One maintenance problem that often plagues those who live in older homes or apartments is what to do about ugly plaster ceilings that have cracks, areas with peeling paint, and lumpy looking rough spots.

The permanent way to cure this problem would be to completely replaster. But even if one were willing to pay the high cost of having the job done professionally (few do-it-yourselfers would be willing or able to tackle this job), the project would create such a mess that the premises would have to be vacated while the work was in progress. All this assumes, of course, that the homeowner can find a contractor who is willing to replaster only one ceiling in an occupied home or apartment.

Fortunately, there are other measures that can be taken to camouflage or make lasting repairs to unsightly plaster ceilings.

If the problem is merely a couple of cracks that keep opening, cut them out with a V-shaped tool (a beverage can opener) so they are wider on the inside (below the surface) than at the surface. This will ensure a good mechanical and chemical bond when patching material is applied.

The most effective patching material for cracks is a ready-mixed vinyl or acrylic-type, which bonds better and lasts longer than the kind you mix yourself. After cutting the crack out, dust thoroughly, then dampen the plaster inside the crack by applying water with an old paintbrush. If the crack is deep, don't fill it in one application. Fill it only halfway and allow it to dry hard before applying the second coat.

When a crack keeps opening in the same place no matter how carefully it is patched, it may be that one of the main beams has settled or that there is expansion and contraction of major structural members. This condition could also be caused by excessive vibration -- in a house located next to a railroad or major highway.

This type of crack can often be permanently repaired by using material called Krack-Cote. Made by the Tuff-Kote Co., 210 Seminary St., Woodstock, Ill. 60098, and sold in many paint and hardware stores as well as in some lumberyards, it consists of a patching compound that dries to a permanently flexible finish. It is used to bridge a crack rather than fill it.

The compound is applied to each side of the crack and cloth tape is applied over it. Then a final layer of compound is spread over this. The result is a patch that "gives" with the movement of the plaster. This area can be painted.

Ceilings that have been patched many times often look rough and irregular, even if there are no open cracks. One solution to this problem is to coat the ceiling with a heavily textured paint that will actually fill in and bridge over small hairline cracks and cover most rough spots the paint can be applied with roller to give stippled effect, or it can be textured after application with a roller or brush.

Texturing is done by working the wet material with a stiff brush, comb, sponge, or even a trowel to achieve the texture or pattern desired. Some paints have a gritty material added to create a sand finish as they are applied.

There are instances when none of the methods mentioned so far will solve the problem. In these cases, putting up a whole new ceiling is about the only thing left. Although any type of wall paneling could be used, the two most popular ways to put up a new ceiling are: (1) Install acoustical tiles or panels by cementing or stapling, or, (2) Put up a suspended ceiling in which decorative acoustical panels or tiles are supported by a metal grid or framework suspended several inches below the existing ceiling.

Acoustical ceiling tiles come in many patterns, colors and textures. They can be installed by cementing them to the existing ceiling with special mastic adhesive, or by stapling them to furring strips that must be nailed up over the existing ceiling beforehand.

Cementing is practical only if the old plaster is fairly solid so the tiles can adhere to it, and if the surface is reasonably smooth and flat. If the plaster is wavy or bumpy the tiles will come out the same way. And if the old paint is peeling or the plaster is coming down, the new tiles will come down too.

Under conditions of this kind the problem can be solved by nailing up furring strips about one inch by two inches, then stapling the tiles to these. The strips are put on with nails long enough to go through the plaster and into the over head beams. Where necessary, the strips should be shimmed out to provide a relatively straight surface.

Where headroom allows for the ceiling to be lowered a few inches, the neatest (and sometimes the easiest) way is to put up a suspended ceiling consisting of acoustical panels supported by a grid or framework of aluminum channels. The channels are suspended from the ceiling by wire fastened to screw eyes or hooks driven into the ceiling.

Sold in lumberyards and home centers, this ceiling system usually takes panels measuring two feet by four feet. Lighting units can be purchased to fit into the grid if overhead lighting is desired. This system results in a ceiling at least six inches lower than the original one, but in older homes and apartments where the extra headroom is available, a suspended ceiling completely hides the old surface and helps keep the room warmer.