The True Cost of Wallpaper Removal
Removal of wallcoverings, particularly vinyl, fabrics or textiles, as opposed to wallpaper, is an inherently risky undertaking. It's risky not from a safety standpoint, but rather from an economic standpoint.
by Len Hijuelos
referred to an archived article about wallpaper removal, which I thought might be the basis of an article for this column, but not a “how-to” article. I was thinking more about looking at this procedure from the perspective of cost.
First, let me say that the removal of wallcoverings, particularly vinyl, fabrics or textiles, as opposed to wallpaper, is an inherently risky undertaking. It’s risky not from a safety standpoint, but rather from an economic standpoint. There are so many variables and unknowns that it is difficult to assign production factors to develop cost figures.
The main problem is that you are dealing with existing finishes and you really don’t know how the product was originally applied — were the surfaces primed or sized, what kind of adhesive was used, and so on. This lack of information makes it extremely difficult to determine how easy or difficult the material will be to strip off and the extent of the damage stripping will do to the substrate, particularly if the substrate is gypsum board. The only way to really determine how the product will strip is to do an on-site test, that is, to actually remove some of the existing wallcovering in sufficient areas to be representative of the installation as a whole. More often than not this is not feasible, unless you are in a vacant or otherwise unoccupied area, as owners or occupants are usually not very receptive to having their wall finishes in a state of disarray. This, then, leaves only one other option: testing some small, unobtrusive area.
Let me now introduce you to “Len’s Law.” If one removes a small piece of wallcovering, say, behind a switch or outlet plate or by a loose or missing piece of trim, that sample will come off easily and show a relatively clean substrate, thereby indicating a minimum of prep work will be required — and that will be completely misleading. Because nowhere else in the entire building will that occur. This is, of course, being a little facetious, but in all seriousness, you can’t take one small sample and hang your hat on that. To be safe, you need to find a more representative sample.
Now, what exactly does this have to do with cost? Actually, the removal of wallcoverings in itself is no big deal. It is what the removal process does to the substrate that is the problem. A little care in the removal of a wallcovering from an original, proper installation will result in very little damage to the substrate and the prep work required for new finishes, either wallcoverings or paint, will be minimized. Conversely, if the existing product was not installed properly, then there is virtually no limit to the extent of potential damage to the substrate; obviously, the more damage to the substrate, the more prep work is required. This may range from just a moderate amount of patching and skimming to having to deal with continual blistering of the gray or brown backing paper or major patching and skimming.
Another factor to be considered is the type of backing on the wallcovering. Some products have paper backing, which tends to adhere to the substrate even when the face product is removed.
It is often a real dilemma as to how to price this procedure. On a hard dollar bid, you are going to have to incorporate your estimated costs in your bid, with virtually no opportunity to recover any cost overrun. And realistically, if you price the worst-case scenario, you will probably price yourself out of the job. On a hard dollar bid, general contractors will rarely, if ever, accept any qualification to a bid. If you try to allow for some contingency in the form of a qualification, your bid will be rejected. On negotiated work, there is usually the opportunity to qualify or to otherwise put some cap on your estimated costs, so that in the case of cost overruns, you can recover those additional costs.
As I said at the beginning of this article, this is not a “how to.” Rather, it’s a reminder of the potential problems and pitfalls you need to be aware of when dealing with this type of work. Just remember “Len’s Law.”