Staircases (Part 1) – is it the most taken-for-granted part of the home?

How often have you considered the staircase in your home? Or if you’re looking to buy, do you really take note of the condition of the stairs?

Unless you’re in a bungalow, the stairs are in fact one of the most crucial things to look at. There are so many things to consider – their placement, how steep they are, whether they have banisters, what material they are, if they have carpet, do they have a bend? You name it, I could go on.

This article highlights the common problems we find when we conduct house surveys and explains the terms used for staircase components to help you understand your survey. Look out for Part 2 where we will explain the issues you must consider when replacing a staircase, or adding one to an extension or loft conversion.

First, let’s get the definitions sorted – there are so many words used to describe different parts of a stair case that it can get confusing.

Core staircase components

  • Balustrading: the rail around a stairwell that stops you falling down it. It is often formed from a combination of the spindles, handrail and newel posts, but it can be made from all types of materials – even stud walls can form balustrading.
  • Banister: the structure formed by the uprights and handrail at the side of a staircase – similar to the balustrading.
  • Spindle: the individual ‘poles’ that make up the banister or balustrade.
  • Newel post: the post at the top or bottom of the stairs that becomes a coat hanger or bag rack – in our house it does anyway!
  • String: the piece of timber that runs up at an angle on the end of the steps against the wall, or at the bottom of the banister.
  • Pitch: angle of the staircase.
  • Winder: the triangular shaped treads used when the staircase bends around a corner.
  • Tread: the top section of an individual step on which you walk.
  • Riser: the board that forms the face of the step.
  • Rise: the vertical distance from the top of the tread to the top of the next one.
  • Nosing: the edge of the tread which projects beyond the riser.
  • Going: the horizontal distance between one step and the next, measured from the nosing to the nosing.
This image shows where each of the components fit within a staircase. Taken from ‘Stairbuilding and Handrailing’, 1929

Now, let’s look at the problems – and health and safety is probably number 1.

Staircase safety

Stairwells are one of the most dangerous parts of a house. How often have you or someone you know slipped on the last few stairs and come a cropper – or worse, gone from top to bottom?

You’d be shocked at the number of properties we survey that don’t meet basic safety standards. We see houses where handrails have been removed, and even some where very steep stairs have no handrails. We also see staircases where the balustrading (or banister) has missing or broken spindles.

Some handrails and balustrades also have weak lateral restraint (that’s the amount of effort you need to push them sideways). This is something that’s really important, especially if you need the support of the handrails to get up or down stairs – you might also want to consider the need for two handrails if you have mobility problems.

Also from the health and safety perspective is the presence of asbestos – many 1950s houses we survey, especially local authority and social housing, are lined underneath with asbestos. It’s absolutely vital this is checked out and if you’re buying a property from this era, a survey is a must.

And what if you live in a conversion flat? What happened to the staircase when it was converted? Quite often there is a fire proof partition around the staircase, but the underneath of the stairs isn’t protected and you can see the timber in the downstairs flat under-stair cupboard.

Structural problems

The second most common problems we find with staircases are structural – where poor maintenance has been undertaken or they just haven’t been looked after at all. We see things like broken treads, especially winders which are the treads on stairs that go around a corner.

Another common problem is poorly repaired stairs with screws or nails sticking out, or patch-worked wood, often hidden beneath a carpet. Making sure a stair tread is properly secure is essential.

At the bottom of the stairs, it’s important to take a look to make sure the bottom riser isn’t decaying. Sometimes, rather than stairs being built upon concrete, the stairs have been fitted first then concrete cast around it, and this can cause decay.

Practical problems

Lastly, consider the practical issues – are you buying a house with stairs leading to a loft conversion? If so, check if the stairs wind and whether your furniture can actually fit around tight stairs. In Victorian cottages the stairs are often very steep and in two-up two-downs there is often a window at the bottom which may need protecting. Head height is often compromised at the stair bulkhead and this can cause problems with large furniture – especially double and king size beds.

Further help

If you have any concerns about your staircase, you’re planning an extension and need advice, or if you’re moving home and need a house survey, get in touch for a free, no obligation quote. Look out for Part 2 in coming weeks.