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Andy Wojtowski

PODCAST: Tessa and Reuben get serious about attic access panels

Bill, Tessa, and Reuben start the show off by talking about the new standards for life at home, working with family, and trying to broadcast to large audiences while not having spouses carry on loud phone conversations in the same room. Reuben discusses how COVID-19 has changed the face of home inspections at Structure Tech, and has the potential to change home inspections forever.

Tessa talks about all of the new continuing education classes that are being taught to real estate agents, and that segues into the topic of accessing “sealed” attics in new construction homes. That gets both Reuben and Tessa whipped up, and they go on a 20-minute jag about attics, attic access panels, building code changes, and refusal to change.

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TRANSCRIPTION

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Reuben Saltzman: Everybody’s just a little bit weirded-out about doing home inspections and wearing a mask and wiping down surfaces and worried that they’re gonna bring this into a house. It’s just… It’s always in the back of everybody’s mind. So I heard it’s just… It’s still really weird out there, but we’re still doing it, ’cause people are buying houses, and there’s still a need.

Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, both from Structure Tech. And on today’s episode, we were going to just dig into a little bit about what our life is looking like today. We started this conversation last week, and I think we’re gonna continue it a little more today. We’ll talk about our new reality. But first off, Reuben, Tessa, let’s have an update. When we last spoke, we had talked about some online continuing ed classes you were teaching to real estate agents. How is it going? You’re a week into the process. Are you feeling good about it?

Tessa Murry: Yeah, we’ve done… How many classes have we done now, Reuben, three?

RS: We’ve done three, exactly.

TM: And we had… I think we had 250 people. We maxed out our availability for our first and second one, didn’t we?

RS: Yeah, for the first and second, but we added a third in between the two, and we didn’t send out a big notice about that one. We just put something on our Facebook page. That was about the only advertisement we had saying, “Hey, look, the first and second filled up so quickly, we’re offering more.” But we still had a lotta people there. There was like 50 people showed up at the other one, last minute.

TM: Yeah, that was the repeat of the content we did on the first ones, so a lot of people wanted to listen to that class.

BO: Any good bloopers that came up like any massive software [01:51] ____?

TM: There were a few moments. Yeah, we’re using a new software, the GoToWebinar. And I’m sure everyone is familiar with Zoom but GoToWebinar allows us to host 250 plus people on these, so we’re trying that out. But yeah, there’s definitely a learning curve with that, right Reuben? [chuckle]

RS: Oh my goodness, yes. And we’re not using this other software because it allows more people. I mean if you pay for a more expensive Zoom account, you can have as many as you want. You can have 500, 1000, whatever, but we’re learning that at some point it becomes impossible to manage. You just cannot have that many people in one class, and it’s almost like 250 is too many. And I say, almost. I think we can still manage it because we’ve got Brian helping out, and Brian, when it comes to technology, he’s surely smarter than the two of us put together.

TM: Yes.

RS: He’s good with all this stuff. He’s helping us just moderate the class and answering questions but the questions that come in through the chat… It’s like if we answered questions, and that’s all we did… If we answered them in live time, that is all we would do. We would spend an entire 1 hour class doing nothing but answering live questions, and we wouldn’t get to more than 30 seconds of content.

TM: Yeah, Brian is working full-time on typing responses and he can’t get to all of them. It’s crazy.

BO: Well, people have an appetite for learning, and so when you give them an open door to walk through, it sounds like they’re sprinting through that door. That’s just awesome.

TM: Well, some of them are about the content, but a lot of them are just general questions about like the technology, problems like, “Hey, I can’t hear you. Hey, I can’t see you. Hey, am I signed in?” Those types of questions too, but it’s getting better. It’s getting easier to use that. There was a little bit of some technical issues on our side on the first one, but everyone was really nice, and we’ve gotten better, so they’re fun.

BO: Well, that’s great. What else is new and exciting in the world of Structure Tech right now that’s thrust upon you that would have never been discussed, under any circumstance, six months ago, and suddenly it’s a topic of conversation you guys are supposed to have an answer for?

TM: That’s Reuben’s. [laughter] I’m still doing the same old thing here.

BO: Well, that’s okay, you can answer that. What I was hoping to get at there was we’re turning inward and we’re kind of re-evaluating a lot of things that we’re doing.

TM: Yeah, that’s a great question, Bill. You should ask that again, and Reuben should answer that. [chuckle]

RS: Good question, Bill. One of the biggest things we’ve done differently now is starting to re-evaluate everything we do, looking at all of our processes. I think we talked about this during the last podcast how we’re having our inspectors go to the houses by themselves now, and there’s no clients there. And our inspectors are finding that they think they might be doing a better job of inspecting when they’re not having a discussion and explaining everything they’re doing at the same time. And it’s really weird because this has been one of our sacred cows for as long as I had been a part of Structure Tech, I mean since what is it? ’97. For the last 23 years, we’ve said it’s important for clients to be at the inspection. And occasionally, we’ll do inspections where no clients are there, but now that we’re doing these every single day, we’re starting to get to the point where we think this might be a better way of doing it. I don’t know. Things might change, but I never thought I would be questioning something like this. I could go on, but hold on, Tessa, Bill, do you guys have any thoughts on that before I just power through to my next topic?

TM: No, I just… And I think it’s really, really interesting. We’re questioning, do the buyers need to be there for every second of the inspection? Do they need to hear about every little thing about the house or is it better to kinda have a more succinct discussion with them about the big thing? And we can do that maybe over a Zoom meeting or at the end of the inspection.

BO: So that was my question, what does it look like now, the experience of the buyer? I mean how are you then taking this information you gathered while you’ve been at the house all by yourself, and how are you communicating it back to them? And what’s been the reaction or the satisfaction level of the clients?

RS: I’m not sure that Tessa or I are fully qualified to answer that ’cause I haven’t done a whole inspection in a few months. And I think Tessa, you’re in the same boat aren’t you?

TM: Yeah, I have not done an inspection since all of the changes with COVID.

RS: Okay, so yeah, both of us are kinda out of it. I can share what I’ve heard from other inspectors on our team, because I ask everybody, “How’s this going?” and people are following up with either a phone call or a Zoom meeting after the inspection and they’re spending somewhere between 15 minutes and… I heard somebody say… Tessa, didn’t somebody say like 90 minutes?

TM: Yeah.

RS: I mean, It’s just mind-blowing.

TM: There are some buyers that wanna go through the entire report line by line and that does take a while, but that’s not everyone.

BO: So, so far, nobody’s really terribly upset about it? I’m sure it’s just… It’s a change, but so far so good?

RS: Yeah, I’d say so. It’s been good feedback from everybody on the team. Everybody’s just a little bit weirded-out about doing home inspections and wearing a mask and wiping down surfaces and worried that they’re gonna bring this into a house. It’s just… It’s always in the back of everybody’s mind. So, I heard it’s just… It’s still really weird out there, but we’re still doing it ’cause people are buying houses and there’s still a need.

BO: Well, that leads me to my next question: What is business… What’s the market looking like right now within the company? Where are you at? People still busy and the phone’s ringing?

RS: Phones are ringing but I think our business is at about 50% of capacity if that. It’s a little under 50%. It’s not nearly what we could be doing, not nearly what we expect to be doing. I mean, normally, this is our peak season. This is where we can save up a little bit of money and put it away in the bank ’cause we have some really big bills that come for our general insurance and liability insurance and liability and our workers’ comp. Those are all gigantic bills that we don’t pay throughout the year. We just pay them in lump sums. And so this is the time of year where we can start to set aside money to help pay those bills, and we’re not setting aside anything right now. We’re either bleeding cash, or we’re breaking even right now, but we’re not making any money. And it’s okay. We expect to do that during the winter time, but not now. So, it’s making things a challenge.

BO: Okay, how are you feeling about this whole thing in general? My reference point for this question is I check daily. There’s an article on NPR, National Public Radio, that you can go to and you can pick out your state and it kind of projects when the peak of this crisis is gonna happen in your area. And just looking here today, looks like we’re supposed to peak out on April 29th. So last time I looked was a couple of days ago and it was the 26th. So it’s sliding a little bit into the future, but how are you all feeling about this? Are you concerned long-term about this or is it just like, it is what it is?

TM: Well, just answering from like a personal level, it’s a lot to process and to take on. And I know there’s a lot of people that have lost their jobs, and they’re struggling with that. But I’ve got more work than I’ve ever had before, and it’s tough to try and have focus and be productive when you’ve got a pandemic going on around you. So, it’s a challenge.

BO: How about you, Reuben, how are you feeling?

RS: It’s weird, it’s unprecedented, it’s strange. I’m at home, and I usually work from home anyway, as much as I can, but I’ve got two kids. My daughter just turned nine and my son is 12, and now my wife is at home homeschooling them all day, every day. Where you set up, basically, a card table in the kitchen. They are both sitting there on their computers. They’re on Zoom meetings, and other stuff like that, all day long, so it’s just really unusual. And we don’t go anywhere. We don’t do anything. This last week has been so cold. There’s been nothing to do outside, or at least, I haven’t wanted to go outside. I feel like I’m done with winter. And it’s cooped-up, but it’s good too, ’cause I feel like our family is closer than we’ve ever been. My kids are getting along better than they ever have before, simply ’cause, they have no choice. It’s just the two of them. It’s like either you get along with your sister or you got nobody. [chuckle] So things are better. I’m trying to look at the positive side of all of this, and there has been a lot of good. And there’s been a lot stronger sense of community. We may have talked about this in last week’s podcast. I have so many discussions now, that I never used to have, I can’t even keep them all straight. But I feel like I’m doing Zoom meetings with different groups of people all day, every day, now.

BO: That’s good.

RS: And how about you, Bill?

BO: I’m feeling okay. Like I said, I try to look to facts and not get in the whirlwind of the angry people and the sad people and all that. You have to give grace to as many people as possible, because this is just such an unprecedented time. So when people are venting, I don’t have a problem with the venting. I just can only listen to it for so long before I have to go away and try to refocus on something good and something positive, because there’s just nothing we can do at this point. So I wanna focus on, “What can I do to be better when everything turns around?” And that’s mostly what I’ve been trying to do. So, my head is kinda down right now, trying to learn, so when the thing turns around, we can sprint towards the next level. But I’m feeling fine. We’ve been home now for five weeks. My daughter had her school shut down a week before her spring break, and then they never went back to school. So, I don’t know. My house is clean. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m staying engaged in a lot of things. So I’m just sad. I miss people. I miss being able to kinda get close to people and things like that, just sit there and maybe shake somebody’s hand or fist bump or something, but any time I get around a group of people, even distantly, I get a little more energized than I do when I’m just at home.

RS: Sure, I heard the handshake is done with.

TM: Really?

BO: No.

RS: I heard that today that that’s never coming back. I don’t believe it.

BO: CBS Sunday Morning did a great story about that last Sunday, and it’s just on hold for a while. It’s not dead, so…

RS: Oh okay, good.

BO: Yeah, you can’t hold down a good handshake. That’s just the way it is.

RS: Okay, I’m glad to hear it. That’s a relief.

TM: You know, it’s funny, Reuben, and your kids being at a card table in your kitchen. It’s been an adjustment working from home. I’ve got a temp office set up in the bedroom, and Jay has his office out in the main living room/dining room area, and Mia’s here doing her homework and everything, too. And so, when we do these online classes, and there’s 250 people, I’m not broadcasting from my bedroom. So that means I’m gonna set up shop in the dining room. I think before we started recording it, our most recent one, Jay was on the phone with someone, and I was like, “Jay, you have to get out of here, right now!” [chuckle] It’s like, “They can hear you. [laughter] There’s 250 people listening to you.” So I kicked him out. He did not look too happy about it, but he did leave. [laughter]

RS: Oh, funny. Poor guy.

TM: It was his birthday, too, but, you know?

BO: In his defense…

RS: Oh, my God.

BO: He’s always got interesting things to say.

[laughter]

TM: I’ll tell him you said that.

RS: That’s true.

BO: I wanted to bring something up, because there was a somewhat heated discussion across email today about something that took place after one year of continuing ed classes that had to do with building code and attic accesses. So, let’s just do a little bit of home talk so we feel like we’re not completely dismissing our… And just [13:56] ____ shooting the breeze. [chuckle]

BO: So, fill us in. Why is it a problem when attic accesses are sealed versus weatherstripped?

RS: Sure. Tess, you wanna?

TM: Sure. So, part of this class that we were teaching is to help real estate agents get through the home inspection process with their clients as smoothly as possible. And one of the hiccups we run into a lot as home inspectors is showing up at, not only new construction houses, but existing homes too, and finding that the attic access has been sealed shut. And that means caulked shut or painted shut or, if it’s new construction, they’ve sprayed the texture over it, and it’s never been open. And as home inspectors, in order to get into that attic, you would need to cut the caulking or cut the paint or tap it open, if it’s new construction, to get in there, and it’s gonna change the look of things. And now that’s no longer just a visual only inspection. That would be considered potentially an intrusive inspection. It’s gonna change the look of it, and we’re not supposed to do that. And so it’s a challenge for us getting to inspect those areas if they’re sealed shut. Reuben, do you wanna talk about what the code says, and what their actual documentation… That agreements say, real estate agents’?

RS: I would love to. This is something that we talk about during this class, ’cause we’re telling real estate agents it’s really important for the home inspector to get out there even if it’s a brand new construction, and the builder is saying, “Hey, it’s brand new. It’s been inspected before. You don’t need to get your home inspector out there.” We address that during our classes by showing about 7300 photos of defects of attics that are brand new, that have passed inspection to make the point that, it doesn’t matter if it’s brand new or not. People make mistakes. And we talk about what the building code actually says. And when you go to the section… If you go to the Energy Code, the 2015 Minnesota Residential Energy Code, there’s a section that talks about access, hatches and doors. And it says that access doors from conditioned spaces to unconditioned spaces. And then it actually says this. I’m not throwing this in there. It says, “E.g. Attics and crawl spaces shall be weatherstripped and insulated.” So, it says it right in our Energy Code. It shall be weatherstripped. And, Tessa, when was the last time you were at a new construction home and you found a weatherstripped attic access panel?

TM: Let me think. Never. [chuckle]

BO: In here.

RS: Well, many many years ago, I may have found one. But it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. They all do the same thing. They spray them shut on new construction. They seal it, which is not the same as weatherstripped. Sealed means sealed. Weatherstripped means weatherstripped. They are not interchangeable. But that’s what they do. And when the code changed… When this became official back in 2015, I didn’t see any difference. I still saw all of the new construction homes having their attic access panels sprayed shut, sealed shut, caulked shut, however you wanna put it. And I went to the Building Inspections Department in a particular city. I went to their counter and I said, “Guys, please explain this to me. The code says this… ‘Cause I’m just a home inspector. I don’t interpret this, but here’s what the code says. It says it shall be weatherstripped. Why have I never seen it weatherstripped before? What are you guys doing? What’s your interpretation of that?” And the person behind the counter, she says, “What does that mean?” So, I just said, “Okay, all right. You win.” I mean, I didn’t try to have an argument ’cause you cannot have an argument with a building official. Nobody has ever won that before. They’re right by authority. Whatever they say is right. But they were just choosing to ignore it.

RS: I’m sorry, I’m getting long-winded here. But if they wanted to address this, they certainly could, right, Tessa? The code right at the beginning has a list of definitions. That’s Chapter 2 in the code. And they have a bunch of explanations for terms that keep getting repeated in the code, and they say, “For terms not defined, you head on over to m-w.com, Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, and the definitions you find there, for ordinarily used terms, are hereby incorporated into this code.” So, if you flip on over there, and you look up definition of weatherstripped, it says, “A strip of material to cover the joint of a door or a window and the sill, casing, threshold so as to exclude rain, snow and cold air.” So, it’s exactly what we all know weatherstripping to be. That’s what the code says. It says you need to have weatherstripping at the attic access panel.

RS: But, Tessa, I am completely convinced that this is a section of the code that building officials just haven’t taken the time to read, so they’re not aware of it. And then when a realtor or a home inspector comes to them and asks this question, they’re like, “Go away. I don’t have time for you. It’s required to be sealed. The code says it needs to be sealed.” And that’s what they tell you. And, I mean, what we’re bringing up right now, Bill, is this email I shared with you, where we taught this class, we gave people the chorus and verse, exactly where this is required. This agent went to the building official at the city, emailed them the exact code section and said, “We really wanna get in here, but it’s sealed shut. Can you please enforce weatherstripping? That’s what it says in the code.” And the Building Official said, “Well, the code actually just requires it to be sealed.”

BO: Well, this is the type of thing that really gets home inspectors wound up, huh? [laughter]

RS: I’ll tell you what; I’m ready to put my head through the wall. [laughter]

BO: So who do you want inspecting your house, people? Do you want this guy out there looking for things, or do you want that dude, who’s like, “It looks hard to get at. I can’t do it, sorry.”

RS: Yeah, yeah. We’re passionate about this. And you know what? Just to further that point, I have a great example. Bill and Tessa, do you guys remember that discussion we had about whether or not you need a shutoff valve for an outside faucet?

BO: Sure.

RS: We had this discussion on our internal Facebook page, where my dad had asked, Do you need a shutoff valve for an outside faucet?

TM: Oh, yeah. I do remember that.

RS: Yeah and we all said, “No, it got removed from the code. You don’t need that anymore.” And then we started digging into it, and then somebody on our team said hey, “What about this? I found a section that actually said…

TM: It was either Joe or Justin. I can’t remember.

RS: Definitely one of the two of them. And we found a section where it said, actually, the reason it got removed, why you don’t need a shutoff valve for an outside faucet, is because now with the new plumbing code, all exterior faucets need to be frost-free. And we all went, “What the heck?” We’ve been seeing new construction homes for the past four years, or whatever… Ever since this code went into effect, nobody has made any changes. There’s still faucets that aren’t frost-free being used all the time. So what the heck is going on? And I emailed the building official that I know, somebody who knows that, we’re not just… I don’t know, lackeys. We kinda care about this stuff. And I said, “What’s your interpretation of this, because we’ve never seen this enforced?” And he gave me a very nice reply, and he said, “That’s something we’ve never noticed in the building code update. I’m gonna have to check with some other building officials throughout the state and I’ll get back to you.” And then he got back to me in about a week and he said, “That’s just something that nobody noticed, [laughter] and we are going to start enforcing this on January 1st.” And that was January 1st this year they started enforcing this. So, it’s not unreasonable to think that some building code sections just get passed over quickly. People don’t pay attention to ’em, so they don’t enforce them. And I think that’s what’s going on here.

TM: Well, and the thing that’s wild, too, is that all these new construction houses, like Reuben said, we’ve got a whole class designated to defects we find in new construction, and the majority of defects we find are in the attic… Insulation levels that are lower than what should be in their disconnected bath fans, broken trusses, all sorts of things. It is so important to get in there and to inspect that, and when an attic access is sealed, and the builder doesn’t allow us to get in there, then we could potentially be missing all of those big problems, you know?

RS: Yeah. For me I wouldn’t consider buying a home if the builder wouldn’t give me permission to get inside the attic. And don’t take this as real estate advice. I’m just having a conversation with you guys, but that’s where I’m at.

BO: Wow, you guys love attics. I love the passion. [laughter]

RS: I’m sorry, Bill. Bill, are we putting you to sleep?

BO: No, no.

TM: Time’s up, though, I think, right? [laughter]

BO: So it sounds like the entrepreneurs of the world are not looking hard enough at attic accesses. Feels like somebody’s gotta come up with a great way to make these things weather-stripped and…

TM: There is something out there.

BO: What is it? Why isn’t it being used en masse?

TM: Well, because it’s expensive. Frame an opening up with some plywood and just cut a hole in the sheetrock. Way cheaper.

RS: Yeah, and for anybody listening, if you wanna see some… Go to skuttle-tight. It’s spelled S-K-U-T-T-L-E… Tight, T-I-G-H-T, skuttle-tight.com, or google it. They make a beautiful attic access panel. It looks so much better than anything that gets field fabricated, and it’s way easier to install. I mean, I don’t know why every builder isn’t using this on every brand new home.

TM: They’re trying to save money.

RS: But when you think about the labor costs, it’s like… The company will break even, seriously.

TM: Yeah, I know.

BO: Maybe this can be a move-in gift for every person in their new construction house. “Here’s your SkuttleTight.” Or their real estate agent, or whoever. You know, like, “Now you can go in there and enjoy your attic space.”

RS: Bill, can you leave the address of where skuttle-tight can… There [23:50] ____ in the chat?

S1: Oh sure, yeah.

[laughter]

BO: I guess it was a little fun today to kinda get back into that rhythm of, what gets the juices flowing on the home inspector level, right? With all of what we’ve gone through, recently, it’s just… Sometimes it’s fun to go back and just tease you a little bit. You guys are really geeks. You’re really home geeks, and that’s the bottom line.

TM: We love it. Air high-five.

RS: For sure, Tessa, air high-five.

BO: So it sounds like where this question came from… Have you delivered a satisfactory answer? Is the questioner on her or his way to getting into their attic to solve their curiosity?

2RS: I simply sympathized with her. I mean, she said, “What do you think about this?” And I said, “It’s infuriating.” It’s the same thing that I talked about in my class. You got people sticking their head in the sand. And thankfully, this agent who asked the question, she is a badger for her client. She cares about her clients. She’s trying to take good care of ’em, and she said she’s personally probably going to go up there and caulk the attic access panels shut after we inspect it ’cause the builder is requiring somebody on our end or the buyer’s end to seal it shut afterward. So she’s just gonna do it and call it done. So good on her.

TM: Wow, yeah. She’s an A+ agent. She works really hard for her clients.

BO: Have fun with that tube of caulking. I do not get along well with caulking. It never looks good, so it’s just…

TM: It’s a skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

BO: Yeah, and I’m not sure an attic access is where I’m gonna start my caulking career. Well, this has been good, guys. It’s fun to talk a little houses again, and hopefully, the next time we get together, we can do it in a little more earnest. Any closing thoughts here, guys?

RS: Bill, thank you for all that you do. I never tell you on this show what an awesome host you are, but you’re talented and you are touched, and I appreciate you hosting this show. That’s what I’ve got for you, Bill.

TM: I second that. Bill, thanks for keeping us on track and asking great questions and reeling us back in when we get a little bit out there, so thank you.

BO: Hey, I enjoy it. I love the passion, even though, we’ll agree that, 1 1/2 story houses are the best structures in all of building construction.

[laughter]

RS: I thought we were gonna end on a positive note.

BO: All right, everybody, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation and we will catch you next week. Thanks for listening.