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From the Top Down

ForSaleByOwner September 8, 2023

Attics get a bad rap. To Hollywood, they are refuges for space creatures (“Aliens In The Attic”). In the literary world they are most unpleasant places (“Flowers in the Attic”). There can be attic horrors for homeowners as well.

An attic “is basically a place to store stuff,” says Tom Silva, general contractor for “This Old House,” who recommends seasonal trips — at least — to one’s attic to make sure everything is in order.

If you’re going to be storing things, you want the area to be dry. Silva considers the roof “the underside of the umbrella that keeps your house dry.” As such, it deserves a careful check.

“You can inspect for any decay, any leaking,” he says.

He recommends going into a dark attic during the day, looking for light coming through.

“In some cases, in older houses, you can actually see the condition of the roof if you can spot light flashing through the boards.”

Moisture is another danger. Inspect the sheathing, whether it’s old boards or plywood, and look for rusty nails or black residue on the plywood, signs of moisture. While you’re poking around, look for signs of leaking around chimneys, pipes or bathroom or dryer vents. Too much moisture could lead to worse problems, such as mold.

The seven ways to keep your attic in tip-top condition

Whole-house fans

They’re a great way to cool a house — not like an air conditioner would, of course, but wonderful if used properly. First and foremost, make sure you maintain it. “Check the belts annually. Make sure they’re not dry-rotted, because there’s a lot of heat up in an attic,” Silva advises. “If there’s an oil cap, oil it. I would oil it once a year.” Also be sure you have enough venting to match what is being pushed out by the fan.


Whether from a bathroom or dryer, they should vent outside, not into the attic. That results in condensation and can lead to mold, wood rot or fungus. If you have vents that are pumping air into your attic, have them moved. A tip: Vent on a gable end or out through the roof, but never under a soffit vent, which would take moist air and vent it right back into the attic.


Outdated or exposed wiring or exposed junction boxes all pose dangers and should be remedied.

Structure problems

A sagging rafter might not be obvious up close. “One thing I do when I’m looking at an old house for someone who’s going to buy it,” Silva says, “I stand back in the street and I check the center of the roof to see if it’s got a sag in it.” A sag in an older home may be attributable to time. Or it could be something worse.

“You’ve got to look for powderpost beetles issues, carpenter ants, make sure they’re not eating any of the structure to cause a major problem. A sagging roof could be (from) a wall that’s rotted from a leaking roof, it could be a foundation problem, it could be a support wall problem in the basement. There’s all kinds of things you have to look for.”


If you have a heating or cooling plant in your attic, and the last level of insulation is in the floor, that furnace or air conditioning unit is, in effect, actually outdoors. “If you insulate the roof, your heating or cooling plant is in a more of a controlled space and it’s more efficient to run it that way,” Silva explains.

Make sure insulation fits tightly and isn’t compressed or bunched. If you turn back a corner of insulation and see black, Silva says, “that’s a sign of your insulation leaking.” If you’re adding insulation, remember that local codes vary.


Don’t even think about messing with asbestos. “It should be done by a certified person who specializes in asbestos,” Silva says. “If you see it, don’t touch it. If you’re unsure, call someone to check on it. But don’t disturb it.”


Find the hole where they’re getting in and patch it. “Raccoons, birds, bats, they all want a place to live, and an attic is a great place,” Silva says. “A homeowner can get ’em out, absolutely, but you’ve got to keep ’em out. That’s the key.”