By Matt Menke

Matt Menke lives in College Park and is a licensed Maryland home inspector.

Do you remember the first time you touched your home’s newel post? Or that moment you first slid your hand down the handrail along a stair, feeling its smooth finish? Do you prefer the openness of a midcentury staircase? Or maybe the sleek, chrome grab bars sold at your favorite home goods store really catch your eye? Integral to the beauty of all these items is how solid they are; they offer security that’s largely meant to be taken for granted. This month we’ll take a tour of things we grab for support, those railings and grab bars we all have around our homes. 

We all know why grab bars and handrails are important — who hasn’t had to reach for one with little to no notice? And while you may be strong and have good balance, kids can bounce around like pinballs, and an elderly person may need to hold a rail to climb even a short flight of stairs. And someday you’ll carry one too many bags of groceries or be on the wrong end of a huge couch you and your friends are moving. That ball you tossed for the dog? It’s a few steps down and out of view, just lying in wait for your foot.

A home inspector looks at all these items, but less for appearance and more for the basic safety they offer — the most important functional element of any rail or grab bar. Local building code specifies details for new builds, but owners of older homes are required to install  them only when they’re renovating. 

The rule of thumb is any stairway, inside or out, with four or more steps requires a handrail. If those steps are 44 inches wide (or wider), like a commercial stairway or a wide deck entrance, code calls for a handrail on both sides. A railing is supposed to bear a 180 pound load, though inspectors give it a firm push and estimate load capacity. Straight railings, like along a landing or balcony, or around an  outdoor deck, are mounted 36 inches high, at minimum, so they’re not obtrusive, but you can easily reach them if you need to steady yourself.

The railing should be graspable — even if your hand is in a mitten. Outdoor decks, which are often at height, call for sturdy, easy to hold railings installed to code.  But we’ll save the details of decks for a summer issue.

The spindles, those vertical posts that stretch from the bottom rail to the handrail, should be less than four inches apart, and any space below the lower railing should be small enough that  a 6-inch diameter ball can’t drop through. Railings should be designed to help keep your kids safe while they explore, play peekaboo and climb those stairs.

The only place in the home that’s statistically more dangerous than stairs? Your bathroom. While showers and tubs in residential homes aren’t required to have ADA-compliant grab bars, homeowners often think about installing them after they’ve slipped one too many times on a soapy floor. And when it comes to grab bars, it’s good to remember that  looks can be deceiving. A grab bar retrofitted in a shower or tub might be attached with only short fasteners that go through the tiles, far short of the studs in the wall — and that bar likely won’t support your weight if you grab it to break a fall. If you remodel a bathroom, consider installing extra bracing in the wall before you close it in to guarantee a solid install for those shiny new chrome bars.

When it comes to stairs and rails and grab bars, the take-home is simple: Think about  things that might go wrong and do what you can to lower risks. And risks not just for you, but for your family and friends — and the next owner, too.