How do I handle a "popcorn" ceiling that may contain asbestos?

Asked by Robin
Charlotte, NC

Our house was built in 1984 and has textured ceilings....if we sell we should probably do what before placing the house on the market?


Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Bainbridge Island, WA

A Kitchen That Works LLC

January 9, 2012

Dear Robin,

The simple answer is most real estate professionals will tell you to remove the popcorn ceiling to make the home more marketable due to the fact that the ceiling treatment makes the home look “dated” and because most buyers will not want to deal with the issue themselves.

The issue is popcorn or acoustic spray on ceiling treatments are likely to contain asbestos, a known carcinogen.

  • Popcorn ceilings were very popular from the 1950 until 1978, when the application was banned by the US government, because it allowed builders to obscure bad sheet rock installations.
  • Needless to say, there was a significant inventory of acoustic spray on ceiling treatment in this country and manufacturers, retailers and builders were legally able to sell/install this product well into the 1980s when the inventory had finally been depleted.
  • Therefore, there it's possible your ceiling has asbestos.

Testing for asbestos

Your best plan of action is to test your ceiling treatment for asbestos.

You can do this yourself by purchasing a test kit or simply putting samples in a resealable bag and sending the suspect samples to a certified testing lab such as:

Most labs recommend that you take multiple samples, for example three samples per thousand square feet of surface. The cost of the test kits can vary but the professional testing runs roughly $30-$50 for the first sample and $20-$30 for each additional sample.

Note: determine which governmental agency in your geographic area has jurisdiction over asbestos (city, country, or state) and learn what requirements they have for testing and abating.

Alternatively you can hire an asbestos testing specialist by searching your local yellow pages or google for business pages and you will pay a flat fee of approximately $200 and up plus the cost of testing the samples.

Asbestos removal

If your test results come out positive, meaning more than 1% of the sample contained asbestos, you have two choices:

1. Do the removal yourself. Removing the popcorn yourself is a messy, time consuming job and again you will want to make yourself intimately familiar with the asbestos abatement protocols for your particular geographic jurisdiction.  (In most states it is illegal to attempt to “encapsulate” the popcorn by painting over it, however, you may be able to apply a non-asbestos acoustic spray over the existing popcorn but this will not help with the dated look).

If you choose to do the work yourself understand that it is strongly recommended that you remove all household items such as furnishing from the room you are working in, you will need to purchase and/or rent safety equipment including a respirator, protective clothing, eye protection and special asbestos abatement bags.

You will also need to transport all materials in a contained vehicle (no open bed pick up trucks) and deposit all contaminated materials at a hazardous waste site which may be far from your home and costly. Understand that there are no known safe levels of asbestos exposure and that the affects of inhaling asbestos fibers will typically take 15-40 years to manifest themselves.

2. Hire a licensed, bonded and CERTIFIED asbestos abatement contractor to do the removal for you and then retexture and paint the ceiling. The cost of hiring a professional will run approximately $10-$15 per square foot and will be predicated on several factors such as height of ceilings, quantity of square footage, number of rooms and more. Note that in most states, individuals or firms that test may not abate due to conflict of interests.

As a general contractor in the state of Washington, it is illegal for me to even submit a bid to a perspective client if I have reasonable cause to believe that there may be asbestos in the project area under consideration for renovation. I must have a signed letter by a certified testing lab or certified asbestos abatement professional before I can proceed with the bidding process. Further, homeowners who choose to abate themselves must have the area tested and certified following abatement and hold in their procession a letter certifying that their project is free and clear of asbestos before they can legally hire any contractor or building trade professional to work on their home. In my area, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has jurisdiction over asbestos abatement. I have included a link to their website to provide you with a base line for asbestos protocols.

In conclusion, you would be wise to remove the popcorn whether it tests positive for asbestos or not but keeping in mind, you have several things to consider before proceeding with removal.

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