Popcorn may be great at a movie theater matinee, but popcorn ceilings in a home you're trying to sell (or trying to buy) is another story entirely.

What are popcorn ceilings?

In a word, a popcorn ceiling, also known as an acoustic ceiling, is a spray- or paint-generated treatment found in older residential homes.

Extremely pervasive in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's, for its low price and easy-to-apply efficiency, popcorn ceilings often included asbestos, a common element found in paint and textured compounds installed in home ceilings prior to 1980, when it was banned, for safety reasons, by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Aside from the safety issue, these old-school ceilings are often deemed by home contractors, real estate professionals and many buyers as a low-quality product - one that can negatively impact a home sale if not removed. With toxins potentially in the picture, popcorn ceilings can be a health hazard, as well.

How to Test a Popcorn Ceiling for Asbestos

Fortunately, removing a popcorn ceiling is a legitimate do-it-yourself project, although you can pay a home contractor or paint specialist to get the job done, too.

If you do go the general contractor route, expect to pay between $1 and $2 per square foot to get the job done (square footage is how a contractor prices out a popcorn ceiling project.) If asbestos is involved in the popcorn ceiling removal process, the price usually goes up to between $3 and $7 per square foot.

To test for asbestos in a popcorn ceiling, the homeowner or a general contractor can spray some tap water onto the ceiling, remove a sample, and package it up safely and send it to a testing company.

If you conduct the test yourself, wear a mask and gloves, and remove the sample as safely and securely as possible. One good rule of thumb on asbestos removal in a popcorn ceiling is if the home was built prior to 1980. If so, the chances are good the ceiling has asbestos inside it.

Once you start testing the ceiling and removing a section, you've already disturbed the ceiling's structure. So, chances are, asbestos toxins, which have been linked to lung cancer, are let loose in your home. Consequently, it's imperative that you keep family members from the area while you're testing and removing the toxins.

In addition, take these safety steps when checking for asbestos in a popcorn ceiling:

  • Make sure your home heating unit or air conditioner is turned off. If left running, the units will transmit the toxins throughout the home.
  • Use a spray bottle and add a dash of dishwashing liquid.
  • Dab water on the ceiling you are your testing.
  • Scrape a small section of the ceiling and make sure you scrape deep enough to get down to the sheetrock.
  • Place the sample into a plastic bag that's zipped tight, or in a plastic container with a tight lid.

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  • Label the bag or container and include the section of the home it came from (for example, your living room.)
  • Package the container or bag up and ship it off to a professional asbestos testing center (check online in your community for the closest testing facility.) The U.S. Environment Protection Agency also has a list of asbestos testing facilities across the U.S. on its web site. Expect to pay between $70 and $100 for the asbestos testing service results.

If you discover your ceiling does have asbestos, it's highly advisable to bring a professional contractor in to do the job. Yes, it costs more, but the safety and security of your family may be at stake, so bring in a professional asbestos ceiling remover.

How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

Once it's determined that there is no asbestos in your popcorn ceiling, you can start preparing to remove the ceiling yourself.

Start by accumulating the tools you'll need to do the job. You'll need two-to-three-millimeter plastic sheeting to cover the walls, along with plenty of six-millimeter plastic sheeting to cover the floor.

You'll also need rosin paper, a putty knife, cloth rags, duct tape and drywall tape, dishwashing liquid, a spray bottle, a scraper, a dust mask, protective work clothing (no shorts or tee shirts) and eye goggles.

Once that's done, take the following steps to remove a popcorn ceiling:

Step 1: Prepare the room

After the room is cleared of furniture, take your plastic drop sheets and cover the floor and the walls. The plastic sheets are preferable to canvas covers as water will soak through the canvass and may damage your floors.

Step 2: Remove lighting fixtures and fans

It's tough to work around ceiling fans and light fixtures, so it's best to remove them.

Step 3: Spray the ceiling

Take your spray bottle and add water and dishwasher liquid (about two tablespoons should do the trick) and pump the mixture onto the ceiling as a mist, spreading it evenly and gently across the ceiling in small four-feet-by-six-feet increments. Give the mixture 10 or 15 minutes to dry and ensure the popcorn ceiling has softened the ceiling substance to the point where it can be easily scraped off. Note that if the ceiling is painted it might be best to bring a professional in to "dry scrape" the ceiling, which is a more complex and time-consuming process.

Step 4: Start scraping

Take your scraping tool - one with a wide blade is best, to cover more ground - and carefully scrape the popcorn substance off of the ceiling. Scrape it softly enough so you don't damage any drywall, but firmly enough to scrape the substance away. If the popcorn substance doesn't come off easily, wet the specific area, wait 15 minutes, and try again. A putty knife should be used to scrape hard-to-get-to places like ceiling corners and beam edges and corners.

Step 5: Hammer in nails and more

Hammer in any protruding nails and seal them with joint compound. Then sand the ceiling after it dries out. Be careful not to sand the ceiling too roughly - you don't want to damage it after removing the popcorn ceiling. Use a Shop-Vac to remove any excess water and loose debris before removing the plastic sheets protecting the room.

Step 6: If all else fails, consider hiring a professional 

Yes, this is more of a judgment call than a step, but when you hire a professional and pay that pro to do the job, your work is generally done and your popcorn ceiling is removed. You will likely need to clear the room, although contractors will do it for you - at an additional cost. Before hiring a professional, always check references and make sure the contractor isn't listed on the Better Business Bureau's "problem list."

Should You Buy a Home With a Popcorn Ceiling?

You can certainly buy a home with a popcorn ceiling, but you'll need to be careful.

The first step is making sure the ceiling is asbestos-free. If it's not, you're definitely going to have to remove the ceiling, and at a higher cost than if it has no asbestos. In that scenario, you should factor the cost in at several thousand dollars and ask the seller that the cost be deducted from the total sale cost of the home.

If you can't agree on the price to safely remove the popcorn ceiling, bring in a general contractor or drywall specialist for a solid price estimate.