Buying or selling a Silicon Valley home with stairs? The building code has a lot to say about what is and what isn’t legal or ideal. Older homes may have staircases or rails which don’t match today’s code, but were acceptable when they were constructed (they are legal!). Newer homes are built to a higher standard, and are safer for that reason. Sometimes, the issue isn’t how they were built, but rather that home owners personalize their stairs or guard rails in a way which is unsafe (and that’s not legal).
What are some of the things you want to look for in a staircase?
There are many elements that the code addresses, such as
- when you can have just one hand rail and when you need one on both sides of the stairs
- what the riser height needs to be (whether it is a tall or shallow step)
- the width of the hand rail, where it’s placed, how much clearance it has (so you can wrap your hand around it)
- how the hand rail should terminate
- how long or deep the step should be
- the amount of head room needed
- different requirements for exit routes, indoor and outdoor stairs
- and many more – you can check out the list here on the Inspectapedia website
Guard rails and balusters
Today I want to focus on the staircase railing and guard rail, specifically the distance between the balusters (the balusters are the vertical rails under the hand rail).
The guard rail is what keeps you from falling off the staircase on the open side, if there is one. The hand rail is the part you hold onto as you ascend or descend the stairs.
This first photo shows a newer staircase with a wooden hand rail and wrought iron balusters which include decorative adornments. Notice how close they are, and how impossible it would be for the little dog in the image to somehow fall through the gaps between the balusters. It is a very effective guard rail, even for the smallest member of the family!
The building code today, for new construction and staircase remodels, insists that the gap between the balusters be no more than 4 inches to create a safe guard rail. This particular home’s staircase lines up with that standard perfectly.
Older properties, built in the 60s or 70s, may have stair cases with larger gaps between the balusters, such as this:
The image above represents the spacing sometimes seen in older properties. It is an effective guard rail for adults and larger children, but may not be safe for babies, toddlers, and small children. Parents of toddlers may want to get some sort of safety mesh or other barrier to make sure their kids are safe on stairs with such a big distance (more like 6″ rather than 4″). There are many child safety products available to address this issue.
And not too long ago, I saw a staircase that was modified in a scary way – nearly all of the balusters had been removed!
It is not hard to imagine how a fully grown adult could trip on the stairs and fall between these balusters. As guard rails go, it’s not too helpful. Additionally, you might notice that the steps themselves are not flat and may make footing less sound.
Bottom line, whether you are looking at the step height, the landing, the guard rail, the hand rail, or any other element on the stairs, think safety for all, whether the very young, the very old, the disabled, and everyone else. Above all, do not remove elements that are there for safety. I have seen stairs leading to the 2nd story of a home with walls on both sides and no hand rail at all because an owner “updated” the look and removed it. I have seen “open” guard rails that don’t guard well at all after remodeling. It may not be likely that you or I will have a full grasp of all the safety requirements, but I think it is possible to have a critical eye toward safety and to get a sense of whether something is missing or could be made more safe.