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McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of
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Should I buy a house with popcorn ceilings?
Saturday, April 3, 2021
There are two reasons to be concerned about buying a house with popcorn ceilings. The first is the well-known safety issue of possible asbestos contamination of the vermiculite granules, and the other is the possibly that it will reduce the perceived value of the home for aesthetic reasons. Popcorn ceilings, like 30-year-old kitchen cabinets, are an outdated finish.
It’s also both messy and expensive to remove. One of the reasons that builders liked popcorn ceilings is that they can easily conceal sloppy drywall installation. So, when you scrape it off, you may find that repairs to the surface are necessary to have an acceptable ceiling.
The asbestos content of the vermiculite ceilings varies widely, from about 2% to 30%. Asbestos in construction products was banned in 1978 by CPSC and, although asbestos-tainted granules were still available for a few years afterwards, newer ceilings will not have asbestos. Manufacturers simply switched from vermiculite granules to other materials like recycled cardboard.
You can have a sample of your popcorn ceiling tested for asbestos content by a lab should you suspect it may be contaminated. If asbestos is found, they can also tell you the level of asbestos in the material. But it's important to know that asbestos is only dangerous when it is “friable,” which means that particles can come loose from the surface and float in the air. A coat of paint on a popcorn ceiling seals the vermiculite material, rendering the asbestos not friable.
And not everybody is convinced that the low level of asbestos contamination that might get released from a popcorn ceiling is a health hazard. This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal a month after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center that caused the towers' asbestos insulation to explode into the air around Manhattan:
"No more than a few hours after the World Trade Center fell, the media were reporting that the north tower had contained 40 floors of asbestos, all of which was now swirling around downtown Manhattan. City health officials, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and, most importantly, the Environmental Protection Agency, landed on the scene to conduct air-quality tests. What they did next was nothing less than astonishing: They said it was safe to be downtown.
For anyone who knows the history of these agencies, such proclamations are akin to heresy… But on Sept. 11, as with so many things, the EPA's world changed. Faced with a public health scare that could have sent thousands in Manhattan fleeing the city or jamming hospitals, the EPA decided to cough up the truth about asbestos. Its officials bent over backward to get out the message that asbestos was harmful only if breathed at high levels and over sustained periods of time. When reporters pointed out that some of the tests had exceeded the EPA's safety levels, the agency hurried to explain that this was a 'stringent standard based on long-term exposure' and repeated that the public was not at any real risk...
Asbestos is associated with three major diseases–asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Nearly all of these ailments, however, strike people who, largely for occupational reasons, were exposed to asbestos at high levels and over a long period of time. For everyone else, the risks are extremely low: Should you simply sit in a building containing asbestos, you are more likely to be hit by lightning than you are to die a premature death from asbestos.”
Whether you believe that asbestos content in a popcorn ceiling is a safety hazard or not, it will reduce the appeal and, subsequently, the value of a home for many buyers in today’s market. Tthat should be taken into consideration, along with the other pros and cons of a particular potential house purchase.
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