Sealed attic access panels are the bane of my existence.

sealed attic access panel, Bane

Nothing about home inspections causes more consternation than 'sealed' attic access panels; not just for the home inspector, but also for the buyer, the seller, and the real estate agents involved in the sale. We've changed our official company policy on attic access panels recently, and I'm laying it all out right here.

Structure Tech's Attic Inspection Policy

We begin every home inspection with a tour of the interior. If the attic access panel appears to be sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or similarly obstructed to make access difficult, we will ask for permission to open it. We'll call the listing agent to ask for permission, and we'll explain that this will technically change the property from its original condition. In most cases, we won't leave any evidence that we were there, but we can't guarantee this.

If permission is given, we'll open the attic. If permission is not given, we won't. Simple and logical, right? We think so. The video below shows the process of breaking an attic seal, and shows what it'll look like after the inspection, provided everything goes smoothly.

Home seller's legal responsibility

I'm not an attorney so I have no idea what the seller's legal responsibility is. I'll say this, however: most Minnesota home buyers use a standard purchase agreement form. They don't have to, but most do. This form has a line that says Seller will provide access to the attic(s) and crawlspace(s).  I happen to know from personal experience that many licensed residential real estate salespersons are not aware of this language.

If an attic access panel is sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or blocked by stored items, has the seller provided access? Heck no. 

I asked Minnesota real estate attorney Matthew R. Doherty the same question stated above.  His answer? "No".

If I were buying a home and the person I was purchasing from had signed an agreement saying they would provide access to the attic, I'd expect the attic to be accessible. Sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or blocked with stored items is not accessible.

What the Code says

The 2015 Minnesota Energy Code specifically addresses attic access panels. Section R402.2.4 says "Access doors from conditioned spaces to unconditioned spaces (e.g., attics and crawl spaces) shall be weatherstripped..."

Weatherstripping is not defined by the energy code. Section R201.4 of the code, Terms not defined, says the following:

Where terms are not defined through the methods authorized by this chapter, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, available at www.m-w.com, shall be considered as providing ordinarily accepted meanings. The dictionary is incorporated by reference, is subject to frequent change, and is available through the Minitex interlibrary loan system.

So let's head on over to www.m-w.com for the incorporated definition of "weatherstripping":

A strip of material to cover the joint of a door or window and the sill, casing, or threshold so as to exclude rain, snow, and cold air  called also weather stripping

So does caulk or some other type of sealant cut it? Heck no.

You'd think this would help, but finding a weatherstripped attic access panel on a new construction home is rare. That's not to say they don't exist, but it's certainly the exception.

Why the change in company policy

We've changed our tune on opening attic access panels because we've had too many situations where people were upset about us opening the attic. We are guests at a seller's home, and we want to leave stuff the way we found it. Opening attic access panels without permission from the seller runs counter to this, so we've cut it out. Not only that, but we've come across a few attics lately where the opening wasn't just sprayed shut; it was also taped shut. Opening the attic caused the tape to pull away, making the attic access look terrible.

What to do if you're a home seller

If you're selling a home and you sign a purchase agreement from a buyer, know what you're signing. If the form says you'll provide access to the attic, please provide access to the attic.

What to do if you're a home buyer

Insist that the seller will provide access to the attic. This is an extremely important part of a home inspection, even on new construction houses.

More on this topic

It's quite possible that I've written more about attic inspections than any other topic. Here are a few posts specifically related to getting into the attic for inspections.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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