When I reach the second floor during a home inspection, I feel fortunate to find a set of folding attic stairs, because it means I won’t have to carry a stepladder up a flight of stairs. On the other hand I immediately ask myself, “Is this an accident waiting to happen?” Over the years, I’ve found so many problems with folding stairs, I now routinely expect a major safety hazard.
One of my scariest personal experiences occurred when I pulled a set of folding stairs down and one of the springs broke and went sailing past the real estate broker’s head like shrapnel and hit the wall at the far end of the hallway. Since that episode, I make it a habit to caution those present to stand aside, out of the line of fire.
I’ve come to believe spending money on quality folding attic stairs is not a priority to most builders and do-it-yourselfers. As a result, cheap stairs, amateur installations, insufficient installations, and neglected maintenance all combine to expose a home inspector to potential personal injury and property damage claims. Therefore, safety must be a consideration every time a home inspector approaches a set of folding attic stairs.
In my report, I document potential safety hazards for the user, as well as any current unsafe conditions. Because current unsafe conditions are seldom obvious, I’ve developed inspection field practices other inspectors may find helpful.
Illustration courtesy of Memphis Folding Stairs
To open or not to open
• Closely inspect the folding stairs before pulling the string, and again prior to climbing them. Begin by using a flashlight to examine the ceiling, cord and staircase cover.
If a latch or hasp is holding the folding staircase in the closed position, be especially wary. More than likely, the springs are defective and no longer counterbalance the weight of the staircase. Releasing the fastener might just result in the entire thing falling down on top of you.
• Try to partly open the folding stairs, stopping to check the hardware for loose connections.
Often I find loose bolts, missing bolts, loose nuts, missing nuts, and loose hinges – meaning the whole thing can just fall apart, in which case I “own it!”
If the spring arms are retracted in the wrong position, they must be bent into proper alignment to unfold the stairs.
To climb or not to climb
• If it’s possible to successfully unfold the stairs, look to see if the base of the folding stairs is cut to align with the floor, and whether or not the finish on the floor covering is at risk of damage.
If there’s a gap between the top and middle sections of the stairs, the bottom stringers were not cut correctly, and safety repairs are needed.
• Next check each tread, all hardware and the handrail for defects before deciding to climb the stairs.
With a flashlight in one hand or the attic light on, I inspect the sides and headers of the staircase to make sure that they are securely fastened to the framing and that the roof frame has not been inappropriately altered.
• Consider your own safety first, but remember to remind the client not to follow immediately behind.
The stairs may not support the additional weight.
If I have any doubt a set of stairs is safe, it’s out to the truck for my stepladder. Better safe than sorry!
In the attic
• After entering the attic, remember the opening is there.
Have you ever been preoccupied with examining the roof frame from inside the attic and almost fallen into the open folding staircase?
• Caution clients about moving stored goods within the attic and accidentally falling into the stairwell.
I even suggest they may want to construct a galley rail around the opening.
Close with care
Closing folding stairs can be just as dangerous as opening them.
• If the stairs are stuck in the open position, you may have to pull the spring arms toward you to enable them to bend.
• Sometimes the spring arm assembly will cause the folding stairs to close before you have time to fold up the stairs.
I always keep one hand on the stairs when opening or closing them to prevent them from slamming shut, which can damage the stairs or the ceiling or cause a personal injury.
“Where” can be as important as “what”
No inspection of a folding staircase is complete without considering its physical location.
• A folding staircase that opens over another staircase dramatically increases the risk of injury.
• A set of folding attic stairs is not an adequate means of egress from a living space, but I have found them used in this way.
• A folding staircase without fire shielding used to gain access to a storage loft in an attached garage voids the garage fire shield and places the home at risk of rapid fire spread.
• When a folding staircase lacking weather-stripping and insulation is installed in the second floor hallway just outside of the bathroom door, a chase is created that allows heat loss and the migration of excessive moisture from the bathroom into the attic.
The staircase provides easy access to the attic, but it also creates a significant hole in the thermal barrier between the attic and conditioned space, wasting energy dollars and contributing to any mold problems in the attic. I advise that folding stairs be latched tightly, weather-stripped and insulated with a rigid foam box that easily pushes up out of the way when access is needed.
To summarize, folding attic stairs are a great convenience, but if defective they can represent a clear and present danger to the home inspector, to the client and to the homeowner. Moreover, they may allow costly heat loss, moisture migration, mold formation and the rapid spread of fire. This relatively nonessential component actually requires careful evaluation and documentation if a home inspector is to stay healthy, wealthy and wise.