Back in the 1970s, popcorn ceilings -- sprayed-on surfaces that looked like cottage cheese -- were everywhere. But tastes change, and yesterday's popcorn ceiling may not be the look you want today.

Consider biting the aesthetic bullet if the ceiling is in good shape (no cracks or rust-colored stains indicating a water leak), or if only spot repairs are needed (fix them with specially designed patching compound that you apply with a paintbrush). Because if you want the popcorn to come down, you're in for a tedious, messy job.

Need to know: Does the ceiling surface contain asbestos? Before 1978, some popcorn surfaces were made with vermiculite, which is no longer used because asbestos naturally occurs in it. Removal of such a surface must be handled by a certified contractor.

To be certain, send a small sample of the surface to a testing laboratory certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. (See for general information about asbestos and its hazards; for local testing resources, call 800-368-5888.)

Be sure to ask: Has the ceiling been painted? To remove the popcorn, the surface must be wet with water and then stripped away. If there is paint on the ceiling, a chemical stripper (available at home centers) might be needed to break through the paint.

Bad advice: "Remove the entire finish at once." Instead, work on one 4-by-4-foot section of ceiling at a time.

Good advice: Whether you hire a professional or tackle the job yourself, be sure to cover furniture, walls, floors and other exposed surfaces to protect them from falling debris.

Shut off the electricity to the room and cover the light fixtures and outlets, to protect them from the debris and whatever liquid is used to strip the ceiling finish.

Go easy on the water; a light spray with a plant mister is enough to loosen the popcorn. Use a plastic knife for scraping, sanding the edges first so they won't cut; a metal blade might dig into the ceiling.

When you're done scraping, use plaster or drywall to make any repairs to the ceiling, then paint.

What it will cost: If you have a ceiling with no asbestos, removing the popcorn will cost $4 to $10 a square foot. A lab test for asbestos will run $25 to $50.

Removing asbestos will cost triple what an asbestos-free job costs. It also will involve government-mandated procedures and disposal.

Jargon alert: A textured ceiling isn't always a popcorn ceiling; those are usually made by swirling drywall compound on with a notched trowel, a brush, or a roller. Popcorn ceilings typically were sprayed on and then troweled into corners and edges.