Attic Stairs
Photo: Anastassios Mentis
About a year ago, Tom Silva was halfway up a folding attic stair, trying to figure out why it wasn't working right, when a loose screw let go, a spring popped, and the stair swung out from under him. Tom crashed to the floor and broke his foot, an injury that forced him to spend the next six months on crutches. The lesson? "An attic stair is a ladder," says the This Old House general contractor. "You wouldn't use a broken ladder, and you definitely shouldn't use a broken attic stair. Replace or repair it immediately."

Tom's experience may be extreme, but lots of people take their attic stairs for granted, or put up with stairs that don't operate smoothly or have loose or broken parts. Every time you pull down the stair, check that the hinge nuts and bolts are tight, the springs are anchored securely, the pivot arms are straight, and the treads and stringers are intact. And when you step on it, it should feel solid. "An attic stair shouldn't move at all under your weight," Tom says.

You can get replacement parts from most manufacturers, but if the repairs are numerous or frequent, it's time for a new stair. There are plenty of choices that will fit into an existing opening — typically 22 1/2 or 25 inches by 54 inches. Some slide, some fold; a few have rails that telescope like an old-fashioned shaving mirror. You have your pick of wood, aluminum, or steel in different heights, weights, and load capacities. You can find stairs that ascend at a shallow angle, stairs that take up minimal landing space, or stairs that seal tightly to the ceiling so heat stays in the house.

While you're at it, take note of tread width. A wider stair is a big plus when you're stowing a box of Christmas ornaments. And whether you install it yourself or hire a pro, follow Tom's hard-won advice: "Make sure it's tight, true, and strong before setting foot on it."

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