Firewall in old Duplexes.

I was wondering how other folks handle the issue of firewalls, or lack of them on old duplexes.

A number of times I’ve seen homes that may just have stud walls separating the units, particularly in basements and/or attics, that are only partially covered in wood planks. Sometimes you can see from one basement and/or attic into the other.

It would be impractical, if not next to impossible to create a continuous firewall from top to bottom in these old homes, that would meet current requirements. But do you recommend upgrading walls to try to attain an hour rating, for enhanced safety, particularly on these very porous basement and/or attic walls?

Who would require installation of a firewall in an old predating current codes?

I do not recommend upgrading. Some insurers have issues, but then again they seem to be making issues out most things these days.

If the home is old it maybe balloon framing which had no firestops due to age, so as far as a firewall it would be pointless.

Thats the problem with the issue of code. Code is only applicable on the day the structure was commissioned. If code changes the next day the new code doesn’t apply. If it passed a building inspection when built that is what you get. Safety, however, is another thing altogether. There shouldn’t be too much problem covering the existing separation with a fire coded drywall and creating a fire wall. Even framing in a new separation fire wall can be done if none exist.

Having torn into many a baloon framed wall in my career I have yet to come across one that didn’t have firestops in the walls.A fire wall between units is another issue altogether, this I have rarely seen. During reno’s we were always required to frame in a firewall to meet existing code.

How would you know the firestops are in place? We as inspectors unfortunately do not have the luxury of opening a wall to find out. From what I recall firestops in old buildings have just been wood blocking.

Personally speaking I would not be telling my clients that they have to put in a firewall if the house is older than existing codes. It is just not feasible to do so.

I understand some insurers are declining policies if there are no firewalls.


This issue actually did first arise as an insurance issue, outside of a standard inspection, but then it got me thinking about other homes that I’ve seen.

I’m certainly not suggesting to try to bring 100 year old houses up to current code, or to try to see behind walls.

Don’t most of us, however, recommend installing GFCIs in the kitchens and/or baths of older homes, and/or smoke detectors in bedrooms, etc., for “enhanced safety”, even though it isn’t required by code in those particular homes?

The specific homes that I have in mind, have walls in the basements and attics, that you can actually see into the adjoining unit through the slats in the old boards. This isn’t uncommon in my area, at least.

Is it appropriate and/or prudent in cases like this, to recommend upgrading these walls to attain a better fire rating, for enhanced safety? Just wondering how others have handled similar situations.

In my opinion no. We are not trying to make old homes new, nor meet current codes. Costly upgrades that are not required because of the date of the home are not a concern in my reports. While a GFCI is a simple installation, a firewall or putting in fire stops could be very costly. If we start calling out things like this nobody would be buying homes. My thinking is that we are not there to make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

Thanks for the comments, Larry and Raymond.

Anyone else out there want to chime in?

I think that it is worth pointing out that it is a safety hazard that could be eliminated at an affordable cost. No way would I use code for any defect found on an older home.

I see what you are talking about quite often. A lot of duplexes and such have the drywall firewalls (here in Florida I hear them called “party walls” too). Many built as recently as the 80’s do not have them in place. It would virtually impossible to get the drywall through the scuttlehole to make upgrades. I note it and discuss it with the buyers. I often find them “breached” or broken into as well. Again, I take photos, note it and give the information to the client. Then I ease away silently and get in my truck and go home. or to the bank.

I lived in a 1900 semi in Toronto a number of years ago (The Annex). As a result of squirrel having gotten in through the neighbours side I was forced to cut a hole in the ceiling to get at the squirrel which also ate through the wiring shorting it out. Guess what? I could see into the neighbours side of the attic. It was all open. They just didn’t have the concern with fire spread back in those days. Besides how long would it take to get the horse drawn steam powered fire truck to the location. By the time the firetruck was steamed and the horses hitched no more house.

That’s what I was thinking too, Greg. But why specifically is it a safety hazard? Is it actually a defect, if the firewall isn’t there and we aren’t referencing code?

How do you determine what is costly? I think that’s for the Client to determine, not me.

I had a Client whose house needed $57,000 worth of foundation repairs according to one of her estimates. To me that is costly. To her it was the cost of buying the dream home she wanted.

I would never take cost into consideration as to what to put in, or leave out of, my reports.

If the place burned down because the little ol’ lady in the other unit liked candles, but had a stroke, fell over, knocked some candles down, and started a fire which then spread too rapidly to the other unit, and caused the death of two children in that other unit, that, to me, would be costly.

One must educate one’s Clients, but one should never make the determination for them as to what may or may not be costly. That’s their choice, and I believe we should be providing those choices to them.

We don’t have to reference code to educate our Clients. There are many ways to educate them about safety, maintenance, etc., without ever citing a code or use any four-letter words other than “help.”

I would like to help you understand this better. So have a seat, Mr. Client, and let me tutor you.

We are or at least I am looking for strutural issues. There is just no way thougsands of old homes are going to be upgraded. Why point something out that is irrelevant. Are you going to tell the client they need to replace all the old log floor joists in a 150 year old home because the logs have a tendency to sag and bounce because undersized logs would not be used in today. I don’t think so, I would be inclined to tell them to add additional bracing.


I routinely inspect homes upwards of 100 years old. On several occasions I have inspected homes of 200 to 300+ years.

I would note the lack of firewalls and explain the importance of having them. I may make recommendations for upgrades with regard to safety. The importance placed by the Buyer on the recommendation is up to them.

Just like putting in my 2 cents in on fun discussions. I have done several older homes with these issues. The only time, you can make any referances to bringing building up to codes (at least in NY) and they are required to do so. Is when the people are reconstructing a building with more than 50% of the value of the building. Then it must meet all the new Fire Codes and Building codes.
Here in NYS we have this section called Appendix K for existing builidngs, and then there is a Historical Code for Historical Buildings. So if you really want to confuse the client. Hit them with all these codes.
Next issue is Single Family Resident reconstructed into the apartments. This is what has happened to a lot of these older buildings. Technically, has to have a 2 hour fire separation between each living unit.
Oh the next issue with the insurrance companies, Fire separation between buildings. Can you see telling a client, you need to move this building 5 feet over because it only has a foot clearance from this other building.
As asked before, how far do we go as inspectors? I was asked all these by a client last week. Insurrance companies are a big pain and a legal rip off of the American Society. **“PAY PAY but Dont ever expect us to pay back because we will drop you as a client!” **Our government allows this.

Enough on my Sunday Morning Soap Box!


I agree wholeheartedly with this. I don’t think that cost should be a consideration at all during our inspection or in our reporting of what we see. We shouldn’t make assumptions about what home buyers are willing to spend or not spend on their home or potential future home. In some of the specific cases I’m thinking of, upgrades could in fact be accomplished without a great deal of expense, at least in my mind, by at least covering the walls in question with fire rated drywall. This may not actually bring the house up to current “code”, but at least some significant safety enhancement could be achieved.

Thanks, Joe. Sounds like a reasonable approach.

That’s true. But that doesn’t determine what I report and what I don’t report. Hec, every home over in Mission Hills and Kensington needs a new foundation. Thousands of homes, all built in 1890-1920. All with millions of cracks in the interior and exterior walls. All needing a new foundation. “There is just no way thousands of old homes are going to be upgraded.” And they never are. They come in, snort at my foundation section, slop 99 coats of paint on the wall, and go on with their lives. Still doesn’t affect my report.

Safety is never irrelevant. It might not be practical or financially feasible at the current time, but that still does not make it irrelevant, especially if someone is killed or injured.

You’re deciding between apples and oranges there. The key point, though, is that you’re making the decision when your clients should be making the decision based on information and knowledge that you provided for them.

There are ways to provide information without being unrealistic or impractical. For example, here’s a section of my report specifically for my Kensington and Mission Hills Clients:

Educate, educate, educate.

Then let your Client make whatever decision they want based on that education.

Education is never irrelevant.