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Published by OREP, E&O Insurance Experts | March 2012

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"Jim McMillan, inspecting in North and South Carolina since 1998, says he weighs the liability of each inspection choice. "With many of my inspection-related tasks I weigh what my liability potential is if I do certain things. To me, liability means 'money out of pocket,'" said McMillan."

Editor’s Note: This story, told from an inspector’s perspective, describes the “ins and outs” of inspecting an attic. Working RE Magazine is published by, providing errors and omissions insurance coverage for real estate agents/brokers, appraisers and inspectors for over 10 years. New: save money with low-cost combination coverage (appraising/sales/brokering) and with two year policy terms.

When to Inspect an Attic

By David Brauner, Editor

Fritz Kelly, inspecting for 12 years in Arizona, has a problem common to inspectors: “I declined to go into an attic the other day. The access was in the master bedroom closet, full of clothes, etc. When I attempted to open the scuttle cover, it was obvious there were about 15 inches of blown in insulation covering it. I was able to access another portion of the attic so I knew approximately how much insulation was up there,” said Kelly. “I wrote up that I didn't access that portion of the attic due to excessive insulation on the hatch cover. I suppose I could spend half an hour or so covering their clothing and cleaning up but what do you do when the cover is heavily caulked in place and you will damage drywall removing it? I usually report that the seller needs to provide access but with these short sales, the inspection period is usually very short.”

Rick Hurst, inspecting the Dallas/Fort Worth area for 23 years, says he also uses caution when inspecting an attic, from experience. “Several years ago I removed a panel on the ceiling in a master bedroom closet and down fell a large amount of Rockwool insulation all over this lady’s clothes, including a mink coat,” said Hurst. “She wanted me to pay a cleaning bill of over $450. I was hesitant at first but paid the bill feeling at the time that I was at fault. Now, if the panel is not fully accessible, I write it up as such and move on. I tell the client that if the homeowner will remove items that are blocking my access, I'll be happy to comeback for a return trip charge. I take pictures of the panel being blocked or that is otherwise non-accessible and put it in my report.”

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Useful Language
To address this issue, one inspector said he uses language similar to the following: "Inaccessible. Sometimes loose insulation has been blown over the access hatch, in which case it will not be opened. This situation should be rectified after taking possession of the house." Or "Inspector can only review this area if access is made available to the inspector." And "If concerned, client should verify acceptable heating/cooling bills from homeowner. Client has the right to interview the homeowner to assume proper insulation and attic ventilation by confirming if homeowner has ever observed ice damming, icicles on eaves or abnormal melting of snow from the roof compared to other homes in the area- all of which are signs of improper insulation and attic ventilation. If available, client may wish to obtain design specifications, blue prints, permits, etc. to determine insulation, ventilation, and structure."

Jack Feldmann, inspecting in Tennessee since 1989, says he often goes the extra mile. “It's a tough call. I have also paid a cleaning bill,” said Feldmann. “However, I have taken clothes out of the closet with the help of the real estate agent. I've put an old sheet over the clothes, and many, many times I have cleaned up the insulation that fell down. Sometimes when there are two access points, I can climb over to the other side and get in that part of the attic anyway. I don't have a problem cutting a caulk line to get access. I need to get in and it can be re-caulked. Same thing for electrical panels. Most of the time, I will cut wallpaper or caulking to get into one. Many times I have to chip out paint from the screw heads to open it. If you don't go in the attic or anywhere for that matter, document it well in the report as to WHY you didn't go in there. Photos are a plus.”

Gearing Up
Jon Errickson, inspecting Twin Cities, Minnesota for two years, says he takes gear along for just such an occasion. “I carry a six by six foot tarp to put down under my ladder to hopefully catch most of the insulation that falls,” said Errickson. “The only attics that I don't go in are the ones where the ceiling has the 'popcorn' texture and it seals the attic scuttle. But I tell the buyers I'll come back and look if they don't mind me cutting in to it to get access.”

Michael O’Handley, inspecting in Washington since 1996, says, “I move blown-in all the time. I also cut the caulk on access hatches when I need to. Just have the selling agent call the listing agent and make it clear to the seller, through the listing agent, that you have no intention of re-caulking or paying to have it re-caulked. If the seller refuses to allow you to do it or says you have to re-caulk it or pay to have it re-caulked, decline to cut the seal and exclude the attic. It only takes a couple of minutes to hang some old sheets over the stuff in the closet (shoes are great for anchoring the sheets in place on top of stuff), leaving the floor the only thing that will get dumped on and I have a six by six foot tarp for that. Most of the time the installers around here have formed a dam around the hatch with batt insulation and have cut a large piece of batting to sit on the hatch, so the only thing that falls through is a little over-blow. However, occasionally there aren't any dams and I'll get a little cascade. I just collect most of it when I come back out, toss it up into the attic, and vacuum up the residue,” said O’Handley. “For the stuff that inevitably falls down, I have a hand vacuum that I bought for four dollars at a thrift store. It's powerful with a beater bar on it. It will compact a large amount of loose-fill into its little cloth bag in seconds and leave the place nice and clean. In 13 plus years I've never gotten a complaint from a homeowner or had to pay a cleaning fee and I've discovered literally hundreds, maybe thousands of things in attics that would have earned me poor reviews from clients if they'd been discovered after the clients moved in.”

Dave Hill, inspecting since 2005 in Arizona, has this take: “I carry several small clips to hold a sheet in place to cover clothes and catch that darn loose fill. I usually state/disclose that I only inspect from the HVAC platform in the attic since most joists are covered with insulation. They can have a handyman come out and do a further evaluation as desired. I don't risk going through the ceiling unless I see something that warrants closer inspection,” said Hill, adding this important tip: “I always wear a bump cap. Like a hardhat but similar to a baseball-style cap. My head hit an ‘air nail’ in the sheathing once and after that I never enter without head protection. My LED headlight is attached to the cap so I have light wherever I look.”

ichael Patton, inspecting throughout Cincinnati, Indiana & Northern Kentucky for nine years, has his own way of doing things. “Currently I do not carry sheets or tarps, I probably should but don’t. One easy, fast trick that I have been using is to make use of the plastic dry cleaners bags. I pull out a couple of the clothes with the bags over them and hook the hanger perpendicular to the rod and drape the clothes/bags across the other clothes. Usually enough of these are in the closet to provide adequate protection of the hanging clothes. Yes I still have to clean up the floor on occasion but this prevents me from having to go back and forth to the truck with the tarps and sweepers etc.,” said Patton. “For the most part, I will open just about any ceiling hatch; yes I have cut them open and yes I have had trouble getting the big Styrofoam-backed panels back in place. Yes, I have emptied closets out, muttering under my breath the entire time.”

To Inspect or Not
Jim McMillan, inspecting in North and South Carolina since 1998, says he weighs the liability of each inspection choice. “With many of my inspection-related tasks I weigh what my liability potential is if I do certain things. To me, liability means ‘money out of pocket,’” said McMillan.  “Whenever I encounter a circumstance that could be a safety hazard or an accessibility concern, I consider as many of the consequences of my actions as possible and make a call on inspecting or not. This includes safely accessing attic and under floor crawlspaces, electrical panels, utility areas, roofs, etc. If, in my mind as a professional, there is a legitimate issue, I will explain to the client or agent what the issue is, ask if the agent or owner has means (within reason) of resolving the issue while I am doing my inspection, and if not, I make the appropriate reference in my report with pictures.  In North Carolina the inspection is required to be completed in a single day for reporting purposes. If there are areas or components that I cannot inspect within that day I will offer, for a fee, to return and inspect inaccessible areas or components at a later date.”

McMillan continues, “We are being paid to perform a service, and often (due to competition and the economy) that pay is not what I think it should be. However, I still feel that I should do absolutely as much as I can for my clients in order to educate and inform them. As long as we are professional in our demeanor, honest in our actions and reporting, and comply with any inspection regulations that are in affect in our respective states, it is my belief that we have the right to choose not to inspect or access areas/components that in our opinion can't be safely or adequately inspected.”

Pre-Inspection Tip
Daniel Rogers, inspecting Southeast Virginia since 1991, says he does a bit of ground work before the inspection that pays off. “The first thing everyone gets from me is an appointment confirmation e-mail. This goes out to the client and agents for both sides. It includes all the pertinent inspection information like day and time, price, payment expected, copy of inspection agreement, what to expect the day of, etc. It also states that utilities have been confirmed to be turned on during the phone call. Also, all areas must be accessible, like the attic, furnace, water heater, electric panel and crawlspace and I ask that they please make any necessary arrangements with sellers to make this happen,” said Rogers. “When I arrive at the home, I make a quick walk through to size things up. If I see any inaccessible areas I let them know that they'll need to provide access by the time I get back in and then I go outside and get started. I will not take any liability risk but I do help within reason to get the job done. The opportune word is ‘help,’ meaning that I might hang the sheet, cut the caulk line, clear most of the area. However, I solicit and engage and recruit the hearts and minds of the other parties too. If it's not reasonably accessible, then I take photos and document it as an inspection limitation and recommend re-inspection upon access clearance. I even document houses that are dark and cluttered because I know that no one ever remembers that and they'll act like: ‘How could you miss that?’ Easy, look at the photos.”

For inspector Ted Menelly, inspecting for 20 years throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area, charging to go back, for a fee, makes better sense than the removal of clothes from the closet, cutting a sealed hatch open, etc. “It is not just a matter of covering clothes most of the time. It is trying to squeeze into a closet and set the ladder up and not mash the clothes or push them out of the way,” said Menelly. “I don’t think we are inconveniencing a client by charging them to go back. We are the ones being put out. We are the ones taking a risk of damaging great Aunt Mable's blouse that someone puts a $1,000 price tag on. If the question is how far we should go to make one client happy, in cases where something can be damaged or you have to move personal items, etc., the answer for me will always be- not that far at all. That $1,000 for Aunt Mable's blouse is three to three and a half average inspections. We go out of our way on most inspections to accommodate our clients but there are limits. It is our job and our livelihood. We cannot afford to give away the next three to four inspections."

This article is meant to be used for informational purposes only. It is not the intent of this article to provide inspection advice, or advice for any specific fact, situation or circumstance.

About the Author

David Brauner is Editor of Working RE magazine and Senior Broker at, a leading provider of E&O Insurance for appraisers, inspectors and other real estate professionals in 49 states. He has covered the appraisal profession for over 16 years. He can be contacted at or (888) 347-5273. Calif. Insurance Lic. #0C89873.

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