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ASK THE INSPECTOR: Attic access proves height of frustration

QUESTION: We have a 22-year-old house in Whyteridge that has no inside attic access. It has a small vented trap door on the top side wall. Our house is a two-storey and I want to get into the attic. The side hatch is right at the highest point and not easy to get at because there is a large tree on the same side.

What points should I consider when making an inside attic access hatch? Many of the houses in this neighbourhood have the same setup with no inside attic access. What is the reason for this style of construction? D. Baril-Bissett, Winnipeg

ANSWER: I empathize with the frustration you feel about not being able to gain easy access to the attic hatch on the outside of your house. I often run into this same situation during inspections and since I don't regularly carry a 30-foot ladder on my vehicle I cannot get in to view the attic. Most of my clients are more than understanding but often ask the same question that you have posed about the reason for the strange location of the hatch.

When it started to become common practice to put the attic access hatch on a gable end outside the home, several years ago, I initially applauded the idea. It is often difficult to get a good look inside an attic from a tiny opening cut between two ceiling joists, especially when it is located in the top of a small, crowded closet.

My enthusiasm has lessened in the last few years as builders have increasingly gone higher and higher with these hatches, often locating them above small alcoves that create another obstacle to entrance. If you have a bungalow or a home with multiple levels or vaulted ceiling, the outside location is ideal. It is even better when a gable vent is installed on the hatch, which allows much needed ventilation into the attic, especially above vaulted ceilings.

If your tree is planted in such a location to obstruct the attic hatch, perhaps it's too close to the house or in need of trimming. With an attic hatch on a two-storey home like yours, it may be at least 20 feet above the ground, which should require four to eight feet of clearance between the bottom of the ladder and the house for setup.

If the tree is tall enough to become a hazard and is closer than that distance to the home, you should consider other problems that could arise from its location. The branches and leaves could rub or sit against the house walls and cause moisture damage. If the top branches are above the roof line, they could cause premature wear or damage to the roofing, if not trimmed frequently.

Depending on the type of tree, the roots could cause some issues with the foundation or drying out of the soil in that area of the yard. Unless it is still small, looking into removal of the tree before it becomes too large or causes damage may be in order. In that case, installation of an additional inside attic hatch may be unnecessary.

If the previous issue is not a concern, and you are committed to installation of an interior access hatch, the location may determine the next course of action.

The ideal area for an access hatch is in a wide hallway or ceiling that will give you sufficient room around the hatch for access with a ladder. It may be unsightly to install this hatch in the upper floor hallway, so the next best location is in the ceiling of an upper floor bedroom. If you have a large walk-in style closet, normally in the master bedroom, this will be the ideal spot. This is the preferred location in most new homes that don't have the exterior opening. It's an area that is not normally visible to most guests, and will have enough room around the perimeter for easy entry.

Installation of this interior access point for your attic will depend on the style of roof framing and the spacing between the trusses or ceiling joists. The majority of homes your age, and in your area, will have pre-manufactured trusses with spacing between the members of approximately 22 2-1/2 inches. This is due to the typical installation of 24-inch centres for the trusses. This spacing should allow sufficient room for installation of the hatch without modification to the trusses, which is not recommended.

The first thing to do is locate the trusses in the area of the ceiling you wish to install the hatch with a stud finder, or old fashioned hammer and nail. Once located and marked out between the bottom cords of trusses, the drywall on the ceiling could be carefully cut with a small drywall saw or reciprocating saw, to make the opening. Once the hole in the ceiling is complete, and your hair and clothes are covered with loose fill insulation, you can frame in the sides of the new hatch between the trusses and secure the drywall with screws to prevent sagging.

Once this rough opening is complete, it should be lined on all four sides with plywood or OSB sheathing to provide a moisture resistant square box, tall enough to prevent the loose insulation from falling into the opening. The next steps are to nail thin wood stops near the bottom of the opening to support a plywood cover cut a little smaller than the inside dimensions of the box. This cover should be insulated with a couple of layers of rigid polystyrene insulation with a weatherstrip installed on the top of the stops to seal the hatch when in place.

The final step is to install casing or trim on the bottom, to cover the cut ceiling drywall edges, and paint on all the new material. If you have typical truss roof construction this installation should be straight forward, as long as there are no electrical wires or other obstructions in the attic.

Following these guidelines will provide a well-sealed interior access hatch for entry into your attic.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors - Manitoba (www.cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be e-mailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at (204) 291-5358 or check out his website at www.trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com