Ask Woodiwiss: why are my ceiling and walls cracking and peeling like this?

Torn and ripped-looking bits of paint could be caused by foundation issues, excess moisture, or just the wrong paint

Scraping, priming, and painting is the only way to fix peeling paint. But why it’s peeling can be hard to pinpoint or fix. If you don’t fully understand how your ceiling paint or walls came to look like this, you risk the same issue in months or a few years. A professional paint job, done well with high-quality paint, should last about 7-10 years.



Ceiling paint peeling is usually the first to show wear in excess moisture

High moisture in select areas can cause paint to peel. That’s why bathroom walls and ceiling paint tend to crack and degrade first around vent fans, hooks, light fixtures, or other fixtures drilled into the surface. 

But outside of a bathroom and maybe your kitchen, if you have ceilings that resemble the above peeling and cracking, check the following:

  • Are there water marks near the area? If so, moisture may be leaking down from the floor above or the roof.
  • If there’s no plumbing above, and no visible leaks, check if the paint is oil-based. Oil-based paint on top of latex acrylic paint or vice versa won’t adhere well. It’s literally an oil-and-water situation. We have a whole how-to guide on checking if you have oil or latex paint. The same goes for mixing an oil-based primer. Know that California law prohibits the sale of most oil-based primer and paint products, so this likely applies only to older homes.
  • Check the moisture level in the room. The easiest way might be to buy a good dehumidifier. You could also check your local hardware store or online retailers for a hygrometer. If the room routinely experiences high humidity, that moisture is wafting up and hitting the ceiling paint. Some smart home devices, like Apple HomePods, smart thermostats with room sensors, and Amazon Alexa devices can also measure humidity.

Roof repairs can cause ceiling paint peeling

Have you had recent roof repairs, damage, or replacement? It’s possible the bond strength of the paint was limited, or severe cracking was starting but not visible and the constant hammering on your roof caused the tearing. 

If it rained or was humid during a roof replacement, or shingles are damaged or missing like after strong winds, the roof’s surface can percolate moisture down and cause ceiling paint to peel.

It’s also physics: when your roof is removed, several thousands of pounds of material has been lifted off your house. This can cause the whole house and ceiling to “relax” and “lift up.” It’s not much different than if you or I held up several hundred pounds of weight for a long time and could finally “stand up.” 

This lifting effect can raise the trusses or rafters and cause cracking in drywall or paint on the walls or ceiling. This is common and not anything to worry about, but if the drywall begins to crack in short order after peeling paint is visible, you might get a structural engineer to take a look. Drywall cracks, especially on walls, are signs of bigger home improvement issues.

Peeling paint or torn-up “wounds” on walls can be foundation issues

It’s possible your walls will begin to suffer peeling paint shortly after the ceiling paint cracks. However, the walls may exhibit this behavior first. This, again, could be caused by:

  • Someone using the wrong primer
  • Not using any primer on the previous paint job
  • Not using two coats (always use a second coat!)
  • Not using proper ceiling paint (which is different and can help hide cracks when done well)
  • Not using a paint scraper or putty knife to properly or fully remove previously damaged or cracked paint
  • Improperly applied patching compound
  • A dirty surface that wasn’t properly cleaned
  • Foundation issues

There are, clearly, several factors to contend with. 

Nearly all of the time we see this behavior it’s just poor quality. It’s not always the case, but this is usually someone prior doing a bad DIY job, or skimping on labor and materials to save time or money in pursuit of selling or flipping a house. 

But foundation issues can just result from age, a settling house, or other structural problems. If the peeling paint is only on exterior walls, check these issues first:

  • Is there a hole, damage, or an area where water can leak from the exterior into the interior? 
  • Is the siding damaged or in need of replacement?
  • Are the surfaces exposed to an aggressive amount of intense sunlight or high temperatures?
  • Are there too many layers of material on the exterior (or roof)?

If the paint peeling is visible on interior walls but not exterior walls, check if the paint peels on one side of the house, in one room, or what’s near it — like a window that’s not flush, a humidifier, or proximity to a bathroom or laundry area.

Don’t worry too much yet, but do get your peeling paint repaired

Like a lot of advice on the internet, it’s easy to gravitate toward the worst-case scenario. It’s unlikely your house is sinking into quicksand. It’s more likely craftsmanship issues with the prior paint job. It could be as simple as the walls and ceiling were painted before the plaster or drywall was dry, or the painter didn’t wipe plaster or paint dust off the walls before painting. 

A lack of a second coat or failure to ensure the top layer was prepared properly is extremely common, too. And it often impacts several rooms or the whole house since many people paint large areas of their homes simultaneously.

Removing flaking paint, old paint, peeling paint, or evaluating for more serious issues will likely require a little more elbow grease this time. 

Our crews can help assess these issues, and we have the tools and expertise to skillfully evaluate, remove, repair, and replace the paint. (We’re not sending just one person with nothing but a putty knife. We have commercial-grade tools to do the job efficiently and well!)

Get started with a free quote and consultation. If we think structural issues are an issue, we can connect you to qualified professionals and contractors for further evaluation in the East Bay area.