When inspecting homes, ordinary doors can provide a surprise. Some doors lead to rooms, some doors lead to a dark void, and some doors are curiously locked. Sometimes you get all three.
I was inspecting a large vacation home north of Cashiers, North Carolina, on a fast running creek. It was full of boulders, twists and turns, and waterfalls. The drive to the home was narrow and steep, leading to a heavy gate. The remote the agent gave me worked, and the gates slowly opened on complaining hinges.
The house was beautifully built into the side of the granite ledges, with stunning floor to ceiling windows. Although the home had a small footprint – perhaps 1500 square feet – two stories towered upwards, taking advantage of the very steep lot. The home had been foreclosed on, and was now vacant.
The first part of the inspection on the first floor revealed no anomalies. I started up the stairs to move upwards and noticed a closet door with a deadbolt lock. When you see something like this, owners are usually trying to protect something. Normally I note in the report that I could not access the closet or room, but in this case the bank was the owner and I doubted that they knew anything about this locked door.
I quickly got on the phone to the real estate agent.
“I’ll call the bank,” she said.
Three minutes later the phone rang.
“No one has a key to that door. If we did I’d say enter and report what you find. Can you pick it?”
“I’m no locksmith. No problem, I’ll put it in my report,” I said and hung up.
But I was curious.
I ran my hand across the top of the door trim which is where I “hide” a key. My fingers encountered an object with Velcro stuck to the trim. A key! I put the key in the lock and tried rotating it. It worked! Leaving the key in the tumbler, I turned the knob and opened the door.
A black void.
I pulled out my flashlight and aimed it into the area. A black metal circular staircase came into view. Now I felt like Nancy Drew. I started slowly down the narrow stairs and began to hear the sound of water. When I reached the bottom, my feet were on an uneven stone floor and I was in a room about six by six feet with two more doors in the walls. I looked around for a switch. I found it on the opposite wall. I flipped the switch and light filled the room. I was amazed to see that the walls were carved into the cliff.
One closet was a tiny space with an electrical box. The other door was locked with a deadbolt like the one upstairs.
“Oh! I left the key upstairs,” I said to myself. “Shoot, I’ll have to go back up and get it.”
I went back up the circular staircase to retrieve it. I moved back down the stairs to the locked door. The key worked, and I opened the door. I was in a very narrow passageway. The walls were solid rock and I could see the furrows where blasting caps had been used. I was feeling a little claustrophobic. Should I keep going?
The sound of water grew stronger as I moved slowly down the cavern path. After traveling 12 feet, I was suddenly outside! The waterfall that was visible from inside the home was directly in front of me.
What a surprise! Never underestimate what might be behind a locked door.
Lisa is a North Carolina licensed general contractor and home inspector, and the home improvement columnist for the Clay County Progress. She has designed and built several innovative homes with an eye to low maintenance and simplicity. Lisa founded Your Inspection Expert, Inc., a residential inspection company, in 2008. Experience gleaned from hundreds of inspections form the foundation for the advice in her articles.