Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


Dangers hiding in stairwells!

     Many homes in the Northwest have exterior stairwells to the basement.  Usually these homes are small and there is no other means of accessing the basement---perhaps they didn't want to take up interior space with a stairwell.  Unless there is a second story on the home, the access is often on the outside.  Today we consider this very inconvenient, but back then, just to have a basement was considered convenience enough.

      It has always fascinated me how our ideas of what is "expected" in a home changes over time.  Can you imagine how disgusted some people must have been with the idea of having the "outhouse" brought indoors (I know sometimes I wish it was still out doors, don't you?).  How about the idea that you could have carpeting installed permanently?  Carpeting that you couldn't hang on the cloths line and beat to death with a broom a couple of times a year.  And of course this leads to washers and dryers----pretty much a given in any home you buy today. 

     Back to the subject of this blog----outside stairwells.

     Most of the time these stairwells have no barrier (or inadequate barriers) around them to prevent falls into the stairwells.  Today anything with more than a 30" fall potential (Yes, believe it or not, 30"----seems too high doesn't it?  Again, another example of why building codes are "minimum" standards.) is required to have a proper barrier to prevent falls.  The stairwell in the first picture has a railing that would help prevent falls by adults, but would do little to prevent a fall from a kid chasing a ball just before dark.stairwell














     This next picture has no railing at all---unless you are under a foot tall.stairwell














      Upgrading these open stairwells for improved safety is recommended.

      Exterior stairwells can also collect a lot of water and should have a drain at the bottom.  These drains are often clogged and the doors into the basement are often in poor condition due to frequent flooding.  Sometimes the stairwells can be covered or otherwise closed-in.  Regardless, they should have proper barriers to prevent injury from falls and the drains should be maintained functional.



Charles Buell 

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Comment balloon 8 commentsCharles Buell • April 05 2008 08:46AM


I doubt I would buy a home with an exterior stairwell like those homes....too much of an inconvenience to access the basement.

Sean Allen

Posted by Sean Allen, International Financing Solutions (International Financing Solutions ) over 11 years ago
I have to admit, I have one of these exterior stair wells out of my basement.  It's not the primary basement access though, but is very handy sometimes.  I DO have a guard rail, up to code, around the opening.  But again I must admit, it doesn't have a hand rail going down the steps.  Didn't have one when I bought the house last year.  It is on my list of projects, one of several on that side of the house.
Posted by David Holden, DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit (DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit County Home Inspector) over 11 years ago
Charles, I don't know about your neck of the woods but we call it an in-house out house. All that fancy plumbing and stuff. But I do understand about the guardrails around basements. I just suggest that for reduction in liability, they really want to consider installing a set there.
Posted by TeamCHI - Complete Home Inspections, Inc., Home Inspectons - Nashville, TN area - 615.661.029 (Complete Home Inspections, Inc.) over 11 years ago
Probably wouldn't hurt to add an exterior light over the doorway.
Posted by Anthon Pang, Broker (iPro Realty Ltd., Brokerage) over 11 years ago

Sean, I would find these exterior stairwells too inconvenient as well.

David, I don't have a handrail on my basement stairs either:)

Michael, are you old enough to remember outhouses as the "standard?" How about the bucket of corn cob pieces---or the sears catalogue?:)

Anthon, excellent point about the light---on a motion sensor too.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 11 years ago
AAAAHHHH Charles, no rail on your basement stairs either.  My question, is it your primary stair, you know, the one you use 20x a day?  You should know better than that!
Posted by David Holden, DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit (DRH Home Inspection Akron, Ohio Summit County Home Inspector) over 11 years ago
Another great post with good pictures.  Thanks for sharing.  Hardly anything around here has a basement.
Posted by Joseph Lang, Home Inspector, Southern California (Pillar To Post Professional Home Inspection) over 11 years ago

David, no doubt I am old enough to know better---I just don't:) 

Joseph, that is just plain wrong---no basements, no crawl spaces---how lucky!

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) over 11 years ago