Safer Stairs – Through the eyes of a Home Inspector

Although every aspect of a home inspection is important, I want to focus my attention for this piece on stairs, both inside and out.

Every year, many people fall down their stairs because they are unsafe for a number of reasons. Preventable falls contribute to thousands of hospital visits each year due to incorrectly, outdated, damaged or structurally inadequate stairways.

If we go back a number of years, the average stairway was unsafe for a whole host of reasons. It seems, people had to fall (while suffering injuries along the way) before changes took place to allow for better, safer stairways. Even today, despite the injuries many to children and the elderly, unsafe staircases continue to be overlooked.

So what do home inspectors look for when we check out the stairs?

The rise & run – The rise, which is the height of each stair, should be 8 inches. Often and especially along the lower and top stairs, they are either more or less than this height. This can cause tripping, so it is important that they are consistent for safety. If you walk up and down the stairs, you will usually be able to “feel” if it is comfortable. The run, or the tread is the surface that you walk on. It should be at least 10 inches. When these areas are off, then this is a sure sign that the rise (height) or run (length) is off. All stairs should be consistent. When building stairs, be sure to hire a competent contractor with experience building proper stairways.

The Landing – All stairs should have proper landings at the top and bottom. Essentially the landing is a platform at the top or bottom of the stairs. This is important for safety, especially if there is a door at the top of the stairs. Older homes often turn at one side, leaving 1-3 inches along the corners. This is no longer permitted with new construction, and subsequently where many people slip. If you have this arrangement in the place where you live, see if you can have it fixed. If not, be very careful and stay to the side that has a wider and longer tread.

The railings – Often, older homes do not have stairway railings, especially in the basement. And if they do, many of the rails are not safe. All railings must be at least 36 inches in height. If facing an open space ithey must have pickets installed every 4 inches. (Have you ever noticed a main hall or entrance stairway where there are no pickets on the rails leading up to the top floor?) Neither have I. This would seem weird, even for a non-home inspector.  So, why is it ok for basements? It isn’t, but people tend to miss this detail all of the time. Interior railings should be properly secured to the wall along the inside and sturdy.

Outside handrails are often too wide. They must be no more than 4 inches wide and round, to allow people to hold on in case they slip. Also, any set of stairs with three or more requires a railing.

The structure – the stairs must be properly supported so they do not move. If they are outside, the posts should be placed in proper footings & the stringers adequately secured. Wood stairs should not be in contact with concrete, as moisture can seep into the wood and cause rot damage sooner than later. Exterior stairs should not rise above one floor without a turn in direction or proper landing.

Maintenance – Exterior wooden stairs should be pressure treated and painted/stained to allow them to last longer. I recommend placing a non-stick adhesive, such as asphalt strips on the treads to prevent slipping. It is a good idea to test the railings to ensure they are strong and secure. Loose and rotten stairways can lead to unnecessary injuries.

Whether you are on a search to buy a home or if you own your own, make sure to check the stairs for safety. If you see areas for improvement, then take the necessary steps, (haha) to ensure they will be safe for you and your family.

For more info, send me an email or call and I’ll help you out