Everyone loves popcorn at the movies—but seeing that fluffy texture on a ceiling? Not so much.
The stippled texture known as the popcorn ceiling was popular from the 1950s through the 1980s, especially in bedrooms. Sometimes likened to cottage cheese, the bumps of this finish supposedly dampened sound, but also made it easier for builders to hide imperfections.
Nowadays, it can make selling your house more difficult, depending on the market and price range, said Timothy Schutte, a top performing real estate agent in Des Moines, Iowa and expert in single-family homes.
“It’s a vintage and aged style,” said Schutte.
“It is noticed fairly quickly upon opening the door and walking in. It may not be within the first three minutes, but you see it.”
Does removing a popcorn ceiling increase your home’s value? Before you roll up your sleeves and grab the putty knife and protective goggles, you should weigh whether the cost of removal is worth it given the time, cost, and potential health risk.
The pros and cons of popcorn
Not everyone is sour on popcorn ceilings. The home improvement and repair site DoItYourself.com, launched in 1995, said that this textured, spray-on finish is an inexpensive way to hide flaws in a ceiling, including leaks, cracks, damage, and just poor workmanship. They’re cheap and easy to install, and because of their acoustic properties, popcorn ceilings can cut down on sound in multi-story houses and high-traffic areas such as entryways and hallways.
But popcorn ceilings don’t handle moisture well, according to Fixr.com, an online directory of service professionals founded in 2008. In a bathroom or kitchen, both of which have a fair amount of moisture, the texture of a popcorn ceiling can loosen and eventually come down.
The biggest aesthetic drawback of a popcorn ceiling is that it tends to collect dust, dirt, and cobwebs. Because of its “crater-like surfaces,” it also casts harsh shadows, making rooms appear smaller.
“Popcorn [texture] is very hard to clean and to keep clean,” Schutte said. “It attracts dust and creates shadows. Whenever you take it off, it makes a room feel much more vibrant.”
What about asbestos concerns?
Deciding to remove a popcorn ceiling is tricky, however, because of the possibility of asbestos.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber occurring in rock and soil that, if inhaled, can cause diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.
Asbestos was used for decades in a variety of building construction materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but has been banned in various products from 1973 through 1990.
Even so, if your home was built before the late 1980s, the spray-on texture used to create your popcorn ceiling may have contained asbestos.
Although it’s impossible to tell whether any material contains asbestos just by sight, scraping off a portion to be tested can do more harm than good, releasing asbestos fibers through dust.
“Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone,” the EPA recommends.
If your popcorn ceiling is already damaged and you’re concerned about asbestos, the EPA advises consulting with a trained asbestos professional, who can test for the substance and work with you on removing it. (The cost of such testing varies widely by square foot, although hazardous materials contractors do offer free estimates).
You also can spray water onto a small portion of the area and remove a sample without scraping. The accredited testing company EMSL Analytical Inc. of Cinnaminson, New Jersey, which has more than 45 locations throughout the United States and Canada, will test consumers’ samples, with lab fees starting around $130 for a one-week turnaround time.
The newer type of popcorn texture is made with pieces of polystyrene or Styrofoam, so there’s no worry of asbestos with those, even if there’s flaking.
Popcorn ceiling removal is costly—and messy
Removing a popcorn ceiling can be expensive and leave fine white dust everywhere. Although you can do this yourself, especially if the materials are free of asbestos, be prepared for a lot of labor.
First, you’ll have to remove the furnishings or move them to the center of the space and cover them and the floor with a drop cloth and plastic sheeting. Then spray a small section (about 10 square feet) of ceiling with warm water, let that sit for about 20 minutes, and scrape off what comes loose.
The experts recommend applying drywall compound to any problem areas with a drywall knife, skimming smoothly, then priming and painting the ceiling.
Expect to pay about $30 to $200 in materials to do this yourself, or about $1 to $3 per square foot for labor and materials if you hire a professional. The average homeowner spends about $1,675 nationwide.
If your ceiling tests positive for asbestos, expect to pay $3 to $7 per square foot, or up to $2,750 in additional fees, depending on the size of the space and the extent of the problem.
Skim coating the ceiling with drywall compound and painting it gives this a smooth “executive feel,” although knockdown texture, applied with a texture sprayer, provides visual interest and camouflages imperfections without popcorn’s dated look.
The problem is, homeowners in the midst of preparing a house for sale often don’t have the inclination to tackle this project because of the debris.
Someone flipping a house, who isn’t living there while the work is underway, is more likely to do it, Schutte said.
“With a homeowner in the property, we talk about [removing] the popcorn ceiling,” he said. “But we haven’t really ever had them do the work because it does cost a little bit of money and the inconvenience factors very high.”
But can removing a popcorn ceiling add resale value?
That said, the value gained by removing a popcorn ceiling does increase considering buyers’ expectations for homes of a certain size and in a certain price range.
“With a $200,000 house with a popcorn ceiling, there’s a lot of demand and not a lot of supply. Those houses sell faster, so there’s less need to do it,” Schutte said.
By contrast, a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot house in a higher price range, such as $700,000, can sit on the market longer and make buyers hesitate if it needs upgrades. Why purchase something older that needs fixing when they can buy something in a new subdivision with new amenities for the same price?
“The larger the house, and the more expensive the home, the more prone I am to say that it needs to get done—and it’ll add value by getting it done,” Schutte said. “One of the updates that somebody would want to see in that pricier home is getting rid of popcorn ceilings.”
Schutte estimates that removing a popcorn ceiling would add $25,000 to $35,000 in value for a large estate executive home. For a home of about 1,400 square feet costing about $200,000, he estimates an added value of about $2,500—essentially, close to what a homeowner might put into the project.
Mike Ford, a general certified real estate appraiser serving greater metropolitan Los Angeles and a member of the American Guild of Appraisers, said removing a popcorn ceiling could contribute to an increase in value for a high price range.
For a home worth about $200,000, however, “I cannot imagine the benefit would be worth gambling $2,500 on. It is just as likely the popcorn … may cover ceiling cracks that may require additional costs to repair,” he said.
Rather, a property’s overall condition and appearance will dictate the value more than a single item, Ford added. “A freshly scraped ceiling may add zero value if the entire interior needs new paint and everything else about the house is outdated.”
“If buyers are already paying high or near highest prices with or without popcorn, then why spend money correcting something the market does not dictate requires correction?” Ford said.
“Paint and finish flooring still are big on interior contribution to value. Exterior paint, including eaves and wood trim, is at least equally important. Chipped and peeling paint can stop your new buyers’ financing in its tracks.”
Other popcorn ceiling fixes
If you’re still concerned that your popcorn ceiling looks dated, there are ways to hide it without tearing it down completely.
The DIY home décor site Apartment Therapy has a number of suggestions, such as covering the ceiling with a drywall panel. Standard 8’x4’ panels cost from $10 to $20, depending on thickness and brand, and you may also need drywall compound and joint tape to connect pieces.
(You also may need to rent a drywall lift, which depending on where you live can cost a minimum of $26 for four hours, with a $100 deposit at Home Depot.)
A 2’x4’ faux tin white ceiling tile costs about $15. To cover a popcorn ceiling, you’ll need to knock off any large low-hanging pieces and apply a multi-surface primer and sealer such as Kilz Klear (about $19 a gallon) to provide a clean surface for the tile’s glue, such as Loctite adhesive (about $5 to $10 per tube).
For a modern rustic look, the experts at MarthaStewart.com recommend shiplap, historically made of wood boards stacked horizontally on top of one another to make a surface watertight.
Armstrong Ceilings makes a version of ceiling planks that resemble wood that install directly to joists or an existing ceiling, with detailed instructions to cover damaged plaster, drywall, or popcorn ceilings. Prices start at $1 per square foot.
A popcorn ceiling also looks better once it’s clean and bright.
Cover everything in the room with a drop cloth or plastic sheeting, as you would before any large paint job; don a dust mask, safety goggles, and hair covering; and first tackle the ceiling with a feather duster.
Then use a segmented foam roller to apply a fresh coat of paint. Only paint in one direction, so that the popcorn texture doesn’t peel once it gets wet. (If you find stains or stubborn spots, hit those first with spray-paint, and let that dry before using the roller.)
Fresh paint makes a popcorn ceiling less porous, so it’s less prone to collecting dust. Add soft lighting through table and floor lamps to reduce harsh shadows, and the texture becomes more subtle.
If you find that removing your popcorn ceiling is cost prohibitive or not worth the trouble, your best bet may be to have it work for you by freshening it up and casting it in a new light.