Walking and Inspecting Roofs

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Quite a common question I get from my home inspection clients is if I will get up to the roof during their home inspection. Sometimes this is a very practical question as the client wants to know if I carry the right ladders, and sometimes it is a qualifying question as the client is looking for an inspector who will walk on the roof as part of the inspection. My short answer to this question has become, "Yes, I will access the roof unless there is a safety reason not to".

A professional home inspector will be following the standards of practice of one of the major professional home inspection associations. These standards require home inspectors identify building materials present and that they inspect readily accessible roof features. In addition, home inspectors need to identify the method they used to inspect the roof system. This method of inspecting the roof is left up to the individual home inspector but commonly accepted methods can include:

  • Walking on the roof surface
  • Accessing the roof edge by ladder or ground accessible areas
  • Observing from nearby windows or balconies above lower roof levels
  • Observing with binoculars from ground level

Now that we have clarified that home inspectors MUST report on the roof system and some options on HOW they can inspect the roof system, the question we started with was WILL the home inspector walk on the roof surface (what is expected by most clients) or will they use an alternative method to inspect the roof. Here are some thoughts that home inspectors and home inspections clients should consider:

  1. Ideally, inspectors will always walk on the roof surface as this is the service level expected by clients
  2. Every inspection is different. It is up to the home inspector to decide if it is safe to access the roof by walking on it erring on the side of caution. Inspectors typically work solo and sometimes there may not be anyone else on site to call 911 for help in the even of an accident. Under no circumstances should an inspector be forced to do something they do not feel is safe.
  3. Some major safety reasons for inspectors not to walk on the roof include:
    • Unsafe Access - Safe roof access requires a safe location to place a ladder to access the roof. On some properties, uneven ground or slippery ladder footing may prevent safe access. In some cases, a lower roof area may be accessible but a second higher roof access may need additional ladders and equipment to safely access and with inspectors working solo, it is not safe for inspectors to be hauling extra gear up to the roof on ladders.
    • Weather Conditions - Slippery roof conditions create an absolute unsafe condition for inspectors. A safe roof to walk on in the dry may not be safe in the rain and is likely very unsafe when near freezing due to surface ice.
    • Roof Pitch - Roofs come in many different 'pitches' or steepnesses. A high pitched roof requires the use of specialized equipment to safely walk on which is beyond the safe knowledge of most inspectors. Medium pitched roofs can often be walked on but slippery materials or conditions may also make them unsafe on any given day.
    • Roof Height from Ground - There are two concerns with roof height for inspectors. First, the taller the roof, the taller the ladder needs to be and with many inspectors working solo, it can become unreasonable to use ladders beyond about 2 stories. Second, inspectors should consider the possibility of a slip and fall (or ladder failure) even in the best of conditions. In some cases on steep hillsides, a two story roof on one side of a house may be a 4 story drop on the other. It is reasonable for inspectors to limit access to the two-story side slope as any accidentally falls would be more survivable.
    • Roof Materials - There are some roof materials that should not be walked on to prevent damaging the materials (e.g. mission style tiles) and others that may become particularly slippery in different weather conditions (e.g. wood shakes/shingles). Inspectors need to know which materials are safe to walk on and when
  4. In the event that a roof cannot be safely inspected from on the roof, this should be written up as a limitation of the roof inspection with why the roof was not walked on or completely accessed.
  5. The next best method of inspection it to access the roofs edge by ladder or ground level which allows a small section of the roof to be in arms reach of the inspector. Then, observations of the remaining roof area should be made with binoculars with any limitations to the observable area documented in the inspection report. If there is no safe ladder access, the inspection will be limited to ground level with binoculars.


Roof Safety Gear

Some inspectors will carry roof access safety gear as part of their inspection equipment. This type of gear is commonly required for roofers who may be working on steep roof pitches for many hours while operating equipment and carrying materials. While using this safety gear is clearly is a best practice, installing some gear can be quite cumbersome and time consuming for one person and may require fastening objects to the home. As inspectors are less likely than roofers to become fatigued or distracted during a relatively short inspection period, most inspectors rely on a good pair of shoes and a secure ladder for safe roof access. 

The workman's compensation group in our jurisdiction (BC Safety Authority) recognizes that because home inspectors are on roofs for a limited time, and only under safe conditions, that this gear is not required as long as the inspector does their job promptly. Inspectors need to know what safety gear is required by authorities in their jurisdiction and be trained in the use of this equipment.


Final Thoughts

'Walking the roof' during a home inspection gives inspectors the best opportunity to view the entire roof system however inspectors and clients need to keep in perspective that an inspectors life and livelihood need to take precedence. All inspectors need to invest in good quality ladders and binoculars and be knowledgable of how safe different roofing materials are in different conditions. And in case you are not sure if a surface is safe to walk on, don’t walk on it.

Safety Update

It has been a few years since I wrote this original article and we now have many inspectors working with us and we’ve become an authority on best practices for inspectors. One thing that comes with having other people on the team is we need to be able to articulate safety better. After years of field experience, we have learned a balance between inspector safety and client service falls at about 16-20 feet of roof height from the ground to the roof edge. It is very reasonable for an inspector to access a 1-story roof (8-10 feet high) or to perhaps get a ladder to the edge of a 2-story roof (16-20 feet high) but safely making the transition from ladder to roof line at this point requires the ladder be at least 3-feet above the roof line. Taking into account the angle of the ladder and the 3-foot rule over the roof line, a 16-foot high roof needs a 21-foot ladder for safe access which is a common and safe ladder size for a single person to use unsupervised. If your home roof line is higher than 16-feet (or other safety factors exist), your inspector may choose to inspect from ground level with binoculars and this is an accepted practice by solo, safe, and professional home inspectors. If needed or desired by clients, further review will require professional roofers who will operate as a team with specialized safety gear.


By James Bell - Owner/Chief Inspector of Solid State Inspections Inc.