Handrails—what you need to know

Understanding the requirements for proper handrails can be complicated.  The brand new deck in the picture to the right, with no proper handrails, demonstrates the issue.

Handrails missing

The hazards associated with stairs is well documented. As a result, the requirements for proper handrails are very specific in the building codes.  In this article I am not going to attempt to cover all aspects of handrail requirements, but will instead focus on “graspability” requirements.

It would be easier if there was only minimum and maximum widths and thickness requirements, but it is not so simple.  There are those requirements for sure, and there are different requirements based on shapes and types as well.  There are basically three types of handrails, although the codes group them into two types.

A Type I handrail covers the round/oval shapes, as well as square/rectangular shapes, where the total perimeter measures less than 6-1/4.”  (In the 2015 IRC and earlier, this measurement was 6″–I suspect it was changed to align with the requirements of Type II handrails).  

A Type II handrail is for handrails where the total perimeter measures more than 6-1/4.”

Type I, Handrails with Circular Cross Section: 

Handrails with a circular cross section shall have an outside diameter of not less than 1-1/4 inches and not greater than 2 inches.

Type I, Handrails with Non-Circular Cross Section: 

If the handrail is not circular, it shall have a perimeter of not less than 4 inches and not greater than 6-1/4 inches and a cross section of not more than 2-1/4 inches. Edges shall have a radius of not less than 1/64.”

Type II, Handrails with Irregular Cross Section:

Handrails with a perimeter greater than 6-1/4 inches shall have a graspable finger recess area on both sides of the profile. The finger recess shall begin within 3/4 inch measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and have a depth of not less than 5/16 inch within 7/8 inch below the widest portion of the profile. This required depth shall continue for not less than 3/8 inch (10 mm) to a level that is not less than 1-3/4 inches below the tallest portion of the profile. The width of the handrail above the recess shall be not less than 1-1/4 inches (32 mm) and not more than 2-3/4 inches. Edges shall have a radius of not
less than 1/64.”

Type II handrails seem an exception to allow for older handrail installations that could not meet the requirements of Type I handrails.  2-3/4″ is exceptionally wide, but being that wide is not inconsistent with many older buildings.  I personally think, in new construction, most Type II handrails should be avoided when the total width is more than 2.” 

Keep in mind, the code is a minimum standard.

Here is a picture of the different types and some guidelines as to the requirements.

handrail requirements

Various shapes of handrails per 2018 IRC, R311.7.8.5

Charles Buell, Real estate Inspections in Seattle

Being on your guard around guards

On first glance this stair barrier railing appears to be “adequate.”

It meets current requirements as to the amount of space between the balusters as well as the space along the floor under the barrier.  It is even of sufficient height.

Unsafe guard

Unsafe guard

Where it falls short is that it is not fastened in place—AT ALL!  Some might consider the balusters and construction to be a little “wimpy” too, but that is besides the point compared to its not being attached.

The little ear, on the left side, that wraps around the corner is all that holds this barrier in place.  Certainly leaning the requisite 200 lbs against it would see whatever that 200 lb object was go spiraling down the stairs.

I think perhaps it was designed to facilitate moving things up and down the stairs–or perhaps someone just never got around to attaching it properly.  Since there was a door to the exterior at the lower level I am going to go with someone never getting around to properly attaching it.

This is another one of those house-warming-party tragedies waiting to happen.

Here is another nice looking staircase.

Nice stairs

Nice stairs

On this one, a large number of the balusters were not sufficiently attached.

Loose Balluster

Loose Baluster

These are not difficult fixes for someone that knows what they are doing–but they are good examples of how important it is for inspectors to check these sorts of guards at the time of inspection.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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So who’s stairs are they anyway?

One of the challenges of being a home inspector is learning how to language defects in terms of the time frame they occurred.  For example the way an inspector would report about improper spacing of stair treads with open risers would be different if the home was built in 1910 as opposed to having been built in 2010.

In an older home the wording would lean more toward “upgrading” for improved safety.  If it was new construction, the wording would lean more toward “repairs” of the defect.

There are lots of requirements for the proper construction of stairs, but I only want to focus on two issues right now.

The home had a completion date of 2010, I found stairs that did not comply with current regulations in place at the time of construction for the jurisdiction it was built in and likely almost any jurisdiction.

More than 4" spaces

More than 4″ spaces

Modern codes require that there be no more than 4” between the treads when the risers are open.

The second issue is regarding the triangular space between the bottom of the side barrier the shape made by the tread and the riser which is not allowed to be larger than what a 6” diameter sphere could pass through.

More than 6" spaces

More than 6″ spaces

It is only a little bit over 6″—but still more than is allowed.  I find it a little odd that these issues got past the jurisdictional inspector.  As a former builder, these sorts of concerns were on the “short-list” of things the jurisdictional inspectors looked hard at on the final inspection.  But regardless, somehow these did get signed off on, and now it will be up to the new owner to deal with it–since it is now a short sale–and the bank is not likely going to fix the stairs.

To make this particular problem even more difficult is that these are public stairs used by four townhouses with no association.

So whose stairs are they really?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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