $150 to $350, depending on the quality of the paint.
For a second coat of paint, increase the price by 50%. Smaller rooms may cost more per square foot in order to cover the painter’s costs and meet a minimum. Most of the cost covers labor: setup, prep, painting, and cleanup.
If you’re doing the work yourself, expect to pay $20 to $60 per gallon of paint (or up to $70 per gallon for latex paint). One gallon should cover that 12-foot by 12-foot room.
If you’re painting over a popcorn ceiling, rather than removing it, prices generally run from $1 to $3 per square foot. This process requires more paint … and seldom results in a desirable look. However, freshening up a ceiling with a coat of paint can postpone removal of a popcorn ceiling, but painted popcorn is more difficult to remove. The extra time and effort may increase the cost by 50% or more.
Adding texture to the ceiling can add cost to the bill. Most people pay between $0.60 to $2.50 per square foot extra to add texture to a ceiling. The more complicated the texture or design, the more it will cost. Most homeowners spend somewhere between $500 to $1,250. A knockdown ceiling — a popular lightly textured design — runs about $1.75 per square foot.
Gregoire often advises his clients to add texture to their ceilings. Like the less desirable popcorn that was just removed, it can hide flaws.
Debris disposal: $150-$500
If you don’t have a lot of debris and none of it contains hazardous materials, you might be able to fit it into contractor trash bags and set it out for regular trash collection. Or, you can pay a professional to haul it away instead, for $150 to $170 for 500 square feet of rubble — more if it contains asbestos or lead paint. In general, expect to pay $0.30-$0.35 per square yard.
If you end up replacing structural elements of your ceiling, you may need something bigger. The nationwide average cost to rent a 10-yard dumpster is $469.29, but prices can range from $224 to $853, depending on location. That includes delivery and removal of the dumpster and its contents.
Coronavirus premium: 20%
When the coronavirus hit and masses of people quarantined, many began tackling home improvement projects, including popcorn ceiling removal. That led to shortages of materials, a situation exacerbated by supply chain issues due, in part, to labor shortages, again the result of the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic,” Gregoire says, “costs went up twice: 20% each time.” He estimates that materials are up about 30 cents per square foot. Fortunately, he adds, business is still up too.
DIY vs. Pro
It’s always tempting to try to save money by doing a job yourself. And, technically, removing a popcorn ceiling is not usually difficult; nor does it generally require a lot of tools. But just remember: there may be a few hidden surprises lurking beneath that popcorn.
DIY cost: $215-$240
Professional cost: $900-$2,840
In Stewart’s Texas neighborhood, it can cost $5,000 to professionally remove a popcorn ceiling in a 2,500-square-foot home, or you can do it yourself for about $2,000.
In general, it typically costs $1 to $2 per square foot to remove a popcorn ceiling by yourself. Professionals charge between $15 to $40 an hour to do the work. However, they provide the materials and they do the cleanup.
If you decide to take on the task of removing a popcorn ceiling yourself, you’ll need the proper tools:
Ladder or drywall lift
Be advised that if your ceiling contains asbestos, the DIY route is not advised. You might have to pay a professional $3 to $7 per square foot to remove it, which can add up to $2,750 in additional fees, depending on the size of the room.
Then you’ve got to decide if you’re going to paint the ceiling or hire a professional to complete the work. Either way, there will be additional costs to finish your ceiling.
DIY challenges to expect
Before you set up your ladder and start scraping, it’s wise to be prepared for what you may encounter in the process of removing a popcorn ceiling. “It’s hard to work on ceilings,” Gregoire cautions. Beyond a stiff neck, you may run into other challenges, such as:
A mess. Some people spray the ceiling with water to loosen up the material before scraping. This makes the mess even worse. It can also cause problems because the moisture will be absorbed into the ceiling, making it heavy. That could lead to cracks. Stewart points out that during removal, it’s not only the floor that should be covered — it’s the walls too, to prevent asbestos fibers from clinging to them.
Asbestos. You can purchase a kit to test for asbestos or hire an abatement professional. Stewart paid $50 to have her ceiling tested for asbestos. If your ceiling contains asbestos, you should not remove the popcorn because the process allows particles to escape into the air. Breathing in the carcinogens poses a health risk. Either hire a professional to remove it or leave it. “Asbestos is a good reason to go over popcorn,” Gregoire says. You can paint over popcorn or cover it with drywall or other materials … with mixed results.
Lead paint. Homes built before 1978 often have lead paint. If you have any suspicions, you can get a test kit or hire a professional to test for lead. As long as it’s not flaking or chipping off, you can simply paint over existing lead paint. However, there are protocols to follow and special “encapsulant” paints to use.
Projects to bundle together
Because of the extent of the disruption scraping popcorn off the ceiling creates, Stewart says she only advises sellers to do it if the home is unfurnished.
If you’re going to the extent of scraping popcorn and creating a mess, you might as well consider doing additional projects at the same time. In fact, once you remove the popcorn, you may discover some issues with your ceiling that need to be addressed.
“You can change plumbing, electrical, lighting…” Gregoire lists. “Now’s the time to do it, even if you just run pipes and lines for later.”
Perhaps you’re undecided about a ceiling fan or surround sound, but you are considering adding one or both. Running the wires for future projects while your ceiling is already torn up is good planning. Pre-wired can be an asset if you’re selling your home.
Gregoire says it’s also an optimal time for other improvements, such as adding soundboard or insulation before you drywall, or correcting the framing if needed.
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Popcorn ceiling removal: Worth the cost?
Removal of a popcorn ceiling may add value to your house. Popcorn ceilings impart an outdated look. Removing them can update your home and add value.
If the market is slow or your home is listed at a higher price point that doesn’t attract a lot of buyers, eliminating any needed updates can reassure a buyer. “A house shows better if the ceiling has been scraped,” Stewart confirms.
However, you’re taking a gamble when removing them because they may be hiding flaws such as cracks. Once you’re aware of any problems, you must either disclose them or fix them, according to the American Guild of Appraisers.
Cover it up
You might save time and money — and mess — by choosing to cover your popcorn ceiling instead of removing it. This avoids concerns over asbestos and lead, which makes removing popcorn ceilings potentially dangerous. “Any underlying issue is a good reason to cover [the ceiling],” Gregoire states.
In fact, you can correct or hide other issues, like crooked corners, he says. You can add 10-20 years of life with new ceiling, fresh screws, and modern finishes. An updated look might also add value and interest to your home.
Options to conceal the ceiling include:
Wooden ceiling planks. Tongue-and-groove wooden ceiling planks can add a rustic or elegant look, depending on the style. Costing as little as $1 per square foot, they offer an affordable choice of upgrade. They screw into the ceiling and can be painted or stained. Ceiling planks that resemble wood can be installed directly to joists or an existing ceiling. Get the popular shiplap look.
Texture. Flatten blobs of paint with a drywall knife or create “slap brush texture” by applying texture with a roller before going over it with a coat of paint.
Ceiling tiles. The old drop-ceiling made from a grid supporting tiles is about as out of date as popcorn, but you can glue or screw special ceiling tiles onto the ceiling for a textured look.
Drywall is usually considered too heavy to cover a ceiling, but gypsum board paneling is light enough and provides a similar look to drywall.
However you decide to deal with the “fifth wall” of your room, save the popcorn for movie night and keep it off your ceiling.
Header Image Source: (ungvar / Unsplash)
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