Handrails and guardrails

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


Stairs, balusters, and guard rails

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?

Contemporary staircase with narrower baluster spacing

Contemporary staircase with narrower baluster spacing on the guard rail

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:


Stair rail wide spacing

Stair rail wide spacing


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!