Attic Adventures- part I: An attic with NO insulation

When I bought my duplex in 2003, at had a brand new roof on it — the previous owner had put it on just before selling the duplex. I can guess why the roof was previously in disrepair — there was ZERO insulation in the attic. None, zip, zilch, zero. In the year 2003!!!!! Now, while this may not be a big deal in some parts of the country, where I live the temperature frequently dips below zero in the winter, and insulation is a pretty important thing — for keeping heating bills low, as well as keeping the roof in good shape. What did the lack of insulation have to do with the condition of the roof, you might ask?

Ice dams happen when heat (which travels upwards) moves from the house, through the attic, and melts snow on the roof. The melted snow (now water) runs down the slopes of the roof, until it gets to the edge (the part of the roof that does not have house underneath it), where it is colder and then freezes again. You get a big build-up of ice as this happens again and again, and this is called an “ice dam.” You’ll also get a bunch of icicles (which can start to pull down your gutters, and put undue weight and stress on the edges of your roof. The ice can also back up under shingles, and start to melt into the house, causing damage to plaster/sheetrock, rotting walls, peeling paint, wet insulation, a whole host of problems.

I’ll admit that I was not as proactive of a landlord when I first bought the duplex as I am now, and while I knew that sealing and insulating the attic needed to be high on my to-do list, I didn’t get to it that first fall. I figured that one bad winter couldn’t hurt the new roof THAAAAT much, right? Well, as the winter settled in, and we got more and more snow, I became obsessed with monitoring the state of my roof, and comparing it to others in the neighborhood. When it snowed heavily, there was a blanket of snow on most of the neighboring houses, but mine was practically snow-free on the upper parts of the peak, with more and more snow appearing as you went down the roof. After a few days of partial melting in the snow, the icicles started to appear. One area was particularly bad — a three season porch (which the tenants used year round) was not covered by the attic at all, and started getting gigantic icicles hanging down in one corner — I believe they were 12 feet long at one point — and definitely the giants of the neighborhood.

I consider myself lucky. The icicles were large enough (and heavy enough) that they partly pulled down the gutters — however, it was only about $350 to get them repaired in the spring. Luckily that was the extent of the damage — no water came inside the house, no damage to walls, plaster, ceilings, or the like. And (thankfully) no one happened to be walking under any icicles at inopportune times.

Well, I’m only guessing here, but I think that what saved me was the fact that my attic wasn’t poorly or inadequately insulated — it wasn’t insulated. At all. I had enough heat traveling up through the attic that most of the snow melted at a temperature warm enough to make it off of the roof before freezing.

My upstairs tenants’ heating bill was through the roof, literally. (in fact, I wonder if that’s where that terminology came from? their heat was going through the roof??) There had also been problems with their furnace at the beginning of the winter. The limit control was broken, and keeping their fan blowing air long after the furnace had stopped emitting heat, causing their apartment to be cold and drafty, which caused the heat to kick in again, in an endless cycle. Luckily, I had signed up for the appliance repair plan through my local gas company ($36/month to cover all of the appliances in both units), so I got about $200 of repairs on the furnace for no additional expense. Their gas bill started edging down after this repair, but was still ridiculously high (and I knew why, although I wasn’t about to tell them “there is NO insulation upstairs – you live in a house that has been neglected for the past 50 years”) But I started the insulation process shortly after the first of the year — I felt responsible, and didn’t want to be a slumlord, after all. And it did certainly need to be done, sooner rather than later.

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3 thoughts on “Attic Adventures- part I: An attic with NO insulation

  1. If I were you, I would verify that you have not been violating your state’s housing codes. If you are, your tenant could (and should in my opinion) begin witholding rent until you fix the problem and could sue to get you to pay back the high utility bills.

    It is obvious that you rented to a tenant without disclosing the fact that the unit was un-insulated. While you may not have a legal obligation to provide insulation, you do have a moral one in my opinion. If I were a tenant and I found out that there was no insulation, I would have demanded you refund a large portion (or all) of my heating bill. Have you thought about what your tenant is going to do when they realize you are putting insulation into the attic for the first time?

    You, correctly, feel an obligation to repair the appliances, but just because the insulation is not as visible as the heater does not mean it is not important.

    I believe that you owe your tenant a portion of their heating bill back. An honest landlord would come clean and do the right thing. A slumloard would follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of it (just to save a buck) even if it caused financial damage to her tenant.

  2. Tom,

    Very nice of you to send me your lengthy comment calling me a slumlord.

    First of all, did you even read the whole article? It is clearly written in past tense. This all happened in the fall of 2003, which is three years ago. The tenants that lived in the duplex that year are long gone by now. Had they asked for some monetary compensation for their heating bills (which they did not) I most likely would have worked something out with them.

    Second of all, this duplex was built in the year 1900. People have been living in it (up and down) for one hundred and three years — all of them without insulation. I did not purchase the house and remove the insulation, nor did I build a house without insulation.

    Thirdly, as I state in the last paragraph, I DID insulate the attic. In fact, I am the first person to insulate the attic of this duplex (in 103 years), and did so six months after buying it. It is now insulated at R49, which surpasses most state requirements. If anything, I am the hero in this story, not the evil slumlord.

    Please read the whole post next time, before getting so worked up and leaving ridiculous comments.

  3. That is so weird to see no insulation at all in 03! Well at least it corrected now.

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