The walls have secrets


How many things in your house have you found that surprised you?

Could be general stuff or specific stuff. Might be something you’ve known about since the moment you decided to move in, and it might be something you’ve learned along the way.

A drafty window in the basement? A section of the yard specifically designed to assist with water drainage?

When Terry and I bought our first house, we were treated to a number of fun discoveries. The first took place when I heard something best described as a loud pop or bang. Turned out to be an issue involving a light in one of the upstairs bedrooms. But the real excitement came when we figured out there was absolutely no way to get into the attic.

I wish I was kidding.

There were no doors, panels, scuttles or whatever you might care to envision. No access to the attic.

Before repairing the light and wiring, we had to have a carpenter come in to cut through an amazingly wonderful and thick plaster ceiling to build a point of entry.

As you might imagine, this quickly turned into a conversation about the quality of work done by the home inspector we had hired during the purchase efforts. How does one miss not being able to look in the attic?

Ok… dangerous waters here. I need to be quite clear that I am not questioning the efforts of home inspectors, the necessity of the work they do, or the results they provide. I’m not even questioning this quality of this specific inspection. Instead, consider: How much can you trust a home inspector to do?

How many electrical outlets do you have in your home? Count all of them. Every outlet in every room. All of the outlets in the garage, basement, and outside. Do they all work? Are they all grounded? Are they GFCI in all the right places? Which ones are connected to each other, and, from that which ones run as part of which circuits?

Think about how long it might take you to grab a small lamp, walk to every outlet, and make sure not only that the outlet works but that each receptacle works on every outlet in your home.

Do you have a good guess? Ok… now add to it how long it might take to remove the cover plate and check for loose wires and proper ground wires on those outlets.

Do you have a new estimate for the length of time? Great… now tell me which circuit breaker each outlet responds to.

Are you noticing any issue with the amount of time a person inspecting your home might be investing? We haven’t even begun to question signs of termites, roof quality, and all of the other items you expect completed on your checklist.

In short, home inspectors, by and large, do good work. There is a lot of ground to cover and it would be impossible to cover it all.

The problem… and the purpose of these particular wandering thoughts… is that many things will never occur to you until you experience them.

Terry and I bought our first home about twenty years ago. It was already more than fifty years old when we put in our offer. And as you would expect, there was a collection of building codes involved that had changed and been added and so on since the original construction was completed, covering the before and during and after of renovations made, and the condition of the house itself when we moved in.

Want an example of what I mean?

Real 2x4s.

And by that, I mean when you got behind some of the walls, you would find boards acting as studs and support that actually measured 2-inches by 4-inches.

Back to the attic.

In talking with friends and contractors over the years, and considering other work we’ve come across around the house, we have arrived at the conclusion that at some point the upstairs of our house was modified.

The house itself is a cape, though slightly adjusted. We decided that, while the original plans likely included some alterations from a traditional cape style, at some point the roof was adjusted. Those changes were likely completed from the inside out, meaning things like the wood and shingles being placed on the rafters were the last steps, and people were able to work on the finishing details without needing access from inside. Somehow, the idea of adding an entry point likely was swallowed up by getting the roof done and adding it later, time moved on, and with no issues occurring that required anyone to get in there… eventually we arrive at Terry and I buying a house with no access to the attic.

The important thing in this concept for where I am basing this essay is that we decided the issue came up as a result of changes to the house. Why? Well… two reasons…

First… the planning involved. How many times I have you begun a project and realized you made a mistake? Maybe you cut something the wrong length, or realized you did something out of order. The idea that the entry didn’t exist suggests the ceilings were finished in some way. Could have been an original design flaw, but hard to envision that the house was built without some way of getting into the attic. Could also have been that ceilings were raised, new rafters installed, and ceilings were being finished as roofing materials were being put in place. No one needed to directly cross from the inside work area to the outside, so no one noticed the lack of a door to do so.

Second… why we found it. Do you check your well every time you use a faucet? Do you check the washer fluid every time you drive your car? Do you check the oil every time you run your lawn mower? My guess is no, no, and no. Which in turn brings us to the idea that the reason you often find head-scratchers in your house is because you need to work around them.

Chances are good that your home will always surprise you. I only hope that when you find them, such moments provide as many laughs and memories as we’ve had (and few of the headaches).


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at