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Asbestos in Popcorn Ceiling and Walls – An Austin Real Estate Story

Posted by Ryan Rodenbeck on Monday, November 19th, 2018 at 11:01am

So I have been selling real estate in Austin for the past eight years, many of which have been top years of a relatively high volume of transactions, with an average of 50 properties per year. So all in all, I have personally sold around 400 properties. During this time, I have been an owner and broker and/or a sales manager of at least 3 agents. I figure that puts me as having participated, in some form, in over 1,200 real estate transactions. In all this time, I have never had an issue with a property that had popcorn ceilings that had asbestos in it. Until now.

You see, usually when there is something that can be of particular concern regarding property, the powers that be (TREC, the government, "the man") puts out some kind of form and acknowledgement or disclosure like the lead based paint form that must accompany any home built before 1978.

As a matter of fact, when I owned a property management company, I had two separate occasions where I had to test for lead based paint because a tenant thought that a child or themselves may have lead poisoning. And the tests came back negative.

So when I had a client recently call me and ask if I knew if a home had asbestos in the popcorn ceiling, I was pretty stunned. I had thought of it before. I brought it up to my contractor when he ripped the popcorn out of my own personal home. The contractor shrugged it off, put on a mask and scraped it right off.

Well, I did some Googleing…and some more…and then some more. The lack of data about the safe removal of asbestos in popcorn and drywall was amazing. Sure, you can find plenty of message boards, as well as government sanctioned procedures for asbestos abatement, but for the layman, there is no true guide on what should or should not be taken seriously. At least not from any source other than message boards or people who get PAID to abate asbestos.

So when she asked, and after I had done my research, I was still pretty clueless as to what to say. I determined that you can take a sample of the popcorn texture from anywhere in the home and bring it into a local lab. The cost of testing asbestos ran us $150 for an immediate result. You can cut that in half for a 24 hour turnaround and it's a little less for a few-day turnaround.

We took 2 samples of the popcorn from the ceiling and they ended up testing positive for asbestos, to the tune of 5% and 10%.

The U.S. government states that anything over 1% should be professionally abated, even though in Texas it's not regulated in residential homes. The cost to professionally remove the asbestos is billed differently by different companies. The ones I called charged either $1,800 a day or $2.50/ ft to $3.50/ ft.

To estimate the cost to remove asbestos, you can either measure the property's walls, ceiling, etc. and do the calculation or invite a company to give you a bid. I decided to call OAS, a professional asbestos abatement company, to bid the job for me. At $1,800 per day, they were likely to be the cheapest option I could come up with. They bid the job at 2 days, but the final total for the work was $3,425. They come in, line the house with plastic, wear masks, and remove the asbestos. Then, you don't have to worry about resale because you had it professionally taken care of.

That's it, right? Not so much. The ceilings were filled with popcorn, but the walls were smooth with an orange peel type of texture. I assumed that if the ceilings had popcorn texture, but the walls did not, I wouldn't have to worry about the walls having asbestos in them, right? Negative.

My client calls me as I am telling the listing agent that we want to move forward on this Barton Hills home and tells me that she is worried about the walls. We had already obtained a bid to scrape all the ceilings for $3,425 (I negotiated a better rate), but she was concerned about the walls. A friend of a friend told her that you can get asbestos in your lungs by simply nailing a whole to the wall for a photo or art you are trying to hang.

Asbestos in sheetrock was common from the 1950's to the early 80's. You see, asbestos was banned in these materials in 1977, but some warehouses still housed the stuff until the early 80's. Now folks, we stage homes for a living, if anyone should be worried based on this, it should be us! We hang about 10 photos a week on walls that were built during this risky period.

That being said, as I MAY have HEARD of the POSSIBILITY of asbestos in the ceiling, various abatement removal specialists told me that it's almost NEVER in the walls. I can understand the concern for removing the popcorn ceiling, but a wall that had already been scraped, repainted and nailed into for 50 some odd years seemed "over the top".

So, to move forward with the deal and give my client the peace of mind she needed, I went over and took another sample from the wall. I just KNEW that there would be NO way that there was asbestos in the re-surfaced wall. I would have bet a finger on it. Guess what? 3% asbestos was contained in the sample. I was floored…

The removal of the ceiling was $3,450 by the abatement specialist, which is doable, since my non-qualified contractor was going to charge $3,200 to remove the popcorn, texture and paint the ceiling like new. Breakdown: abatement specialist charges $3,450 to remove popcorn and leave a mess. My contractor charges $3,200 to remove popcorn (not per FHA or whatever guidelines) and leave perfect. OR abatement does their thing (the right way) and my contractor goes in and cleans it up for an ADDITIONAL $2,000.

So, to my client, it was worth the extra $2,000 or so to have the abatement specialist come in and do the ceiling right and then follow that up with my contractors who come in and float, texture and paint the place.

The walls? *Sigh*… OK, so at 3% asbestos, my client worries that hanging a picture or drilling a hole in the wall will release harmful asbestos into the atmosphere (which, technically IS possible). Again, there is almost no data online about the likelihood of this. Once they remove the walls, what's behind them? Asbestos insulation? That can lead to even more of the potentially (though not likely asbestos) poisoning that you almost never hear of. SO, I proposed the idea of just removing the popcorn from the ceiling and encapsulating the walls of potential asbestos sheetrock by sheetrocking OVER the walls. You see, when you sheetrock over the ceiling, you lose almost an entire inch of height of what is already a short ceiling. When you are working on a wall, it's not so easy to notice. Plus, when you REMOVE the sheetrock entirely, that opens you up to a whole new can of worms when it comes to what's actually BEHIND the walls.

In the end, the client decided to move past the walls and take the risk of hanging pictures and have the ceiling professionally abated. I think I would have done the same.

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