Try this experiment: The next time you're out for a Sunday drive or walking around your neighborhood, take a good look at the front steps of the homes you pass. In the springtime, you're likely to see plenty of vibrant azalea and rhododendron bushes, but don't be distracted. Look closer. You may be surprised at how many steps are missing railings or have railings that are in a state of disrepair. If you were to peer inside, you'd likely find a large number of stairways with missing handrails as well.
Like many parts of a home, railings are components that can easily be overlooked by families in the market for a new place to put down roots. As a home inspector, it's our job to notice things like railings, especially those that are poorly installed, damaged, or, as you'll discover from the experiment above, missing altogether.
In fact, checking for safety issues is perhaps the most important element of a home inspection. It's one of the reasons you should never skip an inspection. Your home inspector can point out dangers such as faulty garage doors, broken or uneven steps, hazardous electrical wiring, unsafe appliances, and other problems that go far beyond money concerns. Separate from the general inspection, your inspector can also perform additional checks for other conditions such as high levels of radon, carbon monoxide, and toxic mold.
We'll discuss some of those threats in later posts. Today's focus is on railings, both inside and out. If you're young, healthy, and not particularly worried about whether or not your home has handrails, let this sobering statistic sink in: 12,000 Americans die annually due to stairway accidents. Handrails take on even more urgency when discussing older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three million people age 65 and older are treated in emergency rooms for fall injuries, many of which occur on steps. And if you live in a colder climate, icy steps without handrails are simply a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen, regardless of your age.
The condition of handrails is of particular importance during FHA appraisal inspections, which require that these components meet specific codes before the sale of a property.
Here is a brief home inspection handrail checklist from the team at a-pro home inspection:
Your inspector will first determine if handrails are required. According to the International Residential Code (IRC), which is reviewed and updated every three years, graspable handrails are required on at least one side of steps that have four or more risers. The height of the handrails should be between 34 and 38 inches. Further, handrails must be continuous from the top of the highest riser to the bottom riser. It is important to note that individual city, county, and/or state building codes may differ from handrail standards established by the IRC.
The mere presence of properly installed handrails won't matter if they're not graspable. Circular handrails should be no less than 1-1/4 inches in diameter and no more than 2 inches in diameter. Non-circular handrails should have a minimum perimeter of 4 inches and a maximum of 6-1/4 inches. If exceeding 6-1/4 inches, non-circular rails must be equipped with finger recesses that allow individuals to grasp it when ascending or descending.
Your inspector will also check to see if the spacing of the balusters (vertical elements of the railing) would allow a small child's head to be caught in between. A quick measurement will let the inspector know if the balusters are in violation of established building practices, which say they should be no more than 4-3/8 inches apart.
For internal stairwells, the maximum projection of a handrail from a wall should be no more than 4-1/2 inches. Handrails that are too close to the wall are also a cause for concern (the minimum clearance should be 1-1/2 inches). Handrail ends must either terminate at the wall, have safety terminals, or newel posts (the supporting post in a staircase railing). The inspector will test wall-attached handrails for strength, checking to see if attachment devices provide sufficient support.
Perhaps even more dangerous than having no rails at all are handrails that are not properly secured. Imagine grabbing for a rail to support yourself and having the entire structure break off or collapse. Your inspector will test the railing to see if it is wobbly. A visual inspection of the structure will be done to determine if there is wood decay, rust, missing parts, loose or missing fasteners, or other defects that will require repairs or replacement.