Cracked Plaster Ceiling: Repair or Replace?

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

I purchased a 1920s home about four years ago. I love it. The plaster ceiling has some sags at the corners as well as some cracks, which I know is normal with plaster. What's the most economical repair for me? Who do I call who will not take advantage of my situation and overcharge for the repairs?

It may seem counter-intuitive but ripping out and replacing is often the fastest, easiest, and least expensive approach. Fussing with old materials and blending in repairs so they're not obvious takes time, and sometimes more skill than replacing with new.

Installing a new drywall ceiling could be as simple as adding 1x4 strapping across the ceiling, hanging the drywall and then taping and painting. In a fairly small room like your kitchen, that would be a walk in the park for a drywall pro. And unless plastering is common in your part of the country, it may be easier to find a good drywall contractor than a skilled plasterer. There just aren't as many of them around.

Another advantage to choosing this route would be the opportunity to update lighting and ventilation if your 80+ year old kitchen should need it. Pulling new wire or running ventilation duct will never be easier, and you wouldn't have to worry about patching the plaster later.

In problem areas, such as the corners you mention, removing some plaster would give your contractor a chance to check for more serious problems--either a water leak or weakened framing. If there's nothing amiss, you can go ahead with the drywall and cover up all evidence of exploration.

Get a pro to help you decide. That being said, if the problems are cosmetic it could be cheaper to repair your ceiling. There's also the intangible satisfaction of restoring and preserving the character of the house you've grown to love. If the ceiling isn't perfect, well, there are worse things in life.

And that brings us to the second part of your dilemma: how to know when to trust the advice you've been given and feel confident you're not being taken?

Referrals are the best way. If you know someone locally who's had similar work done, that's an obvious avenue to explore. You might also ask at a local paint or hardware store. These folks are often plugged into a network of tradesmen who do this kind of work. You could try www.angieslist.com, an Internet referral list that rates tradespeople on the basis of price, quality, and responsiveness.

With a little advance homework, you should be able to gather a pool of qualified contractors. I'd invite three candidates in for a look at what you're dealing with. Ask for written bids, but don't be afraid to trust your intuition. Are they polite? Do they listen? Are they wearing clean clothes? Those are all a good start. Price is important, but it's not everything.

Certainly there are people out there who would take advantage of you. That's life. But the number of honest people in the trades far outweighs this relatively small group of shysters. Most do the best they can. It's how they stay in business.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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