One of the least glamorous, but most important parts of the whole house inspection, is the attic inspection.
The attic holds the key for many critical components of the home including structure and energy efficiency. Although an exterior inspection of the roof is critical, an inspection of the attic can provide additional evidence of current or past water entry that may not be evident anywhere else in the house.
Since most homeowners rarely visit the attic, there may be unknown issues present in the attic which need to be addressed. Remember, one of the biggest complaints against home inspectors is missed roof leaks. Though both the exterior and attic inspections of the roof are considered essential, a good home inspector knows that quality information on the roofs’ condition can be obtained during the attic inspection.
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Attic Inspection – Access
The standard requires that the attic access type be identified. Most typical are pull-down ladders, scuttle holes, stairs, and door access. Some attics can be walked and others, due to construction or stored material, must be inspected from the furnace platform or the top of the ladder. Regardless, the means used must be identified and the reason why the inspector did not walk through the attic must be noted. Attic areas that are not accessible must also be identified in the report. Information gathered in the attic falls into five categories: Insulation, ventilation, framing, leaks, and pests. Any information on the furnace is usually covered in the Heating and Cooling section of the report.
Attic Inspection – Insulation
Keep in mind, the quality and condition of the insulation primarily determine the “energy efficiency” of the home in question. The attic is one area in the house where insulation is exposed and can be inspected. The type, depth/thickness, and condition of the insulation are all identified while avoiding estimates at R-value. Note that R-value rates insulation efficiency and can change if the insulation has been disturbed or compressed by stored items or possibly any pests that have found their way into the attic. Blown-in Fiberglass and cellulose insulation and fiberglass batt insulation are the most common types.
Older homes may only have several inches of insulation, or none at all, compared to newer homes which may have 10 to 12 inches in similar spaces. Since the quality of the insulation is a reflection of energy efficiency, many inspection reports recommend the installation of additional insulation in those homes where it may be deficient.
Attic Inspection – Ventilation
One of the key elements of a home is how well the attic is ventilated. Household moisture finds its way through walls and ceilings and much of the moisture ends up in the attic. An attic can get extremely hot, and a well-ventilated one will remove heat and moisture in both the summer and winter.
In colder climates, icicles can form in poorly ventilated attics during the winter months. High attic temps in warmer climates can cause the air conditioner to run for significantly longer periods of time. In any climate, high attic moisture can lead to mold growth and potential wood damage. Soffit, roof, ridge, and gable end are typical attic vent types. Power fans are sometimes used and proper operation/condition needs to be determined.
A properly ventilated attic will have ample vents along the lower portion of the attic space to allow air in. The upper part of the attic space must also have sufficient venting to allow hot air and humidity to flow out. The roof style can dictate what type of upper roof venting is best. The inspector must make a judgment on the type, amount, and condition of the ventilation and make any recommendations or suggested corrections based on his/her determinations.
As a side note, some homes may also have a large fan in the upper portion of the house that vents into the attic. These are called whole-house fans and are not attic fans. They are intended to move large amounts of air throughout the house with the intent of drawing cooler air from the outside. Whole house fans will be covered more in the Heating and Cooling portion of the inspection.
As stated earlier, the attic may be the only place in some houses where you can actually see and assess the framing. The attic framing and roof sheathing function as the back part of the roofing system. Proper construction practices are essential to ensure the roof system is not only sufficient to hold up the roof, but also to protect the house against high winds.
In new construction, the inspector must follow the building code in place when the permit for the house was issued.
As stated earlier, the single biggest complaint against a home inspector and subsequently, the inspection report is a missed roof leak. Any stained roof sheathing and framing, stains, or watermarks on vent pipes, and insulation that is matted or has changed texture are all signs of water damage. If the shingles are original to the house and you see staining in the attic, there has been or is a leak. If it has been patched and is no longer leaking, it still must be noted on the inspection report.
A home inspector may use a moisture meter during the attic inspection. If elevated moisture levels are recorded, this indicates an active leak is present. This information gives the prospective buyer some possible bargaining power in the buying process.
One of the first things that the home inspector will notice when they come to examine the attic is any signs of structural damage. This includes damage to the trusses and the rafters. He/she will check wood and construction quality, as well as, lumber sizing to determine the cause for the deterioration. This is pertinent information especially if repairs and/or replacement will be required.
If an inspector finds soot, scorched wood, or black wood in an attic, this indicates the home has suffered a fire event. Rafters that are of a color other than the shade of natural wood mean that there may have been a fire earlier. Again, good information to have during negotiations.
Moisture and Water Damages
The home inspector will always look to find out if any moisture is present. This could point to a weakness in the house ventilation systems. Any staining on the wood could also indicate that there has been some damage caused by water in the past. Condensation around the pipes can cause wooden structures to decay over time. If there is a furnace in the attic, the home inspector will check for rust marks as this is a possible sign of previous water damage.
A good home inspector knows that the attic serves as a window to the soul of the house. It holds many clues to the health and longevity of a home. Never underestimate the importance of an attic inspection in your home buying process. Next time we’ll move on to the HVAC portion of the home inspection and what a home inspector will look for and why.
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