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Attic pull down stair (C) Daniel Friedman Attic Stairways
Guide to Stair, Railing, Landing Construction & Safety Inspection

  • ATTIC STAIRS - CONTENTS: Attic Stair, railing, guardrail, landing, tread, and step specifications & codes. Attic pull down stair hazards, basement stair hazards. Conventional or home-made attic stairways - hazards and defects. Defective & Unsafe Attic Folding Stairs or Pull-Down Attic Stairs
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about attic stairs and railings & attic folding stairs or pull down stair hazards
  • REFERENCES
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Attic stair & pull-down or folding stairway construction, installation, inspection, hazards & repairs: this article explains how to inspect the condition and safety of attic stairs, folding or pull-down attic stairs and ladders, and attic stairway railings, landings, & treads, and related conditions for safety and proper construction.

We include references to key documents on building codes and stair and railing safety.

Our page top photo shows a remarkable attic access method encountered by the author.



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Attic Stair Inspection & Safety Concerns

Clutter on steps is a trip hazard (C) Daniel FriedmanWe've had several reports of severe injury involving collapsing attic stairs, including involving home inspectors as well as occupants. Attic & Basement stair defects can be grouped by the stair type:

Conventional or home-made attic stairways - hazards and defects

Watch for attic stairs that do not meet recommended standards for

Defective & Unsafe Attic Folding Stairs or Pull-Down Attic Stairs

Attic pull down stair (C) Daniel Friedman Attic pull down stair (C) Daniel Friedman

Watch for these common folding attic stair or ladder defects:

Bad attic pull down spring arm (C) Daniel Friedman Bad attic stair spring arm (C) Daniel Friedman Unsafe attic pull down stair (C) Daniel Friedman Loose stair hardware risks collapse (C) Daniel Friedman

The hardware used on most attic folding stair kits is not redundant. If a nut or bolt falls out of a hinge because it was not kept tight there is serious risk of stair collapse.

Attic pull down stair too short (C) Daniel Friedman Attic pull down stair not secured in rough opening (C) Daniel Friedman

As you can see in our photo, this attic pull down stair frame has been tacked in place using a pair of roofing nails set through a cedar shingle shim.

An ASHI home inspector was seriously hurt when descending a set of attic stairs like these when the stair set came away from the rough opening and fell to the floor below.

Warning label on attic stair (C) Daniel Friedman

Warning labels attached by attic pull-down folding stair manufacturers list the requirements for safe attic folding stair maintenance:

This label is from a stair produced by American Stairways, Inc. and it indicates, among other things:

Examples of Other Bad Attic Access Stairs & Railings

More eccenctric attic accesses: an attic pull down stair ladder that is too short (below left) and a near-vertical "stairs" with a turn, (below right).

Bad attic pull down spring arm (C) Daniel Friedman Narrow turning attic access stair (C) D Friedman

Cluttered, steep attic stair is an access hazard and possibly a fire egress hazard.

Bad attic access - clutter (C) Daniel Friedman

Building Codes for Attic Stairs, Attic Stair Construction Questions & Comments

Reader Question:

(Nov 26, 2012) salah said:

So, what would be the right way. Is there a link in this page that takes you to examples or recommended construction of stairs to the attic? Also, if the attic is considered a livable space, doest that change the building code of the stairs?

Reply:

Salah,

If you've got some specific questions I'll be glad to research and address them here.

There is no single "right" way to construct attic stairs, as there are so many varying circumstances.
Attic access "stairs" range from a normally pitched stairway with railings, even landings, headroom, lighting, etc.
to pull-down folding stairs, to ladders, to open hatches that must be accessed by a temporary ladder.

Attic space is not livible space for purposes of bedrooms in most jurisdictions because of fire egress issues. But I'd agree that if a finished attic floor and space were considered as habitable space, say for an office, there must be safe stairs built to normal stair codes. And your local building department may require a fire exit or other egress.

Reader Question:

(Dec 28, 2012) JoAnn said:

Hi,
My attic ladder was installed in the ceiling above my basement steps. It was a new home and passed inspection. The hose is over 40 years old and the attic ladder has not been a problem. However, we are replacing the wood ladder with aluminum and I think I read somewhere, according to building code, that the ladder must land on the first step at the top of the stairs when installed over existing stairway. Are you familiar with this code? Thanks for your help.

Reply:

I've often seen pulll-down stairs to an attic that extended downwards to land on a stairway themselves. Depending on the direction of travel and considering the absence of a landing this is not an easy-to-use nor particularly safe design (in my OPINION) even where permitted. But for spaces that are not designed for occupancy, for example spaces accessed only for inspection or to service mechanical equipment, exceptions to standard stair design are often permitted.

No I've not found a building code citing that an attic pull down stair into a stairwell is acceptable if it lands on the first step of the stairway. More likely it'd be a non-issue if the pull-down stair landed on a level walking space with at least 36" of clear landing in the direction of travel.

Reader Question: California requirements for attic stairs

5/31/2014 Maggie McGee said:

Hello, Can you tell me the CA rules - Monterey Co. in particular - for new staircases leading to storage attics? The attic will not be used for anything but storage. The stairs rise (8") and run (9") number of 17 stairs and width is 36" with railing on one side.

The building inspector says these aren't "to code" but architect says they are "to code for stairs running to un-livable space". The inspector wants us to tear out completely or will red-tag our home. We just moved back in 18 mos. after a house fire.

I feel the inspector is being ridiculous. Our old ladder access to attic is much more dangerous than these stairs. Can you offer any advice or at least tell us our architect is wrong? We have 19 days left before we need to "vacate". Thank you for any help whatsoever, Maggie

Reply:

Maggie,

The local building inspector has final legal authority and must be satisified. And often the building regulations call for on-site or plan-review judgments of design and safety.

If you want to deviate from what the Monterey County building department says you should do you might start by asking if the department will accept a plan or drawing by a licensed design professional - your architect for example.

In a pinch, to avoid code issues, you may be able to satisfy the inspector by installing a pull down attic access stair that enters the access through a scuttle opening.

I also agree with the building department that a 9" stair run depth for treads is undersized and a fall hazard. It would not be acceptable as an access to occupied space.

But many model, state and local building codes codes allow different rules for non-occupied spaces such as storage attics, lofts, and utility areas.

Where you might get into trouble about whether an attic is non-living-space is if you constructed what you are calling an "attic" but to the building inspector by size, location, and finish (e.g. drywall installed) appears to be a space that could be occupied in the future. Your inspector may also hold the view that if you build a permanent stairway then the area being accessed could b considered an additional story in the home.

Other examples of codes discussing attic stair construction & regulations

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