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Attic Access Issues

Attic Access Issues
Attic access. How hard can it be? You'd be surprised how attic accesses can be messed up. Read on. Almost all home inspections involve an attic staircase. What's wrong with the pictures below?

HINT: Both staircases are in the same home. In the pic below the ladder seems a bit short.

In the pic below the ladder seems a bit too long.

ANSWER: Hmmm! Could it be that they installed them in the wrong locations??!! As in backwards?? What were they thinking?? If not backwards, at least they need to be trimmed out a lot better.

When attic stairs connect to the attic floor, they should normally have immediate access to a path of suitable flooring in the attic. HABITEC recommends attic flooring should be made of plywood preferably, and should be a minimum of 1/2" in thickness, 3/4" preferrred. If there is a furnace appliance in the attic, this flooring should run to the appliance uninterrupted. See the photo below from Code Check. This attic flooring should be at least 24" wide to the furnace and 30" deep in front of the furnace and the full width of the furnace.

The opening into the attic should be at least 30" X 24" wide and when it enters the attic it should deposit immediately to the attic flooring. This attic access opening should also be unimpeded. In other words, nothing should cross through the attic opening as it enters the attic and also the area above the attic opening should be clear. So what's wrong with the picture below? HINT: Watch Your Head!

ANSWER: Oops, forgot something. In the picture above you are looking down from above the attic access pull-down stairs. What is that big white thing going across the opening? Could that be a plumbing pipe?? Well, I suppose some very flexible people can still get by, but what about any stuff you want to haul up into the attic for storage? And what about the HVAC repairman who has to go up there to repair or replace a furnace? You gotta be kidding me? Who could have thought this was OK?

Another issue that can occur regarding attic stairs is how they are fastened to the attic access opening. Manufacturer's instructions usually specify which fasteners should be used and the usually supply the fastener to be used with directions of how to install them Look at the pictures below. What looks wrong?

HINT: Take a walk with me on the wild side and let's go up the attic stairs again. This time let's stop at the top of the stairs and admire the view.

At the top of the attic stairs every Home Inspector should pause to check the fasteners holding the stair system to the frame. Look closely at the picture on the right and specifically at the device inserted into the hole of the metal staircase mount. Is that what I think it is?

Answer: Yes, that's a drywall screw! See the closeup of the other side below. Most staircase manufacturers require that the attic stairs be fastened to the attic staircase opening frame with approved steel nails inserted to the limit. NOT partially inserted drywall screws, which have very little shear strength in their cross-section. Drywall screws are commonly used to temporarily hold the stairs during construction to make sure the alignment is correct. But once that is done, the screws must be removed and replaced with the approved nails. This is dangerous. And guess what. It's a brand new home!

So hopefully we can finally get past the attic access into the attic. When we do we should find some flooring material we can walk on. This flooring material is not always required, but if it is, or if it is installed even without a need, it has to be done in a safe way.

As was shown earlier in the image above from Code Check, the attic access should terminate to attic flooring that provides a path to the attic furnace or other equipment in the attic. So look at the picture below. What's wrong?

HINT: This picture is taken from inside the attic looking down at the attic stairs coming up into the attic. The attic furnace is behind me. How do you get from the top of the attic to the walking path?

Answer: Not very easily! Now imagine you are the HVAC tech coming to work on the furnace or a homeowner carrying personal items into the attic for storage. How do you get to the furnace or landing area, shown in the foreground, without crossing over or near the attic entry opening? Precariously at best. And if you are carrying anything like tools or a box of Christmas decorations, all the more dangerous. The stairs are installed backwards. They should have been installed so that the top of the staircase terminates at the flooring in the foreground of the pic. And guess what. It's a brand new home! Think this is a unique case? Not really.

The picture to the right is another similar situation in a different house. In this situation the flooring is closer, visible off to the right, but the roof truss system is right there and provides an impediment to maneuver from the top of the steps to the walking path. And, like the picture before, going from the top attic staircase step to the walking path requires stepping back across the attic opening. A delicate step indeed. This is not installed correctly.

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Thank you,

Richard Acree

Comments in this article are the copyrighted intellectual property of Richard Acree, President, HABITEC Home and Building Inspections, LLC, and contributing members of the Active Rain Real Estate network, and are intended to educate and otherwise assist home owners, sellers and buyers, building owners, sellers and buyers, realtors, real estate investors, property managers, and lenders in the process of owning, buying or selling homes or commercial buildings. HABITEC is a residential (home) and commercial building inspection company serving Middle Tennessee including Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin, Murfreesboro, Smyrna, Mt. Juliet, Hendersonville, Dickson, Belle Meade, Columbia, Spring Hill and more! In addition to building inspections HABITEC offers Environmental Services for mold assessments, radon testing and water quality analysis. Additional information about HABITEC can be found on our website at, or call 615-376-2753.

Richard Acree is the author of the HABITEC Home and Building Inspections Blog and founder of the ActiveRain Group Tennessee Home and Building Inspectors. All are welcome to join and see more blogs like this one.

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