We’ll get to a few more points on the subject, but right off the bat it needs to be addressed that popcorn ceiling applied up through the 1980’s may very well have asbestos fibers in it. Asbestos isn’t, and has never been, dangerous in an undisturbed state, but it’s in the removal process that the fibers will get in the air and can be breathed in, leading to serious health complications. If you decide to remove popcorn ceiling, it is of the utmost importance that you first get the ceiling professionally tested for asbestos. A mail-in test only runs about $50, just do the test, your lungs will thank you. If it does come back positive, and if you aren’t satisfied with the option of simply drywalling over it (which is perfectly safe to do), professional asbestos removal is the only acceptable route. The risks of asbestos exposure are just not worth preserving a pristine DIY attitude.
So what is popcorn ceiling? It’s a stucco-like spray that got popular in the 1950’s because it easily covers up imperfections and its texture means it has sound-dampening acoustic properties. It got unpopular once people realized it was an impossible-to-clean dust trap that makes things look like the 1950’s (in a bad way) and also might contain asbestos. The best way to remove the treatment is to scrape it off. Cheap and easy, but slow and messy. There is some disagreement over whether you should wet it first, but as long as it’s a light enough mist that the water doesn’t soak up into the ceiling, wetting first will definitely make the job easier. Also, this isn’t the time to be waste-conscious and attempt to use a reusable tarp or canvas to protect the room under the ceiling. Just lay down disposable plastic, ball it up at the end, and throw it all out at once.
Once you have a smooth, clean surface, there are some really beautiful ceiling options available. If you’re ceiling can support the weight, tongue-and-groove panels are fast, inexpensive, and give a slick wood look. The nice part of this task is that there is some cost-saving wiggle room in how much of it must be done by the same personnel. If your ceiling is asbestos-positive, you can opt to use a professional only for the removal, and then re-finish yourself. Or if you feel comfortable scraping asbestos-negative popcorn ceiling yourself but not confident you can install a new ceiling, a contractor will be happy to start the job from a clean, fresh surface.
The question we’re really getting to is should you buy a house with popcorn ceilings and/or do you need to replace your popcorn ceilings before you put your house on the market. The biggest problem with them is their reputation and the fear of the unknown — the unknown asbestos content and also the unknown cracks, leaks, or mildew that the popcorn may have been sprayed on to purposefully hide. Remember that just because you know that your popcorn ceiling was applied honestly and wasn’t purposefully intended to conceal damage, that doesn’t mean that prospective buyers know that. Ultimately, these things are subject to the whim of the consumer, and the consumer decided a long time ago that an impossible-to-clean dust trap that makes things look like the 1950’s (in a bad way) and also might contain asbestos, is not desirable.