What problems do surveyors find with stairs?

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 own, or wish to buy 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.

What practical problems with staircases should I consider?

Most are common sense – ‘Can I get my furniture up the stairs?’ is probably a key question for you. But there are others:

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.

Is your property Victorian? 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 (where the upper floor opening is) and this can cause problems with large furniture – especially double and king size beds.

What dangers do you find on staircases?

Stairwells can be one of the most dangerous parts of a house. The Office for National Statistics suggests that in 2015 there were 787 deaths in England and Wales caused by a fall on steps or stairs, a fall on stairs every 90 seconds and an estimated 250,000 non-fatal accidents serious enough to merit a trip to A&E.

You’d be shocked at the number of properties we survey that don’t meet basic safety standards. We’ve seen stairs missing handrails, after all, handrails and balustrades are there for a reason – we see houses where handrails have been removed, even where there are very steep stairs. 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.

Altered stairs, especially for extensions, can be a problem. All treads should be the same width and all steps the same height. We have even seen doors off a staircase, but no landing!

Asbestos can also be found on staircases. 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 flat that has been converted from a single house? 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’s under-stair cupboard.

Oh, and finally, staircases should be well lit.

Are there safety regulations for domestic staircases?

There are a lot of building regulations and design criteria for staircases. In fact, there is a whole document available to read on it. But here are some of the key points.

  • Spindles: The building regulations state that, a 100mm sphere should not be able to pass through any opening in the balustrade, as such, the maximum gap between the spindles should not be any greater than 99mm. We’ve all heard the tale of a child with their head stuck – with modern regs you’d hope this can’t happen. But that 100mm is the gap a baby can crawl through and this is the basis of this regulation.
  • Step height – known as the ‘Rise’: Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 150mm to a maximum of 220mm.
  • Tread depth – known as the ‘Going’: Building Regs specify a minimum distance of 220mm to a maximum of 300mm.
  • Staircases should have a maximum slope or pitch of 42°. Not all combinations of rise and going can achieve this.
  • There must be a handrail on at least one side of a flight of stairs if they are less than one metre wide, and on both sides if they are wider.
  • Handrails on stairs and landings should have a minimum height of 900mm.
  • A minimum of 2000mm of clear headroom is required above the pitch line – that’s the line that would be formed if you pulled a string from the bottom tread to the top tread.
Never a great idea to block the stairs but this is a good example of how two bannisters would work for people with disabilities or for wider stairwells.

What structural problems do surveyors find with stairs?

We usually find structural problems in staircases where poor maintenance has been undertaken or where they have been altered or improved. We see things like broken treads, especially winders (the treads on stairs that go around a corner) being poorly supported. Often the wedge has fallen out, or a support has broken.

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.

How easy is it to replace a staircase?

When you’re installing or replacing a staircase, the first thing you need to consider is where the new staircase is going. Are you replacing like for like, or are you adding a new stairwell, or moving an existing one? It is a general rule that the base of a staircase should be near to the front door and that you should not need to cross another room to reach the stairs from the front door. This is particularly important if there is a third storey to the house, as the stairs will have to act as a fire escape route.

Once you know where your staircase will be fitted, work out the total rise – that’s the height between the finished floor below and that above. You can then work out how many risers are needed. The number of treads is generally one less that the number of risers.

What are the best materials for staircases?

Much of this is down to your own personal preference, but there are things you might like to bear in mind.

Almost any material can be used to make a staircase – concrete, stone, wood, even glass. It all comes down to what you like, whether it is a domestic property or commercial and, more importantly, what your wallet likes. Take a look at this article for ideas.

Whatever material you choose to build your stairs in, make sure you consider the people who will be using them – socks on shiny wood surface is an accident waiting to happen.

If you’ve got a fairly open staircase then lighting at the top and bottom is normally sufficient, but if you have a narrow or enclosed staircase, then you might want to consider wall lights or strip lighting. There are some great ideas on Pinterest.

All the while, you need to make sure you follow Building Regs.

Glossary of terms

What are the core components of a staircase?

There are so many words used to describe different parts of a staircase that it can get confusing. This list explains the main ones.

  • 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

Note: The information in this article is for guidance only. There is no substitute for advice specific to your situation. If this is an old post, the law may have changed since it was written.

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.