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Knowing Your Home: Stairs

If you've ever been in the situation where a contractor has done work on your home, they sometimes throw out construction terms that typical homeowners aren't familiar with. As a homeowner, you want to make sure you understand what the contractor is talking about and to make sure you both are on the same page as to what work is going to be done.

I truly believe that knowledge is power and the more knowledge you have about your home, the better you can communicate with/to contractors and the more you can fall more in love with your home.

Now, this post won't be applicable to all homeowners, but it's worth noting for those homeowners who do have stairs in their home. And this post can be applicable to homeowners who have a 1-story home, but maybe they have stairs leading up to their front door, or to the other end of the spectrum, a home with a true second floor.

Did you know that there is a minimum and maximum depth and height that your stairs need to be? Before I go any further, I do not want you to think that if your current stairs do not meet this depth and height that you have to demolish them immediately or that you will get into some form of trouble for having your stairs different than what I am about to tell you. Without going into too much detail, there is a standard building code called the Residential Building Code (IRC) that most cities and jurisdictions follow to make sure homes are safe and stable for their homeowners.

Before you go to sleep on me, I'm not going to recite the entire code to you, but I am going to note one piece of the code. The most recent version of the IRC (2021 IRC) states that the height between stairs should not be more than 7-3/4" and the depth of any individual stair tread (see diagram below) should not be greater than 10".

Like I said, don't just go and demo out your stair because it doesn't meet these dimensions. Certain cities and jurisdictions go by older versions of the IRC.


If you are planning on doing work on the stairs in your home in the future, I would highly recommend you either have yourself or your contractor (or architect if you have hired one), look into what code your city or jurisdiction abides by.

One of the most important items to note with stairs is to try as close as possible to make all of the stair tread heights the same. People have been known to trip on a step that is less than 1" in difference between the others (Source: 'Is Sheldon Right About Staircases? Will A 2mm Difference In One Step Cause People To Trip?'). In summary, it's important to keep the treads as close as possible in height to one another.

Ok, now to the more bullet point part of the post. Now, there are actually quite of few 'stair terms' that are helpful to know when communicating with your contractor when having stair work done, or, just helpful vocabulary to know in general (impress your friends lol).

  • Riser: This is the vertical part of the stair that extends from the top of the tread to the bottom of the nosing. This is the part of the stair that shouldn't be above 7-3/4" as noted above. (this is usually where you see scuff marks on your stairs if you have white risers like I do)

  • Tread: This is the horizontal part of the stairs and what you actually use to get up and down between levels. The tread is the portion of the stairs that shouldn't be less than 10" as noted above. The most common tread materials for stairs are carpet, wood or tile. A durable material is preferred for stair treads especially if they are frequently used.

  • Stringer: This term is more used for the structural integrity of the stairs because the stringers are what keep the stair solid and in tact. They are typically located on either side of the stair treads and they are what the treads secure to. The stringers or typically then secured to an adjacent wall and/or floor construction.

  • Nosing: The nosing is a part of the stair tread that projects over the tread below it. The projection of the nosing is typically only about 1". The current IRC code even states that the nosing cannot project less than 3/4" or not more than 1-1/4".

Ok, we have gone through the actual stair components that get you from one level to the other, but there is a bit more about stairs that would be helpful to know... like what you need to hold on to to get up the stairs, the handrail components.

  • Newel Post: This is that beefy vertical piece that is at the bottom and/or top of the stairs that helps to support your handrail. It's usually larger than the rest of the balusters and is typically made out of wood or metal.

  • Baluster: Balusters are the same vertical pieces you see up and down your stairs under the handrail and in between the newel post(s). They help support the handrail and are typically on top of the stair treads.

  • Handrail: Last but not least is the handrail. It might be self explanatory, but this is the part of the railing that you grasp to get up and down the stairs. The handrail is most commonly made of wood.

Well, that is quite a bit about stairs, but you by no means have to absorb and digest all of this information at once, or even remember it for that matter. Use this post as a reference guide for when you need it. If you tell your significant other that, "hey babe, I would like to change out the treads on the stairs", and he/she looks at you with confusion and amazement at the same time that you are using words like 'tread' let me know in the Contact section of the website!


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