Here’s the situation. I inspected a home the other day and pointed out what I thought was a firewall problem.

This is a single story home built in 1999. The garage walls and ceiling are fully sheathed. The seller added a storage area above the ceiling in the garage with a pull down staircase.

When I pulled the stairs down and went up to look at the storage area I noticed that there was no wall separating the garage and the house and the attic area above the house was visible.

The seller, who is the original owner, states that he did not remove this wall and other than adding the storage area, this is how the home was built.

I’m not an expert on building codes so I need some help. Thanks

This is what I would say about it, assuming its a non-fire rated, wooden drop-down ladder:

“Today’s standards for new construction require a firewall separation between the garage and the living space. A common defect exists in that a pull-down ladder assembly in the garage ceiling violates the firewall separation between the garage and the living quarters. Its hatch cover should be sheathed in metal, or the wall of the residence beyond it must be plastered or dry-walled. Remedies approved by Mecklenburg County, NC, which may be used as a guidance document, are available at:

Like Joe stated, he compromised the firewall (ceiling) by adding the wooden pull down stairs.

The firewall was a requirement at time of construction. By adding the stairs and the storage area, the seller breached the required firewall. It will need to be sealed or a proper fire rated set of stairs installed.

It is important to tell your clients that this is a breach in the firewall and that insurance companies will find any reason to not pay a claim. Should there be a fire that can be tracked to the garage, I can guarantee you that they will deny the claim and cancel their insurance plan.

There is also the matter of what type of storage he installed. The roof trusses are manufactured for a specific purpose. By adding the additional weight, it may very well exceed the limitations of those structural pieces.

I ran into a weekend mechanic who used a single truss for his engine lift. Closer examination under the insulation showed a cracked bottom chord. He is very lucky it was caught before he yanked another engine. It may not have held.

Thats just stupid. :mrgreen:

This is the first time I ever used the message board and I am impressed with the great answers you all gave. Thanks for the help. Much appreciated.

welcome Bill…come back often…

It is indeed an unsafe condition. The firewall codes have been inplace in California since the 1940’s…

It can be resolved by restoring to original or by installing a proper firewall system within the altered attic storage area.

In either case, good call…

It should all be taken with a grain of salt, you all know that I hope. I grew up in a home with a wood paneled garage. It had a glass door between it and the house. The electric system was 2-prong. We had no GFCIs. The electric panel was FPE. (My mother still lives there.) I slept in a crib coated with lead based paint. Slept on my stomach in that crib. Later on, I rode a bike with no helmet. Drank water from a garden hose with no back-flow prevention out of a well that was never tested. Ate meat without an FDA stamp on it. Drank milk without expiration dates. Bought and drove a car with no seat belts. Drove that car while legally drinking beer in it at 18 years old. Etc., etc.

Praise the Lord, I’m still here!

Don’t thank the lord you’re still here, thank him that you haven’t been sued as an inspector yet. Nothing about firewall systems should be taken with a grain of salt in my opinion.

I’ve been involved in multiple expert witness/litigation cases involving firewall and or fire door deficiencies. In many cases your fire insurance policy will stop at the altered firewall and or bel-air door assembly going into the house.

If we as inspectors begin relating to clients that safety related code deficiencies are unimportant, attorneys are soon to follow…

My jesting should not lead one to think I don’t do a thorough or professional job during inspections. However, I do feel that firewall codes are overdone. Any significant fire in a garage is going to eventually spread to the rest of the house—sheetrock ain’t going to stop it. I tell my clients that the best defense against a fire are interconnected smoke alarms.

Do you want to be perfectly safe all the time? Then sit perfectly still in the corner of a home without electricity and never leave it. Life has risks of all sorts.

Regarding insurance, I have a policy on my own home and no agent or insurance form ever asked me about a drop down ladder in a garage or mentioned the word “firewall” or “fire barrier”. I’d be curious to learn more about the insurance effects.


The insurance companies will always check for causes not only of the start of the fire, but things that are conducive to spreading or allowing the spread the fire. Some fires are caused by accidents but they consider building alterations as deliberate actions and not accidents.

If someone installs or alters anything that could possibly have required a permit and a permit was not issued, and it can be traced to the start of a fire, they will not cover you. If the same item was conducive to the fire spreading, they will not cover you. In this instance the breach in the firewall caused by installing the stairs would give them an out if the fire started in the garage.

Insurance underwriters and investigators are there to protect the assets of the insurance company, not the insured. If you ever have a fire, I would highly recommend the hiring of a private adjuster. You would be surprised how much more they come up with even after you pay their fee. They come up with things like that half bottle of mustard or pickles in the fridge that still have value. One of my better friends and the head of my credit union received an additional $46k after her private adjuster was done.

How many of us get the terms of our policies with every renewal, stuffed in the envelope with the privacy notices and printed in those little tissue paper pamphlets that are 40 pages long, in size 1 font, and either file them or put them in the recycle bin without reading them? I have to plead guilty.

In my area, installing drop-down stairs would not require a permit.

My mother’s house was built in the 70s and has no fire barrier at all. Is she covered by fire insurance? I just can’t imagine that the insurance companies view drop down stairs as voiding a home insurance policy. I’ll ask my brother-in-law. He works in claims for Nationwide. Will get back to you on this.

Let’s stay on point for a moment. The original issue was altering a “FIREWALL”. In California a permit would absolutely be required for any structural modifications involving fire safety issues for example. I’m not quite sure how your mom has a 1970’s home without firewall protection to the living area from an adjacent garage. That issue has been in the various model codes way before the 1970’s…

Must be a local thing…

Another insurance example:

I was called to testify on a garage fire issue. When I performed the inspection numerous light fixtures were installed throughout the garage with pig tail conductor power supplies wedged into various wall outlets. I documented and photographed the issues. Buyer moved in, with the substandard electrical still in place. Fire developed and the insurance carrier refused to pay the claim for neglegence and failing to correct a known unsafe condition. The insurance carrier subpoended the realtor who gave the insurance company a copy of my report. They called me and away we go…