I would like to begin with that I am a father of 3 daughters, and when I am inspecting any residential property, I am thinking of them. I especially think of them when I am inspecting a home for a single woman or single parent mom moving into a new condo or townhome. I think about my client’s safety as I superimpose my own daughters onto the inspection. Sounds weird, I know, but there it is.
Concern for safety is what has led us to this subject, “Inspection Concerns for Crawl Spaces & Attics in Condos & Townhomes”
In general, attics and crawlspaces are excluded in condo and townhome inspections for a real estate purchase. This is due to the fact that they are covered or maintained by the condo association or HOA. But they should be at least viewed from the hatch (in the case of the attic) and partially traversed (in the case of a crawl space) in order to see if there is any access from other units and/or if there is a compliant fire partition. The applicable building code for fire partitions can be found in Section 708 Fire Partitions.
Fire code today for multiple unit buildings, such as condos and townhomes require that a fire “partition” be built all the way to the roof line. The “partition” should have a 1-hour fire rating, or a ½-hour fire rating for buildings that are sprinkled. And for buildings built after the 1960’s you generally do find that to be the case, but, of course, not always. There are concerns other than fire blocks that an inspector should be looking for in these areas. As that father of 3 daughters, I am always thinking about their safety, and as an inspector safety is why we’re looking in attics and crawl spaces in condos and townhomes – because the client’s safety could be compromised.
What safety concerns should be considered in attics and crawl spaces for condos and townhomes?
The main safety concern is open access between units. Below are articles that highlight the importance of securing the access points in attics and crawl spaces in these types of complexes.
Attic Access Concerns
A compromised access can be found in a number of surprising ways. Let’s examine attics first.
Attics can have an open configuration that allows individuals from one unit to gain access to another unit. Many times, there is only a drywall cut-out that is set into the ceiling with no locking system to keep unwanted (they’re all unwanted) intruders out. Even when there is a fire partition, sometimes workers cut access panels into them (against fire code) to make it easier for them to perform work that needs to be completed. Below is a picture of a real inspection completed in the Denver area of condo / townhome attic that had an open configuration.
The area to the left is actually over the adjacent unit. There is complete access over all the units and each unit has its own access to the attic area.
So how do you fix this kind of issue? There are three courses of action to pursue. First is to identify it as a safety concern in the inspection report and use it in your negotiations with the seller. As a safety concern, the seller may agree to remedy the inspection report item to your satisfaction. If that does not work out, approach the condo association or HOA. Ideally, it would be best for the condo association or HOA to build fire partitions between all units, which is unlikely to happen. Finally, if that fails, address it yourself.
Looking at the three options, the first 2 are the least expensive approach. The last option does require more funds on the part of the purchaser, but it also affords more control and peace of mind. The last one let’s you make the decision on how and what the configured solution will look like.
Securing the Attic Opening
No matter who addresses the safety concern, there are a few items to keep in mind when securing the opening. The goal is to make it almost impossible to use the access to gain entry to your home. To do so, there is a 2-part approach that you may want to use. Let’s address the attic side of the access first.
The access needs to framed and brackets used to secure the framing. The brackets should be secured from the inside of the frame. No hardware should be accessible from the outside of the secured access point. A ¾” piece of plywood or a 16-gauge metal plate could then be secured to the framing from the inside, again, having no hardware accessible from the attic area. The door would extend to the outer edges of the framing. Hinges and locks would be affixed on the inside of the frame and access panel.
Part-2 would then to frame the ceiling side of the access and add an additional door and lock with no hardware access from the attic.
Crawl Space Access Concerns
Concerns for the crawl space under all the units is the same as the attic when there is an access point in each living space. Below is a picture of a condo building with a crawl space and the access to the next unit. It would not take a small person to make it through that opening.
This is how (picture on left) the building was designed, but access between units should not be a part of the architecture. You can clearly see (picture on the right) through the opening to the joists of the adjacent unit.
In this case, a bolted piece of 16-gauge metal plate or concrete fill would be appropriate. If you were to use metal, ideally, it would be 2 pieces of metal, each bolted from their own side. In this way, the one with the bolts could not unscrew them and gain access to the other side. Some may use fencing that is bolted to the concrete as well.
Why would we not use ¾” plywood and bolt that to the concrete in the crawl space? One aspect of a crawl space that needs to monitored and controlled is moisture. Fibrous material such as wood can deteriorate and break down over time. It can also be subject to mold and wood destroying organisms like termites. Although a metal plate can rust, it would take a really long time to do so to the point that it would compromise the security of the unit.
An inspector has a lot on his mind and on his check list while they are inspecting your new home. In fact, it can be upwards of 1200 points of concern. They are looking for defects, major and minor, they are looking for safety items as well. Some of those are not on any inspection test or discussed in any inspection class, they are from good experience in doing 100’s of inspections. Just because common areas, such as the exterior, attics, and crawl spaces in condo and townhome complexes are on the list of items the HOA may be responsible for, does not mean the inspector should ignore them. In fact, as you can see, it may be one of the scariest safety exposures that the inspector can find.
I’m Jeremy Strouse, and I’ll see you at the inspection.