Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Break The Attic Access 'Seal'? Yes.

One of the biggest sources of contention I've had to deal with doing home inspections is whether or not a sealed attic access panel should be ‘broken' to access the attic; even more specifically, whether or not I should be allowed to break the seal.  If you're not sure what I'm talking about, here's a photo of an attic access panel. To understand this issue, you need to understand why this panel is here and why it has been sealed. 

 

Attic Access Panel 

 

First, the access panel is here because it is required by the Minnesota State Building Code.  The panel is here for me (or anyone else) to use to get in to the attic to inspect it, or to do work.  That's it, plain and simple.  The Minnesota State Building Code, section R807.1 says

 

"...an attic access opening shall be provided to attic areas that exceed 30 square feet and have a vertical height of 30 inches or greater." 

 

This covers just about every attic space.  Outside of Minnesota, the building code will typically read the exact same way, as this is taken from the International Residential Code.

 

So why is the panel sealed?  In a new home, the panel only gets incidentally ‘sealed'.  The panel does not get attached to anything; it just gets set down on the opening. When the ceiling finish is applied, which is often spray texture, the seam between the panel and the rest of the ceiling gets covered over.  This is what people are referring to when they say the access has been ‘sealed.'  There is very rarely any caulking or adhesive keeping this panel in place.

 

This can become a subject of contention when I inspect a house where no one has been in the attic since the ceiling finish has been applied... or as most people say, the access has been sealed.  I say ‘sealed' too, just because it's easier than saying "incidentally covered over with a finished surface."  My evaluation of the attic is a major part of a home inspection, and it's important for buyers to know about any defects in the attic.  This is a place that homeowners may never even go in to as long as they own their home.  For this reason, I break the seal on just about every home I inspect, but I never do this without permission from the buyer. 

 

The biggest sources of contention come from parties attending the inspection that are under the impression that attic spaces in new homes don't need to be inspected.  Well, by that logic, new homes wouldn't need to be inspected at all.  Please check out my blog on New Construction Inspections, and you'll understand how important inspections are on newly built properties.  A large portion of the problems I find in new construction homes occur in the attic. 

 

The other common argument I hear about not going in the attic is that the panel will look bad after I open it.  This just isn't true.  If a knife is used to cut the panel open, it will usually leave a noticeable scar in the ceiling, but if the panel is lightly bumped open, it will usually set back down and look almost identical to the way it did before I opened it.  Much of the time, you can't even tell the difference between a sealed and unsealed panel unless you look closely. 

 

The bottom line is that attic access panels are there for the attic to be accessed, and this is something that should be done at every home inspection. 

 

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Minneapolis Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 11 commentsReuben Saltzman • February 10 2009 06:49AM

Comments

I agree, inspecting the attic is important on all inspections even new contruction. 

Posted by Mark Watterson, Utah Real Estate over 10 years ago

Reuben,

An access to the attic is required by the International Residential Code as you stated, "attic areas that exceed 30 square feet and have a vertical height of 30 inches or greater." The code also defines accessible..you should be able to remove the panel! The only person that could tell me they don't want me to remove the panel would be my client and in that case, I would write a disclaimer in my report that said that the attic and all the normally inspected items located there were not inspected because access was denied. I would also write up the sealed acces as a violation of construction practices (code).

Posted by Calvin Cowles (Cowles Home Inspection Services Inc.) over 10 years ago

Very interesting post. It is not like this in Georgia . Usually you have the pull down rope and the built in ladder. .Good reading about other areas of the county Thanks

Posted by Charlie Ragonesi, Homes - Big Canoe, Jasper, North Georgia Pros (AllMountainRealty.com) over 10 years ago

Reuben,

Interesting, I've never seen where an attic access panel was "sealed," either in old or new construction.

Rich

Posted by Richard Iarossi, Crofton MD Real Estate, Annapolis MD Real Estate (Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage) over 10 years ago

That is different from the Georgia area. We almost always have an attic opening with fold-down stairs. Generally, the second floor HVAC unit is in the attic and the lower floor HVAC unit is in the basement. If there is no basement, then both units are in the attic.

Posted by Steve Graham (Inactive) over 10 years ago

Reuben-I totally agree with you on this one. I actually try to contact the seller if I know a house is newer and has this possibility. they are the only party that can give you permission. The buyer can't do that, it is not their property yet.

Posted by Ian Niquette (Square One Home Inspection) over 10 years ago

Reuben;

It's almost the same as an electrical panel cover thats been painted over.

I always ask/tell the seller and/or realtor that I have to cut the paint to access the panel. I almost always get the questions 'why do you have to look inside'.

Carry a utility knife, cut carefully and let the words fly later!

 

Darren

www.aboutthehouseinspections.com

Posted by Darren Miller (About The House) over 10 years ago

I usually don't even give it pause for thought. I go out to my truck and get my utility knife, and cut it open.

As far as needing permission.....unless the seller is in the house, I don't bother to try to find them. I figure that when they put the house on the market, and agreed to the Buyer's having a home inspection, they have agreed to letting the inspector do his/her job. Same can be said for restricting access to electric panels, or water heaters, or forced air heating units, or countless other things that we are hired to inspect. 

It's just easier to ask for forgiveness than permission sometimes.

While I have only seem a few attic access panels sealed or screwed closed, it happens a lot with electrical panels that either have the screw heads so coated with paint you can't even see the slot, or the face of the panel cover is painted to the wall. I cut the  panel away from the wall, and chip the paint out of the screw heads to open it. Yep, it's not as pretty as it was before I got there, but I was able to open the panel and inspect it for my client.

I have to say that I have never had a home owner call to complain about my messing up a little paint to get to a panel. In fact, I get very few complaint calls from the home owners. I do however, get a lot of them calling to schedule an inspection for the house THEY are buying.

I VOTE for cutting it open, doing your job, and not looking back.

Posted by Jack Feldmann (Clayton Inspection Service, Inc.) over 10 years ago

A pre-inspection fax to the real estate agents involved usually helps this situatio because they know what to expect and what they need to do to prepare the house for inspection.

This has always been an issue but no one has ever complained afterwards.

Posted by Jeff Remas, Inspector Jeff (Advanced Code Group) about 10 years ago

I have a home which has no access to the attic and no access panel.  When I bought the house, there was no way to inspect the attic area.  The house was built in 1976, and has only 7 1/2' height ceilings.  I am concerned that the insulation is insufficient and would like to open an area in a hallway, but have been advised that it would be best to leave things as is.  What would you recommend?  For one thing, there is some kind of a pipe running from the roof to the basement, which has rotted out.  It has no cap on the pipe on th roof and water & rust runs on the floor of the basement in bad storms.  I am afraid that it could also be going into the attic area, as well.....  The house is a hot-box in summer and cold in winters.  Would I be opening "a can of worms" if I open the ceiling in the bedroom hallway area, or in a closet?  What's your opinion?  This is in the state of PA.... 

Posted by TEGMAPAT over 8 years ago

TEGMAPAT - Go for it.  It wouldn't take a skilled person more than a couple hours to make a nice access panel.  Opening a can of worms?  Well, you might not be happy with what you find, and you might want to fix it... but you're not making things worse.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 8 years ago

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