A Stairway to Heaven

Properly built and equipped stairs are easy to use whether you are familiar with the house in question or not. Unsafe stairs are an accident waiting to happen. The homeowner may claim that, “those stairs have been like that for years and no-one has gone to the hospital yet”. The keyword is ‘yet’. Along with other criteria, home inspectors want to see stairs that are: solid; level; consistent and compliant in step height and tread depth; have sufficient head-room; are well-lit; and appropriately guarded by handrails and ballasters.

It doesn’t seem like much of a big deal when one step is a different size, but if you expect the next one to be like the last one, the surprise can easily take you for a tumble. We often see this on decks where pre-cut stringers or improperly installed interlock create an odd-sized step at the top or bottom. Stairs must be custom fit to evenly divide the overall height between the platforms with a consistent rise that conforms to the range specified in your local building code. Here are a few examples of the kind of things we often see.

Trip hazard Inconsistent steps
Trip hazard Inconsistent steps
Stair with no light or handrail Stairs not level
No light or handrail Stairs not level
Stair with no landing or handrail Stairs broken
Stair with no landing or handrail Stairs broken

Not having sufficient light in a stairwell is risky. Having no light and no handrail is temping fate. Each additional non-conforming factor just adds to the risk. Broken stairs and treads that aren’t level can be treacherous. Exterior stairs can ice up in cold weather and be very slippery. Landings are required to safely enter and exit buildings with more than three risers.

Home inspectors pay such close attention to steps and stairways to improve stair safety. According to the mortality data from Statistics Canada, there were 388 deaths due to falling down stairs and steps (table 102-0540, 2009). One can only assume that there are many times more stair-related injuries as well. If you recognize any of these issues on the stairs in your home, take corrective action now. Make sure that the only stairway to heaven in your home is on a playlist.

Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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