Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].
Question from Debra in NJ: Hi Brian, My husband and I bought our house last spring as a bit of a fixer-upper. We got a pretty good deal because the yard was overgrown (we spruced it up this past summer) and the interior is covered with 20 year old wallpaper. The carpet is also worn out but that’s a project for another time. We’re stuck inside for the next several months so stripping the old wallpaper is the project we’ve decided to tackle. The fuzzy ivy walls in the kitchen have to go and the seashell pattern in the bathroom makes us dizzy every time we look at it. How do you suggest we get started?
Answer: Hello, Debra. I’m not going to try to make wallpaper removal sound like a nice pleasant way for you and your husband to spend a weekend. Removing wallpaper is messy, time consuming, and boring. And if you go about it the wrong way, you might damage the walls. I’ll share a few tips to help get the job done more efficiently but it still won’t be fun.
How difficult this job is going to be has a lot to do with the type of wallpaper that needs to be removed. Debra, since you estimated the age to be about 20, you can be certain it isn’t one of the newer versions that are designed to be removed. But for other readers, I’m going to briefly describe how to remove a variety of different wallpapers.
New strippable wallpaper can usually be done without water or chemicals. Start at a corner or seam near the bottom. If it can easily be pulled away with a putty knife, it is probably strippable. Just grab a corner with both hands and pull off as big of a chunk as you can. Repeat until it all comes off. If you run into a stubborn section, you can help it along with a razor knife. Hold the knife perpendicular to the wall and make a series of horizontal strips about 10 inches apart. Then loosen the section of the paper and pull it free with your fingers.
Using chemicals or a natural solution gets messy. Debra, one of these is most likely what you’ll need. Be sure to give yourself an entire weekend for each room. The first thing to do is give yourself full access to the walls. That means moving furniture, and in the kitchen it can require unplugging the stove and moving the refrigerator away from the wall. When taking stuff off the walls, this includes vents, outlet covers, and switch plates. Mask over switches and outlets with plastic and tape. You’re probably going to need to remove the baseboards also. Next, protect the floor beginning at the wall and at least two feet away from the wall. It’s a good idea to create a “gutter” with plastic sheeting by rolling the edges up two feet from the wall and both ends. Use a good quality tape at the wall and press hard to create a watertight seal. Cover the “gutter” with another layer of plastic and then a layer of absorbent old towels.
Before you get to this point, you need to decide what type of solution you want to use to loosen the old glue. There are commercial solvents available but they’re expensive and full of chemicals. If you use these, wear protective equipment that includes chemically resistant gloves, eye protection, and a plastic apron. You’ll also need good ventilation. There are less expensive home chemical solutions like mixing water and fabric softener. Again, use protective equipment and ventilation. How well something like this works often depends on the type of glue on the wall. It also depends on what type of old wallpaper is being removed. Some, like easy-to-wash wallpapers, don’t absorb the solution. Start with a small patch of wall to see how quickly you will be able to peel off the paper. Let the solution sit for 3-5 minutes. This is just enough time to let the solution penetrate the paper and begin to dissolve the glue, but not enough time for it to dry. Apply the mixture to your walls with a broad brush or a sprayer. Work from top to bottom, one section at a time. Don't try to tackle so big of an area that the paper dries before you remove it.
If the old wallpaper isn’t absorbing the solution, scuff the surface with coarse sandpaper or a scoring tool to allow the water to soak into the paper. Once it's thoroughly soaked, apply the solution twice more and let it soak for 30 minutes. You'll know it’s ready when you can scrape off pieces with a putty knife.
You can try an all-natural solution. One that is recommended is ⅓ cup of lemon juice, 2 cups white vinegar, and 2 cups hot water. This might need to be applied twice if it first removes the wallpaper but leaves a layer of glue behind. Apply the same solution again and try scraping the glue off with a putty knife. This is an all-natural solution but you should still use protective equipment because the solution is acidic and caustic.
A hand-held steamer can work best for difficult cases. It uses heat and water to steam the wallpaper off the wall. You hold the steam plate up to the wall for about 10 seconds until it loosens the wallpaper enough that it just peels off the wall. You can try a steam clothes iron for this but there are commercial-grade tools specifically designed to make this process easier. This usually works best with two people working as a team. The paper and glue have to be scraped off while still hot and moist. One person runs the steamer and another follows with a putty knife.
Tip: For a scrapper, use a flexible metal spatula or putty knife with a thin blade and rounded corners. You can round the corners with a file so that they don’t dig into the wall or tear the paper into small pieces. Don’t use plastic scrapers because these are too thick to get underneath the wallpaper. Also, solutions can soften the wallboard, so be careful not to dig the scraper into the wall.
Debra, whichever process works best for you will probably still require some minor wall repair before painting. Use joint compound or spackle and sandpaper after it dries. Also, primer the wall before painting.
Do you have any creative suggestions for removing wallpaper? Please add your comments.
Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].