Want to modernize your home? Look up. If you have the dreaded acoustic ceiling deridingly called "popcorn" or "cottage cheese," you can start there.

The ugly, bumpy surface will thwart even the best attempts to reinvent that raised ranch as a sleek, model-home-quality abode. To call these ceilings out of style is an understatement.

"People just hate them," said Janet Keller, an accredited buyer’s representative with Windermere Real Estate in Bellevue, Wash. "It’s just like an old kitchen or bath. It gives the house a dated appearance."

These ceilings also can affect a house’s value. "Something like that goes into the final cost negotiation of a house and the buyer is going to negotiate down," Keller added. She points out that acoustic ceilings are also dust traps and hard to maintain, because any attempt at cleaning can rub off the some of the acoustic material, damaging the ceiling.

Yesterday’s fad
So how did this type of ceiling finish become popular in the first place? Some experts claim it was a noise deterrent. Others say it hid imperfections in the large expanse of a ceiling.

"It became popular because it was easy for builders to apply, and hid a multitude of sins," said Tom Kraeutler, host of "The Money Pit," a nationally syndicated home improvement radio show.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the ceilings were the latest thing in the late 1950s -- then inevitably fell out of favor.

More than an eyesore
If you want to remove an acoustic ceiling, you’ll first need to determine whether it contains asbestos. Asbestos was used as a binder in many construction materials before it was banned in 1978 for posing health risks such as cancer and respiratory disease. You’re not required by law to test for asbestos, but the Environmental Protection Agency strongly recommends it. 

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If your home was built before 1979, the chances are very good that your popcorn ceiling contains asbestos. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find asbestos in acoustic ceilings installed in the 1980s because existing inventories were exempt from the 1978 ban.

You can test for asbestos by submitting samples to a laboratory. The cost is minimal and labs are generally listed in the Yellow Pages under "Asbestos -- Consulting and Testing."

Obtaining a ceiling sample is not difficult:

  • Using a spray bottle, thoroughly wet three or four small ceiling areas with water mixed with a few drops of liquid detergent.
  • With a putty knife, carefully scrape about one square inch of "popcorn" from each area into a sealable plastic bag.

If the lab results are negative, meaning less than 1% asbestos was found in the sample, the EPA recommends taking two additional samples to confirm the analysis.

If you have asbestos …
If your sample comes back positive for asbestos, there are only two ways to deal with it safely and legally:

  •  You can encapsulate the asbestos with a new layer of non-asbestos acoustic sprayed over the top of the existing ceiling. This is the most economical solution to the asbestos problem, but still leaves your home with that dated look.
  • The pricier solution is to have a certified asbestos-abatement company remove the finish and then have the wallboard retextured and painted. Cost for having professionals remove asbestos vary but for, say, a 15-by-20-foot room you can expect to pay $3,000 to $5,000.

It is illegal to paint an asbestos-containing acoustic ceiling because rolling or spraying can release the harmful fibers into the air, where they can then be inhaled. Paint is not an efficient way to encapsulate asbestos fibers, according to the EPA.

While it is not illegal to remove your asbestos-positive ceiling yourself, there are no known safe levels of asbestos exposure and the EPA recommends strongly against doing so. If you decide to remove it on your own anyway, you’ll need to use special HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter respirators, disposable protective clothing, rubber boots and eye protection. And you must use special containment bags for all debris and dispose of them only at sites licensed for asbestos. (Full guidelines are available from most state health departments or air-quality agencies.)

No asbestos? Fresh paint can help … some
If there is no asbestos present, there are other ways to deal with popcorn ceilings that fall short of removal. One option is to freshen them up with a new coat of paint.

Think twice about using a roller because acoustic ceilings are very porous and will absorb a great deal of paint. Also, using a regular roller makes it nearly impossible to achieve even coverage. Often, the entire layer of the cottage-cheese texture will come right off, leaving a bare strip of drywall. New on the market are thick rollers with slits that are less likely to scrape the acoustic off, but they still require a lot of paint and can be drippy.

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The most efficient way to put new paint on a textured ceiling is to spray-paint it with flat latex. Spraying is a difficult job, and unless you already have most of the supplies, it may be cheaper to hire a professional. Professional painters can usually respray the acoustic ceilings in an average-size home in less than a day for about the same price as materials alone. After all this is done, however, you’re still left with that same outmoded look.

Taking it down yourself
Removing an acoustic ceiling is not beyond the average homeowner. But it’s hard work, and not particularly pleasant. "Be prepared for the long haul. It’s a dirty, nasty, long job," said Kraeutler. "As you scrape, it’s going to fall in your face, your hair -- but it’s doable."

The basic steps:

  • Clear the room of all contents, including any hanging fixtures. Place wire nuts on any exposed wires and turn off these fixtures at the breaker to avoid electrical shock.
  • Guard walls and floors with a lightweight plastic dropcloth, covered with a layer of 6-millimeter plastic sheeting.
  • Soften the acoustic material with a light water spray; a pump garden sprayer works well.
    Scrape the popcorn off with a wide-blade taping knife.
  • Let the drywall dry overnight. The next day, repair any imperfections with drywall joint compound then sand with a sanding pole using 100-grit sandpaper.
  • Apply texture to match the wall finish.

The final steps are to seal the ceiling with drywall primer and paint.

"Use a good primer. Think of primer as the glue that makes the paint stick," said Kraeutler. Finish with a flat latex, he added; paint with sheen will accentuate any imperfections in the ceiling.

If this sounds too complicated, there are plenty of professionals who will do the job for you -- painters, drywallers, handymen -- but removing an acoustic ceiling is more labor than skill, and labor is expensive. You can expect to pay $400 to $800 for a 15-by-20-foot room.