Never, Ever Miss These Stairway Problems - Smart Inspector Science

By Tom Feiza, Mr. Fix-It, Inc.,

Never, ever, ever miss issues with steps during your inspection. People fall on stairways and get hurt!

Typical precast steps

Photo 1 shows a precast concrete stairway at an entrance. Apart from rust stains where the railing meets the concrete, this looks pretty good, right? Upon closer examination, though, you’ll see variations in the rise of the steps – and does that handrail have a proper gripping surface?

Precast Steps - Good?

The closer look in Photo 2 shows a height variation of at least 1 inch from one riser to another. This is a safety issue that should always be documented. You need to protect the buyer and yourself.

Precast Steps – Bad!

Settled walk

In Photo 3, I am measuring the rise of about 10 inches in an entrance stairway. Look closely at the sidewalk in the foreground. There’s a horizontal line of concrete debris just above the sidewalk. That is where the walk was originally poured. The entrance stoop rests on a footing and has not moved over time – but the sidewalk, resting on soil, has moved. This is an important safety item to note in your report, along with a similar photo.

Settled Walkway

All bad, and easy to see why

Photo 4 shows a set of stairs I call “all bad.” The rise is not uniform. Handrails are missing. The cuts in the stringer are too deep, and the stringer is showing a crack. The fresh coat of paint on the treads creates a slippery surface.

All-Bad Steps

What should you look for?

Walk the steps and use the handrail. You will automatically notice any variation in the rise, inadequate depth of treads, and a loose handrail or one with an improper gripping surface.

Illustration M087 shows basic requirements for stairs. You should also know the specific requirements in your area. Most municipalities require the variation in the rise to be less than 3/8 inch; a specific rise and run; and a handrail at a specific height with an easily graspable surface.

M087 Stair Requirements

Worst-case scenario: a fall and a lawsuit

Look at Photo 5 and you will understand why the owner and their insurance company were sued. The rise is not consistent. The railings are short of the bottom step and lack a proper handrail gripping surface. What you can’t see is that the railings are loose, swaying from side to side due to rust. An amateurish patch has been applied to one post. When I looked at this for the insurance company, I didn’t even need to prepare a report. I just told their attorney to bring out the checkbook.

Liability Lawsuit

The takeaway

Steps are one of the most dangerous areas of a home. People can fall even on perfectly designed and installed steps, so don’t ever miss an issue with steps that aren’t perfect. This could present a huge liability, and many issues are difficult and expensive to correct.


Tom Feiza has been a professional home inspector since 1992 and has a degree in engineering. Through ( he provides high-quality books and marketing materials that help professional home inspectors educate their customers. Copyright © 2022 by Tom Feiza, Mr. Fix-It, Inc. Reproduced with permission.

To learn more, attend Tom’s technical presentations at educational sessions for ASHI chapters and local groups. Tom can also provide his knowledge for your educational event; contact him at  

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