The Lowdown On Attics

Every working day, I have to get up in an attic or two. While I'm up there, I look for cracked roof framing, bad roof bracing, and roof leaks. I check the attic ventilation and insulation. I look at the wiring, the plumbing, and the bathroom exhaust vents. It's all routine home inspection work.

A lot can go wrong in an attic. I've seen roof framing all messed up. Just a few weeks back, I found a roof framed with trusses, which bore iridescent green labels with big black lettering. "Install lateral bracing here," the labels said. But there wasn't one stick of lateral bracing.

I find bathroom vents run straight into attics. Dryer vents, too. All that water vapor with nowhere to go. Sometimes, it makes things rot.

In old houses, I often find crumbly knob-and-tube wiring run through atticinsulation. The National Electrical Code has prohibited this for years, but a lot of electricians, and even some of my fellow home inspectors, say it's just fine.

When I come down out of an attic, pouring sweat and panting, the customers just want to know one thing: "Is there any room to store stuff up there?"

I know, it's a simple question. But the answer isn't so simple. For instance, if you're just looking for a place to stow a plastic Christmas tree, the attic is probably as good a place as any. But if you want to put a few dozen cubic yards of old books, record albums and boat anchors up there, you might just have a problem. A lot of roof framing - especially the framing in new houses - isn't built to hold much more its own weight, and a moderate amount of snow. A complete collection of Elvis records might just fall through your ceiling.

Every time I get the attic storage question, I do my best to answer politely. But I'm thinking to myself, Why in the world would you want to store anything in an attic?

The average Southern attic is a slow-motion crematorium, with summertime temperatures above 130 degrees. I've seen a whole lot of stuff stored in attics, and I'm here to tell you: most of it would have fared better in a landfill. The paper and cloth rot, the records warp, the furniture falls apart, and every colored thing fades, even the plastic Christmas tree. As best I can tell, the only things that do well in attics are red wasps, rodents, and brown recluse spiders.

From what I've seen in 17 years of home inspection work, you might as well sell, give away or throw away anything you're thinking about putting in your attic. You won't be using it. Once something goes up there, it doesn't come down until the estate sale.

Besides the harsh attic environment, there's the ever-present attic access problem. In old houses, we often find an opening about the size of a legal pad, in a ceiling that's ten feet over the basement stairwell. (That means it's eighteen feet above the basement floor.) Often as not, we find an ancient wall-mounted homemade ladder leading to that midget attic hole.

I don't want to meddle in anybody's personal storage business, but you people who climb worn-out makeshift ladders so you can do a pull-up into a little bitty attic hole are just crazy. Sooner or later, the ladder's going to give out, or you'll find you're just one pound over your pull-up limit, and you'll end up taking the express down to the basement floor. If that happens, there's a pretty good chance that your heirs will be bringing stuff down from the attic soon.

Less dangerous, but equally useless, are scuttle holes cut into a closet ceiling. Those work fine while the house is being built, but the day the closet gets loaded with shelves, shoes, clothes, board games and Barbies, there's no more getting into the attic.

Most of modern houses we see have folding attic stairs, made of wood. These things seem like a good idea, but they're not. Often, carpenters fasten them to the ceiling framing with drywall screws, instead of the 16-penny nails that the stair manufacturers specify. Well, the screws can shear off, and cause the whole stair to fall down. To make it worse, the carpenters usually cut the stair too short or too long. This creates weak connections at the joints, which can cause the stair to break.

Most of the folding stairs we see are rated for a 250-pound maximum. A good-size man with a box of books on his shoulder could easily exceed the weight limit. I say if you're going to have a folding attic stair, get a metal one.

Better yet, if you're bound and determined to store stuff in your attic, here's what you do: Get a carpenter to build a real stair-something that would support two big men carrying a Hammond B-3 organ.

My best advice, though, is to forget about going up into the attic. Leave it for the squirrels, spiders, wasps and home inspectors. If you really need storage space, get yourself one of those nifty Rubbermaid storage sheds, and stick it on the back of your garage