Common Defects: Handrails

I’m often surprised by how many homes I inspect that have handrails that are missing, loose, or improperly sized. In this short post, I will review when handrails are required and what constitutes a safe handrail.

First of all, handrails are required when there are more than three stairs. Contrary to what many people would think, landings are considered stairs because you “step” up onto them. So, three stairs and a landing is actually considered four stairs. Another rule is that handrails should be present when the total height of the stairway is 24 inches or greater, but the three or more steps rule more commonly comes into play.

It goes without saying, but handrails should be secure if they are going to serve their purpose of providing safety. Often times, handrails are either improperly installed (for example, into drywall with anchors instead of directly into wood studs), or they have simply come loose over time. In any case, giving the handrail a firm wiggle will confirm if it is stable enough to take a blow if someone falls into it or has to quickly grasp it.

In addition to being secure, handrails should be graspable. That is, they should be easy to grasp with as much of the hand as possible. 2×4 boards are commonly used for handrails – especially for exterior and deck stairs – but a better option is a cylindrical rod (tube shape) because it can be more fully and easily grasped.

The height of the handrail should be 34 – 38 inches from the stairs. This height is comfortable for adults and low enough for most children to reach. If the handrail is dividing the stairs from an open space, the spindles (vertical pieces) should be close enough that a 4-3/4″ sphere cannot pass between them. An easy way to test this is to make a fist, which is about the right size for most adult hands.

If handrails need installed, repaired or replaced at your home, follow these guidelines to ensure that they are properly installed and that your family is safe. While this is a fairly easy DIY job for many homeowners, it is recommended that a reputable and qualified carpenter performs this job since several important safety factors need to be observed.

Take some time to thoroughly check your handrails and make sure they meet the guidelines listed in this article. Doing so just might save someone from an unfortunate accident in your home.

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Common Defects: Downspouts

One of the most common defects uncovered during a home inspection is downspouts that aren’t extended far enough from the foundation. The purpose of gutters and downspouts is to redirect rain water away from the house that would otherwise pool up near the foundation and possibly cause structural damage over time. Rain water hits the roof, flows down into the gutters, over to the downspouts (because the gutters slope slightly downward), and finally (hopefully!) away from the foundation.

Often, downspouts terminate with a short “elbow” near the ground and nothing else. In this case, the water will exit right next to the foundation, seep into the soil, and exert pressure on the foundation. As you can imagine, the downspouts in a case like this are doing very little, if anything, to prevent water intrusion. A popular add-on is splash blocks, which are concrete blocks designed to do what their name suggests. Unfortunately, splash blocks don’t do the best job of redirecting water away from the house. On the contrary, they often settle into the soil they sit on and eventually cause a negative slope that allows water to flow back toward the foundation.

If downspouts don’t terminate directly onto the ground, they connect to drain pipes below grade that feed into a “tile” system. This is a very popular method and can certainly work well, but from an inspection standpoint (whether it’s a homeowner or certified inspector doing the inspecting), nothing below grade is readily visible, so the exact condition and function of these systems underground can’t be determined. Furthermore, if the downspouts and/or pipes below grade get clogged, removing the debris can be difficult and costly.

So what’s the best solution? Simple! Add downspout extensions to the bottom elbows of the downspouts that redirect water at least 5-6 feet away from the foundation. This solution is the best of every world: cheap, easy to install on your own, and easy to inspect or unclog whenever necessary. The only downside is that this solution often requires moving the downspout extensions when the lawn needs mowed. This is a small sacrifice, though, when you consider the many benefits this easy option provides. If your downspouts currently terminate into a below-grade tile system and you wish to use the method described, you can cut the gutters, cap the old piping, and add elbows and extensions to the downspouts.

Last but not least… gutters and downspouts are an important part of preventing water intrusion, but they are not the only important part. Every bit as important is ensuring that the grading around the foundation is sloped away from the house. Even downspout extensions that run 5-6 feet away from the foundation won’t be effective if the soil runs toward the house. The water will simply exit the extension and flow right back toward the foundation. So, step one is ensuring that the soil around your home is sloped away from the home, and step two is ensuring that your downspouts have extensions that carry water a minimum of 5-6 feet away. Do this and you’ll be able to rest at ease knowing you’ve taken the simple and necessary steps to keep water away from your home.

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