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I've been looking at a lot of older home listings in different areas and I'm seeing a lot of drop ceilings in older homes, especially in less populated areas. In my areas drop ceilings are primarily used in commercial locations and in some older finished basements.

When I see a drop ceiling on a main floor in an old home I assume there's a crumbly mess of plaster behind there that nobody wanted to pay to fix right. Is that it or is it something else? I've been looking with someone else online in areas I don't plan to visit but I'm very curious if anyone knows.

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  • Old houses can flex and shift dramatically through the seasons. That means that a brand new plaster job might inevitably crack within months or years. Nobody wants to put in the same new ceiling for a third time, so they install something that won't crack.
    – dandavis
    Jan 24 at 10:08
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It is a "design trend" driven by several things boiling down to $$$$

In general ceiling heights in the 1800's were pretty high across the globe, 3.5 meters in Europe was not uncommon. Remember that "nice" single family homes back then were not common among the peasants, the upper class people wanted high ceilings because of several reasons - the soaring "look", a place for the smoke (produced by lanterns, gaslights, etc.) to rise to, (as well as pipe and cigar smoke) much better cooling (gave a place for the heat to rise), the perception of "healthier rooms" as well as just the plain old "I'm richer than you are, nannyer nannyer nannyer" notion. The higher the building the more materials and more expensive it looked.

In the US this trend came across and by the time the 1900's came along 9 feet and higher ceiling heights were common, as well when electrification came along it gave space for a ceiling fan. During that era fuel was cheap so people would have stoves and such and burn entire forests up heating 3 rooms.

Later on when they started installing gas furnaces heating became expensive so people put in drop ceilings to push the heat down closer to the people. During the 70's and 80's the standard ceiling height in new construction became 8 feet high as a way of saving money on heating. Your drop ceilings in older homes are almost certainly tacked on after the fact (and I would guess they look terrible, eh?) for this reason, saving heating costs. Just beware since a drop ceiling could have been used to conceal an original asbestos-impregnated "popcorn" or "acoustical tile" ceiling.

Nowadays the "standard" in new construction is 9 feet high ceilings, and "tray" ceilings seem popular now (I think they are stupid dust catchers but what do I know) The trend once more is back to the "I'm richer than you are, ha ha ha ha" notion I think - because the price of single family detached homes is so high we are really returning back to the way things used to be in Europe where only the wealthy and upper middle class owned single family detached homes, and the lower middle class and poor are crammed into rack, stack & pack apartments. (and it is a sad and dangerous trend which is going to have a serious negative effect on the economy in the future)

Throughout history one of the biggest marks of wealth has been space - if you are poor and you want to look rich - buy a "spread" with a few acres out in the country - everyone will immediately assume you are worth at least $1M because so few people understand land pricing in the country. The illusion of wealth is created by ceiling height so if you want to rip down the drop ceiling and go back to the original real ceiling, more power to you!

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    Very good answer. I agree with everything you said. I studied to be an architect for a time, those issues are what we were taught when discussing ceiling height options, especially the "space = wealth and success". Think about a bank; when was the last time you saw one with low ceilings? But also that it was cheap and easy to heat a house, but cooling a home was impossible until modern times, so higher ceilings meant keeping the hotter air away from you in summer.
    – JRaef
    Jan 23 at 22:10
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    Re: house prices -- most of that's self-inflicted wounds due to subdivision, zoning, and parking rules, which makes the trend all the more sad. (Not saying that there aren't countervailing forces in play, though -- it just will take a long time to deal with such a widely distributed antipattern) Jan 23 at 23:47
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I agree with @Ted Mittelstaedt. That info is true. They also used to build homes a lot more solidly and used a lot of lath & plaster or put wood on the inside of the walls. Sheetrock didn't replace plaster until the 1950's. To add new amenities to a home as they were developed such as air ducts, dryer vents, recessed lighting, plumbing, upgraded electrical wiring/new circuits (or electrical wiring at all, depending on how old the home was) etc... you couldn't just cut a large whole in the sheet rock or remove it. Idk if you have ever tried to cut into lath and plaster but it's very very difficult to do without sending fault lines up or across the wall and having chunks fall off the wall. It wants to shake the whole wall loose. So to add anything to those homes, the routing was very limited without doing a whole remodel or having things be exposed like duct work or wire mold and the older homes did have higher ceilings so they would just drop the ceilings and you could hide all that stuff. Also, I don't know what part of the country you're in but homes with flat roofs don't have the attic space to do such things either, which was another reason for dropping the ceilings. Lift up some of the drop ceiling tiles and you'll see what I mean.

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  • Please edit your WALL of WORDS so it has paragraphs in order to make it easier to read and digest.
    – Alaska Man
    Jan 23 at 23:30
  • I don't know why you were down voted I thought this was a good answer that provided additional reasons this could have been done and what to look for behind the drop ceiling. I don't know when 2/3 of a phone screen became a wall of text. Jan 24 at 1:24
  • "Idk if you have ever tried to cut into lath and plaster but it's very very difficult to do without sending fault lines up or across the wall and having chunks fall off the wall." - I've made plenty of cuts through plaster walls in my house without any such troubles. My house was built in 1902 and had forced air renovated into the walls. All doable, it's just not as easy/cheap as leaving it exposed. Jan 24 at 2:56

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