An important but often overlooked construction feature, soffits help protect your home from all sorts of invaders — think everything from mold to squirrels. Although they do this while providing an attractive transition from the roof to the exterior walls of a home, soffits are clearly more than just decorative elements.
And yet, not all homes have them. So what exactly are soffits? And where are they located on your home and what are they good for?
What Is a Soffit?
Technically, a soffit is any material that makes up the underside of a part of your house, including ceilings, stairs and cornices. Older homes might feature soffits as a decorative element, while other structures use soffits to hide things like structural beams, HVAC ducts or plumbing.
There are interior and exterior soffits. We'll be focusing on exterior soffits for this article. Those are the most common type, and they are located outside your home on the edge of the eave.
The eaves are the part of the structure's roof that overhangs the exterior walls, explains Justin Larrison, remodeling consultant and co-owner of Small Carpenters at Large, a design/build firm that's been in business for more than 40 years in Atlanta. Eaves are made up of two primary components: fascia, the outer vertical cladding that gutters attach to, and the soffit, the horizontal cladding or framing that encloses the underside of the eave.
Your home can have an eave without being enclosed by a soffit, but it can't have a soffit without an eave. Older homes and some new construction homes with insulated roofs have exposed — or open-rafter — eaves where the rafters of the eaves are visible. In that case, soffits are not necessary. Other homes may have eaves that do not extend beyond the exterior walls. In these cases, there is no place for a soffit.
According to Qualityedge.com, the easiest way to tell if your home has soffits is to walk around it look up at the roof. If you can see the underside of the eaves, but you can't see the rafters, your home has soffits. The soffits will most likely be constructed of short planks.
What's the Purpose of Soffits?
Soffits have an important job on the outside of a house. They protect the underside of the eaves from moisture and rot. Moisture can cause big problems, not only to the eaves, but also to the attic. In fact, soffits can be essential to a properly vented attic.
"Traditional attics are unconditioned and uninsulated, requiring air circulation so they don't overheat during the summer or trap cold moist air during the winter," Larrison says via email. "During the hot months, air moves up from the vents in the soffit, through the attic, and out either a ridge vent at the top of a roof or through vents spaced properly along the upper part of the roof."
The reverse happens during cold months, and in all seasons, this ventilation is vital.
"Overheating can shorten the life span of materials, mainly roof shingles and add to energy costs, while trapped moisture creates a breeding ground for the dreaded 'M' word: mold," Larrison says.
Finally, soffits help keep unwanted intruders like insects, pests and birds out of the attic, too.
Despite their benefits, not all homes need soffits. For example, an attic can be ventilated by gable vents — those cute features that look like louvered shutters on the exterior face of an attic. Homes employing this look typically have insulated attics, negating the need for outside air circulation, which is the main purpose of soffits, Larrison explains.
Common Materials for Soffits
Historically, soffits were made of wood and could feature a variety of styles like simple plank, wainscot or beaded, according to Qualityedge.com. Now, there are many additional materials used for soffits, such as vinyl, aluminum, fiber cement and even recycled materials. Although these newer options may mimic the look of traditional wood, they offer the benefit of durability and can be vented to help with airflow. Of course, wood is still an option.
A variety of designs are available, and soffits can take on colors that coordinate or match the style of the home.
"Not every home is the same and soffits are no different," says Larrison. "Materials can range from beautifully stained wood to low-maintenance vinyl." They can be open, vented, fully enclosed or custom-tailored to the local weather. You can even install soffits that are ready to withstand storms.
How to Maintain Soffits
Just like every part of a home, soffits must be inspected and maintained, explains Larrison, who recommends giving your soffits a good once over annually.
"Peeling paint, separation between materials, and mildew or mold spots are typically the first signs that the soffit or eave need maintenance or repairs," he says.
Keeping the roof and gutter free of debris is the best way to prevent damage to soffits and fascia. Vented soffits can be cleaned with compressed air to keep dirt and debris from clogging the openings, according to MHC Gutters. Other maintenance includes ensuring the soffits are clear of insect nests, washing them with a mild detergent to get them clean without damaging their coating, and keeping them sealed and painted.
"All homeowners should take some time to educate themselves on their home, so they know what their specific situation is, how to maintain, and what signs to look for when something isn't working correctly," says Larrison. "With an abundance of information at our fingertips, investing some time in education now can save a lot of money and stress down the road."