5 Common Attic Problems
Updated: Nov 17, 2018
by Collin Pointon - Licensed WA Home Inspector #2239
Most homeowners never look in their attic. If they do, it's only when there's a problem. So if there's no problem, you're fine right? As a home inspector I see the same five problems in attics all the time. So before you buy or sell a house make sure to break out a ladder and check for these issues, before they cause you a major headache, time and money.
1. Loose Ducts and Vents to Nowhere
You don't need an engineering degree, or any degree, to notice problems like loose or missing vents. A bathroom fan is primarily for reducing humidity and preventing mold and mildew growth. In the attic, there should be rigid metal tubing that connects the fan all the way to the vent stack that pokes out of the roof. That distance may be an inch or twelve feet. Regardless it should not be loose, disconnected, or missing. But that's exactly the case in many homes I inspect.
You may never notice a disconnected vent from inside finished spaces. Unfortunately, it can cause moisture buildup and severe problems in the attic, like insulation deterioration. Sometimes I find a "handy-man" fix, where a flexible duct connects a fan to a soffit vent at the edge of the attic and to the outside. That is no good either. That sort of work is very temporary, at best. It needs to be replaced with something permanent and up to proper construction standards.
What if there is duct tape around the seams of a vent? I know the name may make you think otherwise, but no, ducts and vents are probably the only things you cannot use duct tape on. Seams must be taped with special reflective tape that can handle the heat and moisture. A duct-taped vent is sure to fall apart soon, so fix it up right.
Another thing to keep in mind is seasonal weather changes. In the Summer, everything is dry but when Fall rains come, a loose vent can become a waterfall--or as my veteran instructor likes to say, an accidental in-home water feature. Meanwhile in the Winter, the attic may appear all good until the Summer heat shows up. Sometimes the cold air from air-conditioning causes water condensation on uninsulated fans, vents, and ducting in the attic, where it meets warm moist outdoor air.
2. Bad Wiring
Wires shouldn't be buried in insulation! It's a serious fire hazard. The only time they can be buried is when they are properly sheathed. Typical sheathing is metal tubing, or more commonly romex/non-metallic. Old school wiring is especially susceptible to go up in flames when insulation keeps it too hot. The same is true of light fixtures. Now that homeowners are more energy conscious, they might throw down or blow in tons of insulation for better indoor thermal control. That's great thing, but not if they don't check their wiring and light fixture clearances first!
Sometimes a home has gone through multiple owners and it seems everyone redid the wiring but didn't bother removing or at least disconnecting the old stuff. I've seen a museum of electricity systems running through attic spaces. It can mean a real headache for anyone trying to do repairs or just understand why an outlet switch doesn't work. Labels are your friend!
The telltale signs of bad wiring issues are burn marks, melted plastic, discolored insulation and any burned and charred smells. If wires are stapled to a wall, the staples should not puncture or crimp the sheathing. Wiring is designed to fail if too much current runs through it. Without a circuit breaker at the electrical box, conduit/wire can get red hot and cause fires. Hopefully every wire is stamped with its size or gauge if it's live. The one exception is "low voltage" wires to electronics like doorbells or smoke detectors. A non-contact voltage tester is your best friend to know what is and isn't live. Buy one if you don't have one. They cost about ten dollars or so. Don't end up saying the electrician's famous last words before touching something: "Is this live?"
3. Water Damage
I see it all the time. A big black stain in an attic corner or on a ceiling. Usually that means something leaked. But did it leak ten years ago, or yesterday? The best way to know is by using a moisture meter. Add that to your tool list if you don't have it. Typical new lumber should be below 20% relative humidity (RH). Lower is better, ideally below 10% for dry wood that has been indoors for a while. I've gotten readings over 85%, telling me this wood is currently wet and about to rot if it hasn't already.
Weather is a big factor for water damage. A really leaky roof may look fine in the Summer. Even if a roof is sealed, water damage can appear in the strangest places. Wood comes from trees, and trees soak up water. A little drip from a gutter can be soaked up by oriented strand board (OSB), move upward, and into the attic space from outside. The solution for water damage depends on the severity. Sometime stopping the leak from the outside is all that is needed. In worse cases, complete replacement of the area is necessary.
Water damage can happen without literal water too. All you need is moisture in the air. An old attic without enough ventilation can start rotting and attract bugs and animals. Inside the attic, you should see soffit vents at the edge of the floor, not covered by insulation or boarded up. Look up to see if there is a continuous ridge vent along the peak. Gable vents are usually at each end of the attic space. In Florida where relative humidity is often very high, all three can be necessary. In dryer places just a few are enough and local codes clarify what is necessary.
4. Exposed Lightbulbs
You know a bad place for a lightbulb? Right above the attic door hatch. Yet time and again, that is the exact place people install one. It's just too easy to hit and break an exposed lightbulb when moving through an attic. They should always be housed in a cover. And if a lightbulb is right by the door where anyone is going to hit it with their head? Just unscrew the bulb and keep a flashlight nearby.
Ok, that was me on my soapbox. But more generally, look for poor placement of electrical outlets or even light sockets on the floor. It's an easy fix to remove or disconnect them and make the attic safer. Just remember, attics are already dark and cramped. No one needs more worries up there like items to trip over.
5. Missing Insulation
If you can see the light from inside rooms coming into the attic, maybe through a light fixture or around a door, there is not enough insulation. Sometimes I see insulation sitting off to the side of a new light or wiring. Looks like someone forgot to add it back when the job was done!
A light fixture should completely cover the drywall so that indoor air doesn't slip away and increase heating and cooling bills. Loose insulation should then cover recessed fixtures like pot lights, according to manufacturer instructions. I like to see labels on the fixtures in the attic that say they can be covered, or a plastic barrier around each fixture that holds back loose fill insulation. An easy solution for fire safety is to use LED bulbs which generate much less heat than incandescent bulbs.
Any openings from conditioned to unconditioned spaces are problematic. They are inefficient and they allow nasties in--spores, insects, even exhaust like from a gas furnace.
Even a finished wall might not have insulation, meaning heat can easily transfer through. A laser thermometer can confirm cold or hot spots. Old insulation can also slide down to the bottom of a wall cavity, especially if it ever got wet. In general, attics and other unconditioned spaces should have plenty of vents to the outside. But indoor rooms should be fully insulated from those unconditioned spaces to retain desirable temperature.
Hopefully you can use these five common problems to your advantage. Check your attic quarterly to make sure you spot issues before they become disasters. When buying or selling real estate, look carefully at any hidden spaces. It's amazing what they can tell you about the real condition of a home.