Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


Tricks in the rain


Everyone talks about the building codes.

Buyers want to know if the work that was done is “up to code.”

Inspectors like to claim they are not code inspectors.

Some simply wish the codes didn’t exist.

Let’s face it, when it comes to codes they can be a pain in the butt in the context of selling or buying a house.

As we “do si do” to the tune of the code dance I thought it would be fun to show an example of how “literal” (and thus confusing) the codes can be.  While I won’t fool everyone with this “trick question,” I think I can still demonstrate that the dance is not as easy as it looks on TV.

The question involves stair or deck barrier railing spacings (or as the codes call them: “guards”).  

Everyone knows that in modern construction the maximum width is 4,” correct?

Well “technically” that is NOT correct. 

You see the code has to be worded in such a way as to include ALL types of designs for barriers.  So while a huge proportion of barriers have some sort of baluster that breaks up the plane---and these indeed cannot be more than 4” apart---there are many designs that do not utilize vertical dividers.  Barriers with “horizontal” dividers could have a space of almost any width---and of course the space between them could not be more than 4.”

So the way the code handles this is to simply state that guards “shall have intermediate rails or ornamental closures which do not allow passage of a sphere 4 inches or more in diameter.” In this sense the space is only “indirectly” related to height and width.

Another seldom recognized variance from this requirement is that for guards/barriers on stairs, the size of the sphere changes to 4-3/8.”  This variation was instituted so that on stairs where the balusters terminate at the treads, there could be two balusters per stair tread instead of the three it would take if they had to adhere to the 4” rule in some cases.



Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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Comment balloon 35 commentsCharles Buell • February 20 2012 08:28AM


Well I for one was not aware of that 3/8 ths increment loophole. (Lets hope it's not big enough to get a head in there.)

If the stairs pictured are' to code' then obviously the 'code' does not care if the post is vertial. Or is the photo paralaxing poetic.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) almost 7 years ago

Buell - Back in my "less than sober days", I once lived with some folks who had no rail at all.  One lovely eve after returning from the local watering hole, I advanced up the stairs with all the agility of a headless chicken and ended up flat on my back ... falling nearly ten feet to the floor below.  I could of been the poster child for why such codes exist.  I'll leave the semantics of it all up to a guy like you;)

Posted by Jason Sardi, Your Agent for Life (Auto & Home & Life Insurance throughout North Carolina) almost 7 years ago

Is that a city of Seattle code, or a King County code? So on my old house I grew up in the front porch stairs had wrought iron railing and the spacing on the vertical bars is about 6 inches. If I were to sell that home today it would certainly not be to code. Would I need to fix or replace the railing to sell it? Or is there a 'grandfather' clause because it was installed in the 1920's?

Posted by Rene Fabre, Marketing in the Digital Age (First American Title) almost 7 years ago

Robert, I find the "exception" interesting as well.  The camera did indeed "mess with" the lines a bit:)

Sardi, I can see you as a headless chicken :)

Rene this is IRC code, and no you would not have to "upgrade" to sell.  An inspector might recommend upgrading---but there is no "requirement" that sellers do so.  There is lots of grandfathering of these sorts of things.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

Charles -- an excellent point - that "the code" may not say what some think it says - because of having to deal with different directions and treat them similarly.  And as René points out, there are "grandfathering" features in many cases as well (which may disappear when there are any changes made).

Posted by Steven Cook (No Longer Processing Mortgages.) almost 7 years ago

Where I live you can sell not up to code, but you might not find a bank willing to finance if the appraiser mentions a safety issue. 

Posted by Tammy Lankford,, Broker GA Lake Sinclair/Eatonton/Milledgeville (Lane Realty Eatonton, GA Lake Sinclair, Milledgeville, 706-485-9668) almost 7 years ago

Steven, the codes often say other than what we think it says.

Tammy, I think that is going to become more and more the case---depending on the safety issue

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

As much as we like to complain about codes, the great majority are for a real purpose, headless chicken antics aside ;-)

Posted by Russell Lewis, Broker,CLHMS,GRI (Realty Austin, Austin Texas Real Estate) almost 7 years ago

Codes in most states are or can be different. Safety issues like railings you certainly want to be correct. Here in Florida if a home built in 1980 is up to 1980 code then you can't make a seller upgrade to current codes. But if you improve a property the improvements have to be up to current codes.


Posted by Bill Reddington, Destin Florida Real Estate (Re/max Southern Realty) almost 7 years ago

Good useful information. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by George Bennett, Inactive Principal Broker, GRI (Inactive) almost 7 years ago

Russell, I am afraid the codes part and parcel to living in a modern world---there will always be headless chickens :)

Bill, I think that is pretty true in most areas.  In my area something that is not "grandfathered" is strapping of water heaters---gotta be done.

George, you are welcome.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

thank for your very informative blogs have been learning a little on my end of the transaction, I review the appraisal to ensure we have the items he or she mentioned wanted correct to obtain an "As Is" value verse the "Subject To" value.


Posted by Nathan Rufty - Home Loans at 909-503-5600, Mortgage Loan Originator - Direct Home Loan Lender (Canopy Mortgage) almost 7 years ago

What interesting information.  Never knew that about the 3/8" loop hole.  Have a great rest of the weekend.

Posted by Jennifer Chiongbian, Real Estate Broker - NYC (Specializing in all types of Manhattan apts & townhouses) almost 7 years ago

To use code is often interpreted as speaking in code :)

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) almost 7 years ago

Okay, it might not allow a 4" sphere to pass, but what about a 4" SQUARE?  Huh?  A 4" DODECAHEDRON?  A 4" IRRATIONAL POLYGON?

Does the code answer that?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 7 years ago

And don't codes change from time to time, so while the code might have been one way, it might be something different now.  What a world . . .

Posted by Carla Muss-Jacobs, RETIRED (RETIRED / State License is Inactive) almost 7 years ago

For the record, that 3/8" exception was instituted when the minimum tread depths were changed from 9" to 10".  In Minnesota, it happened in 2007.  That means that a 2006 stairway with a guardrail that will allow a 4 1/4" spere to pass through is technically not a code compliant stairway :)

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) almost 7 years ago

Charles, I am glad I am not an inspector - you guys have so much to remember.  I just had a house that had code violations with the electric and plumbing.


Posted by Sharon Alters, Realtor - Homes for Sale Fleming Island FL (Coldwell Banker Vanguard Realty - 904-673-2308) almost 7 years ago

I love the actual definition of building codes. They require the builder follow the minimum structural requirements for buildings.  So when someone tells me they built something such as a deck to "code", I make sure my hard hat is strapped on tight before I step one foot on the deck.  

Posted by Scott Seaton Jr. Bourbonnais Kankakee IL Home Inspector, The Home Inspector With a Heart! (SLS Home Inspections-Bradley Bourbonnais Kankakee Manteno) almost 7 years ago

Nathan, thanks for commenting

Jennifer---there are exceptions to so many "requirements"

Jim, very well said indeed

Jay, the code says sphere---the other shapes have no standing---or lying down :)

Carla, yup---changing all the time

Reuben, so true---but in that case who is going to complain :)  Sometimes it goes back and forth.  Like with auto-closers on the garage/house door.  Used to be required, then it went away in some instances and now it is back again.

Sharon, it is next to impossible to remember it all

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

My rule of thumb on the stair railings is, "if the kid can't push his head in between the rails and get it stuck in there we're good to go!" Not very technical but that is why I am not an inspector! :P

Posted by Valerie Baker, Spokane Realtor (Exit Real Estate Professionals) almost 7 years ago

Scott, I must say that in many cases the codes are becoming more "prescriptive" (tell you exactly what is expected)---and less "minimal."

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

Valerie, and that is why it is so important to have several kids handy for all the various sizes of a kids head :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago
I have inspections where the rails don't meet code, but often my sellers don't correct and leave it up to the buyer
Posted by Joy Daniels (Joy Daniels Real Estate Group, Ltd.) almost 7 years ago

Congrats on the feature! I too am glad that I am not an inspector but am grateful to work with trained and knowledgeable inspectors. Thanks for sharing and have a great week.

Posted by Laurie Clark CRB Angel Realty LLC Your Monument Realtor 719-502-6572, Angel Realty, LLC (CRB-CCSS-ASD-HBS-RSD-Denver Short Sale Agents) almost 7 years ago

And all this time I thought the correct size was "the circumference of a small childs head." Isn't that the reasoning behing having any code for this in the first place?

Posted by Eric Michael, Metro Detroit Real Estate Professional 734.564.1519 (Remerica Integrity, Realtors®, Northville, MI) almost 7 years ago

I would be more concerned with the window in that stair than the baluster spacing. I'm a Home Inspector so I go by Standards and not codes, but even those can be hard to keep track of. 

Posted by Rob Ernst, Reno, NV-775-410-4286 Inspector & Energy Auditor (Certified Structure Inspector) almost 7 years ago

Joy, I am sure that is the way it works here most of the time as well unless they are going to collapse

Monument, thanks

Eric, well certainly 4" is going to be considerably smaller than most kids heads I think---at least ones old enough to be fooling around on the stairs

Robert, of course the window is a concern and does not meet current "standards"---but then again there about the only thing about this old set of stairs that is within current standards is the riser height and the balluster spacings :)


Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago

Charles, thanks for the lesson, I don't know how many times I had that 'do-si-do' dance when it came to some inspectors.  Tips like this will get me smart...quick! 

Posted by Ron Cooks, Texas Real Estate, Ft Hood/Killeen Homes for Sale (The Real Estate Marketplace) almost 7 years ago

Thanks, very interesting information that I will still leave for the inspector and CEO.

Posted by Richard and Jean Murphy, (207) 712-4796 (Harborview Properties) almost 7 years ago

Funny! I almost mentioned the auto-closer on the house / garage common door as a similar analogy.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) almost 7 years ago

Hi Charles, great to know these rules. But more importantly, I hope all inspectors know this.          

Posted by Sandy Acevedo, RE/MAX Masters, Inland Empire Homes for Sale (951-290-8588) almost 7 years ago

I remember a job site story on a development where the super and the city inspector got into it..The inspector says...look, we can do this buy the book or by our understanding. I don't recommend by the book for your sake says the inspector. Another words, do as I tell you to do or face the exact code..$$$$

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) almost 7 years ago

Good information!  Nice blog.

Posted by Jamey "Milly" Milheiser (Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp.) almost 7 years ago

Ron, they do like to dance :)

Richard and Jean, probably a good idea

Reuben, :)

Sandy, I would like to think they do as well

Richie, that sounds like a smart inspector that is at least trying to work with the offender

Jamey, thanks

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 7 years ago