Cracks in the Plaster - Demo/Repair/Cost Questions

10 Replies

Hey everyone,

Bear with me since this is my first post regarding this topic.  


Cracks are starting to show in the stairwell on the 3rd floor of my first rental which is an old home that's getting older. It's mostly on the ceiling but it's starting to show it's way down the exterior walls.  

Note that image uploaded was edited to enhance and reduce file size.  


  • Demo to stud, insulate exterior walls, drywall, mud and paint
  • Demo ceiling, insulate ceiling, repair wall ceiling, drywall ceiling, mud and paint
  • Repair plaster and hope for the best

Currently Doing

In the meantime, I am getting a few estimates since I currently have tenants so this would have to be a fast job. They are fine with a crew coming in since the stairwell rarely see any foot traffic during normal hours.

I did my measurements, it's roughly a 450 sq ft job, with the maximum height of 17 feet from the bottom of the stairwell. Hence the reason for contracting a crew to get the job done in 5 days.

Roofer is also coming out to take a look at the ceiling and roof to see if there is any leaking issues that may be influencing these cracks. Will also give an estimate to do repair/drywall work.

Questions for You

  • What do you think is the best route based on your experience in dealing with these types of plaster cracks?  Demo to stud or repair?
  • What's the average cost per square footage of materials and labor have you spent in the past on this type of work? 

I also would like to take the time to thank you for making it this far and invite you to connect with me to network and bounce ideas off each other. It's a goal of mine this year to improve my networking skills and meet other REI players. I look forward to your feedback.

Best regards,


  • What do you think is the best route based on your experience in dealing with these types of plaster cracks? Demo to stud or repair?

In short, find the source of the problem.

Things to consider:

1. Metal or wood studs?

2. Drywall or stucco?

There are several things that can lead to plaster cracking. Usually it is either poor application, movement, or moisture. Read this article. It does a good job summarizing each issue.

Now, try to find the problem and act appropriately. Also, make sure you ask your contractor's professional opinion since being able to inspect the issue first hand will give him the best vantage.

  • What's the average cost per square footage of materials and labor have you spent in the past on this type of work?

In my market (South FL), carpenters are getting between 20-30 a board to hang and finish drywall. Than you need to tack on demo cost, material cost, and contractor's fee. I can see that job running you around $1,500-$2,000 at 450 SF assuming it's drywall.

If you plan to hold this property long term, you will eventually be gutting the lath-n-plaster and properly air sealing and insulating the wall cavities and ceiling.

However, to determine whether an interim fix is plausible, you want to first find the cause of the cracking (old age is likely a factor, but there is probably another catalyst).

Is this ceiling directly below the roof?  What is the snow load like at the moment?  If the building is shifting due to snow load, the cracks may tighten up a little once the load is gone - don't worry, they will not go away ;-)  If you patch over them, they will return when the load returns.

Does any of the plaster move in towards the wall/ceiling when you press on it?  If the plaster is pulling away from the lath (horse hair and glue eventually fails), you may  be able to use drywall screws and buttons (washes) to pull it back in-place.  It the area is too large, you will need to pull out at least that immediate area and patch it.  Depending on the thickness of the plaster, you may need to use 1/4" or 3/8" drywall in your patch.

In the picture it looks like there has been water damage in that location at one point in time.   This will promote both cracking and the plaster pulling away from the lath.

While a to-the-studs gut is the ultimate remedy, it is a filthy, filthy job - obviously the unit will need to be vacant and tenants in neighbouring units will still experience some dust.

One other point, if the property is towards the end of the lath-n-plaster era (or the blue board and plaster era) ... ie. the 1930s - 1940s, you may want to have the plaster tested for asbestos content before undertaking a renovation.

Wow, that could be a structural problem, or just the building settling. there's no way of telling until you get more info. get a framer or gc to inspect that, if you're not tight on budget, an engineer.

@Tony Williams  

Thank you for the link to the causes of plaster wall cracks.  I hadn't thought of searching for it.  I know from remodeling a room next to the stairwell it is all wood studs.

@Roy N.  

The plaster does not move when I press on it but you are right, it will not go away.  I agree that a demo to the stud is the ultimate solution especially with older homes.  I suspect it is a combination of old age and the effect of the weather.  That's why I am having my roofer come by to inspect the roof to ensure there's no leak.  He looked at it last year and said it was in good shape but now???  A lot can happen after a major winter like we have had this winter up here.

I have experienced the justified characteristics of plaster demolition being messy. It's no fun but there's no such thing as an easy solution when it comes to ceilings. I do have several equipment and materials to make it as painless as possible (shopvac, floor to ceiling "tarping" (not sure what they are called, the plastic things you can use to seal the areas off to mitigate dust) and blowers to blow the dusty air out of the window at the top of the stairs during the demo.

Tony, those are good prices to know for South Florida since I am planning on acquiring properties in that area in a few years.  I appreciate that info.  

@Manolo D.  I did manage to get two GC and a plaster/drywall specialist to set up an appointment for next week so I will give yall an update when I get more answers. I will ask them if it is a structural issue.  The house itself is in excellent shape since it is basically basement, 2 floor brick with a third floor wood frame.  This is the only area in the entire house that is showing cracking signs.

Demo. Period.

I made the mistake of attempting to chase out and replaster all the cracks in my walls and ceiling. Holy crap the amount of work was crazy stupid, and it still doesn't look good. Next time it's full gut and replace. But I agree find the underlying problem first or you'll be fixing cracks in the new sheetrock soon.

The house is years old and you are now seeing cracks. This is a guess but it's either what @Roy N.  said, failure from snow load or water on the foundation or both. I don't agree that after the load it will return to property position after the snow load is gone. If there is water against the foundation below that point (where the wall is moving) then the wall is starting to move slightly. Get the water away from the foundation! Get the snow off the roof! Fixing the plaster is only a band aid. Get a structural engineer familiar with older homes come and take a look and give you a verbal recommendation. It should cost a few hundred dollars. Money well spent. You don't need a written report which will cost several thousand. Do what the structural engineer says, even if it's expensive. I saw a house fall down because of water against the foundation. It was an old brick Victorian. The foundation got wet, the owner did nothing and eventually the wall fell out and the building was demoed. I see it fairly frequently in older homes that have had gutter failure or some exterior grade changes and water ends up sitting around a stone or brick foundation. 

Get the structure stabilized then worry about the cosmetics of the plaster. 

For the Ceiling fix. I would dry wall over the plaster. For the walls, down to the studs and insulate and go back with drywall. Don't forget to replace electrical and plumbing exposure during the work.

@Bill S.  

 I should mention it is a row home so it does present some dilemma regarding foundation issue.  Fortunately it is sandwiched between other row homes.  The "three of us" (my property and the ones on either side) all have been well maintained since it was constructed in 1899.  

The block was originally 2 stories w basement.  The 3rd floor was added on some time in the 1940s.  It's a flat roof so there's not much I can do there other than reroof it and hope the neighbors stay on top of theirs. It's been a good learning experience.

I am sure the foundation is in good shape as there as been no sign of water damage in the basement and the home is basically surrounded by cement sidewalks slightly sloping away from the house for drainage reasons. Out of curiosity, I will give my engineer a call and see about that verbal recommendation. I didn't realize they could do that as an alternative to a written recommendation.  It's a cheap lesson and certainly would be worth it.

I agree with Roy, that there appears to be past water damage which would cause plaster damage. First thing is to fully investigate if there is current water intrusion through the roof and is the attic/crawlspace above. I agree with Bill that especially for the ceiling you could just rock over the plaster once you are sure that he water intrusion is gone. You could also drywall over the walls and refinish as well. On the walls it does create some issues where it meets p with trim but trim would be removed if you demoed the wall to studs anyway. Your biggest question would is it beneficial to open up the walls to insulate, modify/update plumbing or electrical. 

Update 03/14/2015

So far two specialists came in and both felt it was not water damage but rather just old age.  They both felt it is easily repairable and came in at $1150 and $1200.  I do have another one coming in next week.  

As always, I welcome additional thoughts on this matter.  Does the price sound reasonable to you?  I do plan on a demo but not now due to a long term plan regarding financing in the next few months.

@Mark M.

Interesting.  Old age will definitely see the plaster detach from the lath and crack, but it usually does not cause blotches of discolouration:  water is the main protagonist there.

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