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Break The Attic ‘Seal’? Yes, Every Time.

By In attic access panels, Attics On January 17, 2009


One of the biggest sources of contention that I regularly deal with during inspections of newer houses is whether or not a sealed attic access panel should be ‘broken’ to access the attic; 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.

If it’s required, 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 inspection 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 look at 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.  A large portion of the problems I find in new construction homes occur in the attic.  Just for fun, here’s a photo I took at a 2004 built Minneapolis townhouse – yes, this attic was completely uninsulated.  Don’t listen to anyone that tells you new attics don’t need to be inspected, or that attic access panels shouldn’t be opened.  They’re not looking out for your best interest, or they’ve been mis-informed.

Missing Insulation

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.  If there is any concern over air leaking in to the attic, this can be addressed with about ten cents worth of caulk.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections – EmailMinneapolis Home Inspections

        



About the Author

Reuben

Reuben is a second generation home inspector with a passion for his work. He grew up remodeling homes and learning about carpentry since he was old enough to hold a hammer. Reuben has worked for Structure Tech since it was purchased by Neil in 1997, and is now co-owner of the company. Reuben’s favorite customers are the ones who have a lot of questions; he grew up thinking he was going to be a school teacher because he enjoyed teaching others so much. In a sense, that’s a lot of what home inspections are about, so Reuben truly does what he loves. Reuben has an A.A. degree in liberal arts and has attended most of the Building Inspection Technology classes at North Hennepin Community College. Reuben and his wife are the proud parents of two young childen, Cy Alexander and Lucy Nicole, and have a German Shepherd named Stanley. With two young children Reuben doesn’t have much free time, but he still tries to play disc golf as often as possible during the summer. Reuben lives in Maple Grove, MN. Professional Qualifications / Memberships: *ASHI Certified Inspector *President, ASHI Heartland Chapter *Member, Minnesota Society of Housing Inspectors (MSHI) *Licensed Minneapolis Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Saint Paul Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Maplewood Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Hopkins Truth-in-Housing Evaluator *Licensed Robbinsdale Point of Sale Evaluator *Affiliate Member, Southern Twin Cities Association of Realtors

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8 Comments

  • Keith Bourque 2 YEARS AGO

    Does R807.1 say that the access has to be from the interior of the structure? If the house has a gable roof, can attic access be provided from an opening on the gable wall? This could provide access to the attic without having to worry about air-leaks around the hatch or loose-fill insulation falling out when the "hatch" is opened.

    • Reuben Saltzman 2 YEARS AGO

      Keith - nope. There's nothing that says it has to be accessible from the interior of the structure. I've actually had to remove a gable end vent or two to access some attics.

  • gary havens 2 YEARS AGO

    what if the access IS caulked in place. You can cut it, but then ... are you required to re-caulk???

    • Reuben Saltzman 2 YEARS AGO

      I ask the person who hired me if they want the attic opened. I tell them that I'm not going to come back out to caulk the attic opening. Everyone says "go for it."