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.
This next picture has no railing at all---unless you are under a foot tall.
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.
PS, for those of you that are new to my blog (or for some other "unexplained" reason have never noticed) all pictures and smiley-face inserts (emoticons) have messages that show up when you point at them with your cursor.
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WA State, Home Inspector Advisory Licensing Board