The door between the house and the garage—and little kid’s fingers!

Lots of people, including me, are confused about the requirements for doors between the house and the garage.

garage_house_doorI will attempt to open that door and by the time I close it hopefully everyone will be a little less confused–but then again perhaps not.

Some sort of “special” door has been required between the house and the garage for a long time.  It is not uncommon to see heavy wood doors wrapped in sheet metal in older homes.

I will not attempt to identify the specific requirements of what this “special” door had to look like historically, but instead will present “current” requirements with the idea that upgrading is a good idea regardless.  Of course if the home is newer, “repairs” might be the word I would use in the inspection report instead of “upgrade.”

If you don’t understand the requirements for these doors don’t feel alone, as many inspectors are confused as well.  Even jurisdictional inspectors seem confused by the requirements.

There are essentially three types of doors that meet the requirements of proper separation between the residence and the garage if your jurisdiction follows the IRC (International Residential Code).  The following is from the 2009 IRC:

   1.  The door must be a solid wood door of not less than 1-3/8” thick,

   2.  The door must be a solid wood or honeycomb core steel door not less than 1-3/8” inches thick, or

   3.  The door must be a 20-minute fire-rated door.

The thing to note about these three approaches is that none of them mentions “weather-stripping” or “automatic closers.”

You may have even heard your inspector say that these doors to the garage no longer “require” automatic closers.  However many builders install doors between the house and the garage that are UL listed as a “20 minute fire-rated door assemblies.”  This is different that just the door itself and some sort of self closing mechanism and possibly even weather-stripping might be included on the door even though not required.

The whole business of weather-stripping is more germane to the requirements of the energy code and the fuel gas code, than it is to the requirements for separation between the residence and the garage.  What complicates this even further is that there was a time when these doors did require self-closing mechanisms–why it was left out of the newer codes is frankly a little baffling.  This is where the notion that they no longer have to have self-closing mechanisms comes from.

In the most recent code cycle, the codes attempt to clarify the “intent” of the code that all three choices should have an auto-closure mechanism, by tacking “equipped with a selfclosing device” on the end.

Here is the way the current code reads:  “Other openings between the garage and residence shall be equipped with solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8 inches (35 mm) in thickness, solid or honeycomb-core steel doors not less than 1-3/8 inches (35 mm) thick, or 20-minute fire-rated doors, equipped with a selfclosing device.”

The fact that the numerous grammatical errors in the way this is written makes it impossible to arrive at the “intent” of the clarification, makes it not much of a clarification at all.  People charged with clarifying the code state that the intent is for the closer to be on all the types of doors.

It would be nice if that is what the code actually said.

Why would you want to mess with the safety of the fire-separation between the house and the garage anyway?

So although it can be interpreted that ‘grammatically” you don’t need an automatic closer on doors #1 and #2–doesn’t it seem like a good idea that all doors between the house and the garage have them?

I bypass the whole issue by merely recommending a proper closer and weather-stripping be installed on all doors between the house and the garage.  This is a pretty easy recommendation if the door is a hollow core wood or plastic door–or has a doggie door cut in it.

Sometimes it is just easier to install a new 20 minute fire-rated door assembly.

Some jurisdictions have even eliminated the need for the closer due to its slamming on little kids fingers.  I can see that happening, but a poor solution in my opinion.  Sometimes our attempts to protect ourselves from ourselves don’t succeed.  Sometimes our failures become an opportunity for a new invention.

Of course closer devices that close the door quickly until it gets close to the latch and then closes the rest of the way very slowly have been available for a long time and greatly reduces crushed fingers.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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  1. Thanks, Charles, for a well-written piece and for opening a broader area of discussion.

    The dilemma – injured fingers, CO poisoning, or death from fire? Over the years various building codes and AHJs have had different requirements pertaining to whether or not doors between garages and living spaces should be self-closing. It would seem that injuries to children’s hands and fingers, while not desirable, are preferable to injury or death from CO poisoning or fire.

    However, as for whether to recommend modification of a door which was not required to be self-closing at the time of original installation (grandfathered) as an upgrade or as a repair – that presents another dilemma.

    If safety is the primary criterion for a recommendation to repair such a condition, it could be asked if the same criterion should be applied with regard to recommending the modification of a staircase with 9″ tread depths which met the requirements when it was built. It would be difficult to apply the criterion of cost to justify modifying a garage-to-interior door but not to modifying the staircase considering that the costs are not a consideration when recommending electrical system repairs, i.e., the low cost of installing cover plates for electrical receptacles where they are missing and the high cost of replacing entire electrical distribution panels where necessary.

    Would an inspector in Scottsdale, Arizona be justified in identifying the lack of a fire suppression sprinkler system in a home built prior to January 1, 1986 (when the requirement for such systems went into effect) as an adverse condition and recommending repair?

    These and other changes in residential construction methods and requirements such as safety glazing; GFCIs; AFCIc; staircase tread, riser, and railing requirements; patio, balcony, and deck railing requirements – all present challenges to home inspectors.

    You opt for repair rather than upgrade when making a recommendation regarding a garage-to-house door which is not self-closing. This begs the question of whether or not it is reasonable for home inspectors to provide information to customers ( buyers) which may lead them to expect sellers to go beyond correcting adverse conditions and also expect sellers to bring their homes into conformance with the most current applicable building codes. While home inspectors should not make any recommendations regarding whether or not customers should or should not ask sellers to do anything, inspectors haven’t done their job unless they also provide sufficient perspective to allow customers to make informed decisions.

    Is there a means by which home inspectors can bring such issues to the attention of their customers without leaving them with the impression that such modifications constitute adverse conditions in the same way that a damaged or inoperable component does? Perhaps a two-tiered approach might be considered. One would be the inclusion of a clause in an inspection contract stating:

    In the event that the Inspection Report or oral statements made by the Inspector supply any information about any systems, components, or items not specifically included in this Contract, in the Inspection Report, and in the scope of inspection, this information shall be deemed to be informational only and supplied as a courtesy to the Customer, and shall not be deemed to be an amendment to or waiver of the exclusions in the Contract document and shall not be deemed to acknowledge or create any duty not otherwise expressly specified in this Contract.

    This would address the problem of including code and upgrade information in a report when doing so which may be specifically excluded in a contract or specifically not required in a given Home inspection standard.

    The other would be the inclusion of the term “elective modification” in a home inspection report glossary where elective modification is defined as: Referring to information regarding a system or component which, when provided, is done solely as a courtesy to Customers for their consideration as part of any upgrading and maintenance program they may choose to implement. ELECTIVE MODIFICATION conditions are not adverse conditions. All ELECTIVE MODIFICATIONS should be performed by qualified individuals in accordance with all applicable industry standards and governmental requirements.

    Home inspectors also have to weigh the potential consequences of the concept of in-for-a-dime, in-for-a-dollar when cherry-picking which grandfathered conditions to include in their reports lest they find themselves in court trying to explain why they identified some such conditions as adverse conditions for which repair is recommended and not others – particularly the ones which led to injuries.

    Just some ideas. Thanks for powering up my brain with food for thought on an otherwise lazy Colorado summer day. I’d enjoy meeting you sometime. I think our conversations would be both interesting and productive.

    I look forward to your posts. Keep up your good and necessary work.

  2. Charles Buell says

    Kevin, for me, I have no problem recommending improvements wherever I see prudent. The very same item in a home could need improvement, upgrading or repairs/installation depending on the age of the home etc. Generally speaking I think “grandfathering” is often used as an “out” to keep ones head in the sand. Whether anyone does anything about improving older homes is up to the owner of that home—but at least they can be made aware of how it can be improved. Otherwise it can be seen as a form of “withholding” information that might save someone’s life. Your line from your comment:

    “this information shall be deemed to be informational only and supplied as a courtesy to the Customer, and shall not be deemed to be an amendment to or waiver of the exclusions in the Contract document and shall not be deemed to acknowledge or create any duty not otherwise expressly specified in this Contract”

    is something I use often. Inspectors should not be afraid to inform people in my opinion.
    If I inform my client of 9 safety concerns and miss the 10th one, it is better than if I missed all ten—or simply ignored all ten. 🙂

  3. Your Job is to inspect home. You are not paid for your opinion of home . if it is up to code than that all is to be serviceable. Report facts , who are you to give opinions.

    • Charles Buell says

      I cannot tell where your concerns are coming from, but I can assure you all home inspectors are hired for their opinions. These opinions do not however happen in a vacuum. My opinions are based on, experience, codes, mfgs requirements, building science etc. No inspector would last long without being able to support their opinions with authoritative sources. Every house is different, so what the facts are for one house might not be true of another. It takes considerable experience and knowledge to give meaningful opinions based on what the house has to say. Good inspectors are able to interpret what the house is telling them and render meaningful opinions for their client.

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