Stairs to basements in older homes are often steep and built to less than satisfactory standards. It is almost as if they were constructed as an after thought, and were fitted in any way they could. They often have sharp winding turns, insufficient or missing handrails, low clearances to bang your head on, and insufficient or missing side barriers. Often these stairs were never meant to be used on a daily basis but merely provided access to the furnace etc.
While these stairs might have been somewhat satisfactory when the only thing down there was the furnace and the water heater, as these basements took on more everyday uses such as laundry rooms, family rooms, and additional bedrooms, these stairs represent an increased safety risk.
Improving these stairs so that they are not so steep and are safe by current standards can be very costly and might even require relocation of the stairs and/or changes in the floor structure. This is usually not done.
One requirement that becomes necessary as the basement is developed into “living space” is for there to be a light switch at the top and the bottom of the stairs. This is especially important as a safety “upgrade” if the stairs are themselves to remain dangerous—-and least you will be able to see where you are falling and others will be able to locate you to pick up the pieces.
In older homes, a switch only at the top was quite common. A home I inspected some time ago used to have a switch located at the top of the stairs but it was abandoned in favor of one located half way down the stairs—-sort of “ideally” wrong for whether you were going up or down the stairs.
Stairs are a complicated component of a home and making them as safe as possible is important. Having adequate side guards, handrails, headroom and lighting are critical to safe use of the stairs. Some safety features can be improved on even older stairs that cannot be completely brought up to current standards.
Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector
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