Many older homes have walk-up attics, which means they have permanent, stable stair assemblies, no different than stairs between floors. Unfinished attics typically don’t have hand railings on these staircases; another concern is the lack of a guardrail around the top of the stairwell. With arms full of boxes of holiday decorations, you can easily miscalculate a step backwards and fall into the opening in the attic floor.
Less common in older homes are pull-down stairs. We should really call them pull-down ladders. They’re quite steep, and you should be facing toward the treads when descending, just like with a ladder. Moving items into, or out of, the attic with these attic ladders is typically a 2-person job, with one person handing items to the other. You need both hands free to hold on when going up and down, again, just like on a ladder.
I rarely find these assemblies installed correctly. At the top of the stairs, there are 2 steel plates where the springs and top stair hinges attach. There are holes in these plates where large nails should be driven to properly secure the stair frame to the attic framing. Some manufacturers even stick on labels that tell homeowners to drive 12d nails through these holes. I often find them empty. Some have cheap, black drywall screws securing the stair assembly. These screws can shear off with little force. A dozen of these screws barely holds up drywall, much less a 250 lb. hubby shoving a trunk of books into the attic.
When pull-down stairs are installed, the bottom of the folding stringers (vertical ladder rails) needs to be trimmed at the proper length so the stringers rest flush on the floor. This also eliminates gaps where the folding stringer sections meet. When there are gaps, there is extra strain on the hinges and bolts.
Before each use, check to be sure all the nuts and bolts are tight (I’m no longer surprised at how many nuts are loose or missing). Check the treads and stringers for cracks and breaks, and be sure both springs and treads are secure.
After many years of pulling down these stairs in other peoples’ homes, I learned one other safety tip: don’t stand directly below the stair assembly when opening. Hard, heavy, stored objects can topple over onto the stairs and plummet rapidly toward the head of the next person considering heading up to the attic.