The attic inspection is dangerous. You may fall through a ceiling, damage finishes, get an electric shock or irritate your lungs, eyes or skin with insulation materials.
Hot, Cold and Infested
Attics can be hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Often, it is very difficult to move through the attic, and the attic may be a home for birds and animals you’d rather not meet. You must watch for animal droppings, which may pose a health hazard. You may be startled by bats, raccoons, squirrels, mice and other animals, causing you to lose footing or step carelessly, putting a foot through a ceiling. Bees, hornets and other stinging insects also can spoil your inspection.
How Far to Go
When the attic insulation completely covers the ceiling joists, we do not recommend walking through the attic. Instead, simply look at the attic from the access hatch. When you can’t see the ceiling joists, it’s difficult to know where to step. You may be able to find the ceiling joists with your foot by feeling around through the insulation; however, you may step on a wire, an open electrical junction box or a joist that has been cut or is cracked. We recommend that you do not move through an attic where there is risk of damaging the property or injuring yourself. We are also cautious about using planks that have been laid as walkways across attic areas. Unless these appear to have been clearly “well traveled,” we recommend moving very carefully. It’s easier when you can grab onto something, in which case trusses would be ideal over rafters. At the same time, it’s difficult to navigate an attic with trusses.
Describe Your Inspection
Whether you moved through the attic or looked at it from the attic access hatch, you should describe in your report how you performed your attic inspection. You’ll have trouble explaining why you didn’t identify problems that are discovered later if you don’t state your limitations. If you are inspecting from the hatch only, have a powerful flashlight that can illuminate right to the eaves.
It is good practice to provide access into any attic. As a general rule, if the attic is larger than 100 square feet and has at least 24 inches of headroom, an access hatch should be provided.
Attic access hatches are ideally at least 22 inches by 30 inches (in the United States) and 22 inches by 36 inches (in Canada). Many are smaller, however, and there are provisions that allow them to be smaller, including whether the attic is serving a single dwelling and the vertical height of the clearance above the hatch. Again, know the rules in your area. Access hatches should be insulated and weather-stripped to minimize the air leakage into the attic.
Opening Access Hatches
Let’s assume you’ve found the attic access hatch. It’s often difficult to get to it and it may be difficult to open. You’ll have to use common sense here. For example, we’ll remove clothes from a closet and clear stored items from shelves so we can get into an attic. We arrange any materials that we move so that we can replace them in exactly the same order and location in which we found them. If the closet is packed like a neat puzzle, it might be hard to place everything back exactly where it was. This is a situation when taking a quick photo might come in handy before you start taking everything out.
Hatches Screwed, Nailed or Painted Shut
Most attic hatches do not require tools to open. If the hatch has been sealed, you will have to decide whether you’re prepared to open it. Understand there is some risk of damaging cosmetic finishes.
Use Gloves to Avoid Fingerprints
Bare hands often leave dirty fingerprints on attic hatches. We recommend using gloves to avoid this. You should wipe off any marks you leave on the access hatch and trim. Many inspectors push access hatches open with flashlights to avoid touching them with their fingers.
Don’t Dismantle Shelves
In some cases, shelving units have been added and their placement may make it impossible to get through the access hatch without removing them. For example, if shelves can be removed without using tools, we take them out; however, if the shelves are screwed or nailed into place, we will usually not disassemble them to gain access.
Drop Cloths and Vacuum Cleaners
Many inspectors use drop cloths below the access hatch and carry battery-powered vacuum cleaners to clean up. It’s not unusual for a small amount of insulation to fall through the hatch when removing or replacing it. It gets especially messy with loose- fill insulation. Take care to open all access hatches very carefully. Insulation is often blown into an attic through a roof or gable vent. Twelve inches of loose- fill insulation over an access hatch can create quite a mess in the home when the hatch is opened. Insulation can be an irritant. If you dump an excessive amount of insulation on people’s clothes, perhaps you should offer to dry-clean them. The client probably won’t take you up on that offer, but he or she might be impressed that you offered to do so.
Stairwells to Attics
Some homes have full staircases leading to attics. There is usually a door at the bottom and the staircase may be open to the attic. The stairwell walls and underside of the staircase should be insulated. The door should be weather-stripped. If the stairs have a ceiling, it should be insulated.
The stairs should be uniform, with adequate tread width and a maximum rise of 8.5 inches. Headroom should be adequate, ideally 6.5 feet. There should be handrails on the stairs and a guardrail around the top; however, these are often missing. There should be electric lighting for the stairwell.
Pull-down stairs can be dangerous. Be careful when pulling down the stairs. They may come down very quickly if mechanical components are loose or broken. Then, when climbing the stairs, be careful. Treads or stringers may be loose or broken. Bolts may be loose or missing. Keep in mind that some home inspectors have been injured by pull-down stairs.
Pull-down stairs allow considerable heat loss and air leakage into attics. An insulated, weather-stripped box can be placed over the stairs to help reduce heat loss and air leakage.
In addition to obvious issues like insulation and air-vapor barriers that can be inspected in attics, it is important to also inspect other systems such as roofing, structure, electrical, heating, cooling and plumbing components.
Because the focus of this article was primarily about safety during an attic inspection, we’ll discuss these other topics another time. We also won’t describe the various conditions that you might nd in attic spaces. You can access more of this information through the ASHI@HOME training programs.