Staircases often have handrails and guardrails. They are related, but not the same thing.

Handrails are what a person grasps while ascending or descending the stairs or ramp. Guardrails aim to keep people and pets from falling off of the them.

These elements of a home come up in property inspections frequently in older homes as there are safety concerns if they have not been updated. If you are in the market for a 2 or more story home, or own one,  these are important safety topics for you!

Handrails and safety

The building code changes periodically, and elements of a home that were to code when built may not be today. Homeowners aren’t required to update them, unless there’s other remodeling happening and the city or town inspector requires it for the permit and final. There are a number of requirements for the current code in California. It may be different elsewhere.

We cannot quote all of the staircase and rail code here, but here are a few salient points (there are links below for more info):

  • The handrails must be 34-38 inches over the stair or walking surface (such as a ramp).
  • They are required when there are 4 or more stairs and / or 30″ of height.
  • They must go the whole length of the ramp or staircase.
  • They must be on at least one side of the steps or ramp.
  • They need to return to the wall for safety reasons, but at the bottom they may return to itself (often in a circular pattern). The main point here is that if someone is walking along the rail, a bag, purse, or other object cannot get caught on an open rail.
  • There are many more regulations for the size of the handrail (so that it’s graspable), how far it may be from the wall, and so on. The City of Gilroy has a nice PDF that lays out the 2019 California code regulations that you can find at this link.

Something we see frequently are banisters that do not return to the wall. Home inspectors will (or should) note it in inspections when seen.

Handrails and returns


Guardrails and safety

Guardrails are found on staircases (indoor and outdoor), elevated walkways, balconies, etc.

There are many regulations about these safety rails, including height (at least 34″).

  • Depending on the exact location, the width should not be more than 4 3/8″ wide (or 4″ at the top landing). 
  • The height should be between 42 and 45″
  • The State of California has many more guardrail regulations, which you can find here.

With outdoor guardrails, handrails, elevated walkways, and balconies there is a huge issue for common interest developments (condominium and townhome communities) with the wooden balcony law, the need to inspect by January 1, 2025, and anticipated repair costs.

Many older homes have staircase guardrails with too-wide spacing for safety. We have seen some “remodeled” homes where the guardrail was removed entirely!

The issue we see most often with guardrails is the wide spacing between the rails. These are noted in home inspections often, as remodeling often happens with kitchens and bathrooms and less so with staircases.


Guardrails with wide spacing are not to today's code


There are many safety considerations in homes. Bedroom windows should be large enough and low enough for children and adults to be able to get out in case of a fire, and with enough room for a firefighter with a big backpack to enter in case of emergency. Read more on that here:  Why does it matter if the bedroom windows are small or high?

If you live in or want to buy a multi story home, please consider buying emergency escape ladders so that you and  your loved ones can get out in case of fire or other disaster. A family member of mine had to jump out of a burning building once, and the recovery was long! Ace Hardware, Home Depot, and many other stores sell them for less than you’d expect. They could save a life!

Gas cooking is popular, but it is a source of indoor pollution, even when turned off! Before deciding that you must have gas, do some research, please.

Safety is paramount for us. No home or location will ever be perfect or without risk, but it’s good to understand various concerns, and especially those that you can improve.


Related reading

Soft story construction (many condo and townhouse communities have this situation)

Silicon Valley liquefaction zones

Raised perimeter and post and pier foundations

Info on California balcony inspection laws from the California Association of Realtors