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TALES FROM THE ATTIC
from NEWSDAY, NOVEMBER 1995
When Peter Caranicas moved into his new house, a rambling 1870s Victorian mansion in Patchogue, the neighbors gave him one warning: don’t go in the attic. “They said it was haunted,” Caranicas recalled. “They said that at certain times of night, you could hear a ghost moving about.” Scoffing at the legend – which claimed a young child had been left there to die and could still be heard crying – Caranicas moved in. The attic was big and rambling, 60 feet long, perfect for storage since the building had no basement, and it had a lovely view of the Great South Bay and Fire Island. And, oh yes, there was that ghost. “I don’t really believe in such things,” Caranicas said. “But I did hear noises. It was late at night, and it sounded like someone walking around up there, breathing heavily. I guess it could have been the house settling.” He laughed. “I never went up to find out.”
Attics. They’re dark, they’re creepy, and the stuff of ghost stories. More importantly, for many homeowners, they are an important source of extra space. “I store luggage, old files, memorabilia, tax returns, and the kid’s old art projects, all the things I don’t need ready access to,” said Steve Greenbaum, a manager with Mark Greenberg Real Estate in Port Washington who owns a split-level house in Woodmere. “It’s a very useful space to have.”
Yet if attics are not properly designed and cared for, they can also be a cause of costly problems, from energy leaks to pest infestation. According to Hal Byer of Magic Exterminators in Port Washington, attic invasions by nesting squirrels, raccoons, and bees are a very common problem throughout Long Island. “Pests can create all sorts of damage up there,” he said. “Bees, for instance, can get into the air conditioning duct and come down into the living area. Or the pests can start eating through the ceiling and cause structural damage.”
Experts suggest that homeowners perform a thorough inspection of their attic.The first step should be to check that it is properly insulated. Fiberglass insulation prevents heat from rising out of the house into the attic area. Without that barrier, the dry air of the house will meet the damp air of the attic and create condensation, which can ruin the ceilings in the areas below. Costs of insulation materials vary, depending on thickness and quantity, but prices run from about $12 to $20 a square foot. You should insulate but you should also be sure the attic space has adequate ventilation that allows outside air to circulate.
Engineer Kurt Rosenbaum of KRA Associates in Nanuet, N.Y., said that attics “should never be closed up tight. They can either get too hot or too cold. There must be some vents or the plywood upon which the roof is built can rot.” “I’ve seen roofs where it gets hot up there and the roof warps,” said Roger Migne of RLM Construction, a general contractor based in Massapequa. “You want to keep the hear flowing so you avoid that.”
Alvin Wasserman, a homeowner in Roslyn Heights and managing agent at Fairfield Properties in Commack, noted that “having roof vents in the attic allows warm air to rise out. By keeping the air fresh, the roof and attic are protected and last longer. One thing that destroys a roof faster than anything is when the underlying plywood gets moist and is not allowed to dry out. The roof begins to sag. Those problems could cut the roof’s life in half.”
Besides vents, some suggest employing an attic fan. Tied to a thermostat, the fan switches on when the area hits a predetermined temperature. “That keeps it cooler up there,” Greenbaum said. “You can also put in a fan that sucks air out of the house. It can save on air conditioning costs.” Prices on such equipment range from $200 to $600.
Attics can also be a source of pests – and not just the ghostly kind. Besides spirits, Caranicas recalled a raccoon problem that he fought by putting mothballs in the animals’ nest, hoping to drive them away. “But they just took them out, one by one,” he said. “They are very smart.” Greenbaum’s neighbor had a squirrel invasion which took eight months to resolve. “If a squirrel can get in, he will nest in the attic and have babies,” Wasserman noted. “And a squirrel will chew his way through almost anything,” including air conditioning and electrical wiring.
Many homeowners have problems because they try to remove the animals themselves instead of spending a few hundred dollars on professionals. One difficulty for the novice is the complexity of trapping not killing. It is illegal to poison squirrels and raccoons, so the animals must be either driven away or trapped. That is a time-consuming craft. Experts will come in with special traps, baited with peanut butter for squirrels, marshmallows for raccoons.
“You never use fish bait because that catches cats,” said Steve Menoudakos of Busy Bee Pest Control in Flushing. “We tend the traps daily, and remove to animals, usually to wildlife centers. If they are released in the wild, Menoudakos added, “squirrels have to be carried seven miles away. They have an innate sense of navigation, a homing instinct, like a sailor at sea. They go to the highest point, like an oak tree, and navigate their way back to the nest. So to keep them away from your home, squirrels have to be taken good distance away.” Attics are also sources for birds and bees. Menoudakos has removed many bee hives that were located within the walls and relocated the insects to a bee farm.
Besides trapping them, the professionals will also find how the pests are getting in, usually through unscreened vents, the facia board, the chimney, or other structural openings. A sure sign that you have trouble, Menoudakos said, is the sounds of “scratching, running, scurrying, and thumping. Raccoons will coo like pigeons; they will chirp at one another.” Attics should be inspected regularly – at least twice yearly – for any problems.
Greenbaum said he looks over his space more frequently because, “small leaks can go undetected.The insulation might absorb a leak before it penetrates the ceiling of the room below the attic. If you don’t inspect, by the time you notice the leak, it may have gone through the roof, tile, and roofing membrane, and you can then be into some real costly repairs.” If your attic is in good shape, it can be a more effective area for storage or even living space.
Some suggest improving access. Mordy Lahasky, a homeowner in Woodmere, spent $200 to have his attic entrance moved from the linen closet to the hallway. “I keep a lot of things up there and it’s a lot easier to get them now,” he said. Others recommend remodeling the space into living quarters, if there is enough room, since a well-insulated and designed attic area can add value. “It seems to be a big feature for people,” said Joe Tanna, a broker with ERA Premier Homes in Freeport, who also worked in Queens for years. “If it’s renovated, it makes the house more saleable – even if it’s just having flooring down or a pulldown staircase instead of a ladder.”
According to Adding Space Without Adding On, by Herb Hughes, to do that you need at least seven feet of headroom. Otherwise, the area will appear cramped and uncomfortable. “When I was looking for a house, the idea of an attic sounded good but what ultimately turned me off was they were inaccessible and unfinished,” said Abbie Fink, a homeowner who eventually bought a house in Westchester. “We saw finished attics with playrooms, and that had more possibilities. They were great. I think that’s more attractive than using for storage.”
Tanna noted that in Queens and Freeport, attic living spaces are “very desirable. Most of the homes there are three-bedrooms, bought by first-time home buyers and immigrants who have larger families. Providing it has the proper heating, space, and permits from local authorities, an attic can be an ideal living area.”
Some have found even more unusual uses for their attic – and have even eliminated “ghosts” in the process. When Wasserman bought his house, the TV antenna was mounted on the roof attached to the chimney. It was subject to the elements, and during a big storm, was even blown off. Reception was not good, sometimes included double, or ghosted, images. Then Wasserman had an idea. “I took the antenna down and brought it into the attic. Using insulated wire, I suspended it up there, pointing it in the right direction. So now the wires aren’t whipped around by the wind. You know, the reception is great. In fact, I think it’s better than it was before.”