But there are plenty of easy ways to make over this oft-overlooked area, from the quirky charm of Victorian-era, pressed-tin tiles and beadboard to a simple splash of colour.
"Historically, ceilings were highly decorated, but it seems as houses have become more modern they have been forgotten," says San Francisco-based interior designer Cecilie Starlin. "Once again, though, ceilings are starting to get the attention they deserve."
Here are some suggestions — from the simple to the complex — to transform your ceilings from drab white squares into the focal point of a room.
Probably the easiest way to bring the eye upward in a room is with a ceiling medallion, a white or colored decorative disk typically mounted around a lighting fixture.
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The pieces come in a variety of styles and can be found in any home improvement store. Another bonus? Today's lighter polyurethane models are much simpler to install and easier on the wallet than those from decades past, says Alex Bandon, online editor of Thisoldhouse.com.
"I personally like that look in the bedroom," she says. "It's a really unusual thing, but it makes a simple bedroom much more romantic and exciting."
If you have tall ceilings or want a cozy feel, extend the wall colour onto the ceiling, or go bold and throw a darker or contrasting colour up above to make the area appear smaller.
"Color on the ceiling is not forbidden," Bandon says. It's "something you can play around with a bit."
Go with a flat paint on ceilings to minimize light reflection and mask imperfections, says Puji Sherer of the eco-paint manufacturer YOLO Colorhouse in Portland, Ore.
"Since ceilings are not in danger of greasy fingerprints and the regular wear and tear that walls receive, higher gloss finishes are not necessary," she says.
For a classic New England cottage look, you can't beat the charm of wood paneling such as beadboard on the ceiling.
Amy Matthews, a contractor and host of the DIY Network's "Sweat Equity," prefers the ease of gluing and nailing larger beadboard sheet panels to the ceiling rather than tacking up individual tongue-and-groove pieces.
The panels, which can be cut with a power or handsaw, should be nailed to ceiling joists, and can then be stained or painted.
Bandon likes the look in bathrooms, where wainscoted walls are common, or on front-porch ceilings, in a traditional light-blue colour that was thought to keep insects away.
These are a popular ceiling option if you're looking for a folksy, vintage feel, and they also come in larger patterned-metal sheets for easier installation, Bandon says.
The panels can be nailed in place with a hammer or nail gun onto furring strips that must first be nailed up, according to thisoldhouse.com.
Overlap the edges and seal the panels with a clear polyurethane or paint them with an oil-based paint.
DROP PANEL CEILING
Many people shudder at the thought of a drop panel ceiling, envisioning the white utilitarian grids and fluorescent lighting common in 1960s basements and office buildings.
But Matthews says today's drop ceilings are handsomer, designed in many more colours and textures. Several companies even make individual panels in materials such as wood and tin that fit into existing metal grid systems, giving homeowners a cheaper way to bring their drop ceiling into the 21st century, Matthews says.
Originally used during the Renaissance and popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coffered ceilings are one of the more complex ceiling projects, but also the most formal and dramatic.
The process involves attaching flat or more intricately moulded beams to the ceiling to create a square, grid-like pattern that is then typically trimmed out with crown moulding, Bandon says.
It drops your ceilings down, so use caution in a small room, but it adds instant classic elegance to a dining or living room.
"It's a great way to hide flaws in your ceiling," Bandon says. "It's also a great way to hide duct work or something you have to put in your ceiling."
Building a soffit box around the perimeter of a ceiling also can give the look of a layered, coffer-like ceiling, says Ken Collier, editor-in-chief of The Family Handyman magazine.
Install recessed lighting in the soffit box or run downlights along the top to make the light "kind of wash along the walls. It looks very dramatic," Collier says.
On the Net:
This Old House: http://www.thisoldhouse.com
DIY Network: http://www.diynetwork.com
YOLO Colorhouse: http://www.yolocolorhouse.com
The Family Handyman: http://www.familyhandyman.com