Stair riser issue and noting it on report question

I know we aren’t code inspectors, but… I recently inspected a split level home for an elderly couple in their late 80’s. Being a general contractor my eyes tend to focus on things built incorrectly. Visually I could tell the stair risers were not only above allowable tolerances but also all different heights. The smallest measurement was 7-3/4" the largest 9-1/2". I noted it on my report as a tripping hazard, which I feel it absolutely is. The listing agent called with her “disapproval” of my note. Citing her sellers should not be required to fix or disclose this issue because I am in fact not a code inspector and should not have acted as one. When I explained I worked for my client, the buyer, and felt this would be a problem for them she called me a deal killer and said she would never recommend me again. Was I wrong in noting the issue? Or is my obligation only to the service of my client and their safety?

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you were not wrong


Your obligation is to your client. If knowledge of the multiple safety deficiencies of the stairs made them not want to purchase that house, then that is their prerogative and your obligation to make them aware of it. Based on your posting, the stairs at least had issues with max riser height and riser consistency. Of course nobody rebuilds stairs in an existing home, so it usually becomes a take-it or leave-it proposition. Probably a good call for a couple in their late 80s to move-on.

Of course, there are many ways to state the deficiencies it in a report to convey the same information, some more palatable than others. If you care to share how you reported it, we can comment on the verbiage used and possibly offer suggestions.

The listing agent was out of line to contact you to bitch and threaten.


Took photos of all risers with a tape measure showing differences. Citing code may have been the realtors issue, but I wanted my clients to fully understand what I was showing them since they were not on site for inspection. Wrote in report as follows:

"Stair risers exceed maximum allowable height and vary by more than the allowable tolerance. This is a tripping hazard. Recommend further evaluation by a qualified carpentry contractor.

International Building Code for Stair treads and risers

“Stair riser heights shall be 7 inches (178 mm) maximum and 4 inches (102 mm) minimum. The riser height shall be measured vertically between the leading edges of adjacent treads.”

“Stair treads and risers shall be of uniform size and shape. The tolerance between the largest and smallest riser height or between the largest and smallest tread depth shall not exceed 0.375 inch (9.5 mm) in any flight of stairs.”"

What the heck are 80 year olds buying a split level home for anyway - lol?
Normally they’re trying to get out of houses with stairs and get into one that’s a ranch or single level.

The listing agent is the sellers agent. Why would you talk with her? In Maryland we have laws against dual agency.

Regardless, I have put uneven risers in several reports. and tripped over them myself. Most recently the last basement step was short. Definitely a trip hazard when your coming down the stairs with a basket of laundry.

You did good.


Listing agent reached out to me unsolicited. I have done inspections for her in the past and she knows I am not a “deal killer” from those dealings. I mainly just want assurances that I didn’t over step even though I knew I didn’t. I appreciate the feedback.

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I questioned that myself but it’s not my place. I am assuming the decided against purchasing or the listing agent wouldn’t have called me upset.

I would have left out all that code stuff and merely stated that the stairs are improperly constucted and provide a significant trip hazard. Repairs by a qualified contractor are recommended.


you are right in warning your clients. Citing code opens you up to being seen as a code inspector


What Jim McKee said!

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Here is the way that I reported those deficiencies along with appropriate diagrams depicting the safety standard.

Risers are not the same height along the entire flight of steps. Stairway does not comply with current industry standards. “The greatest riser height within any flight of stairs shall not exceed the smallest by more than 3/8 inch.” (Ref: IRC Section R311.7.4.1 Riser height).

Stair riser height exceeds 7 ¾ inches. Maximum allowed riser height is 7 ¾ inches (Ref: IRC Section R311.7.4.1 Riser height.)

Note that I include references to model building codes (not statutory codes) as an authoritative source. Many, if not most, inspectors avoid even referencing model codes. Some states may specifically prohibit inspectors from making that kind of reference. There are usually multiple other authoritative sources that you can reference to support your opinion. Here is a piece I wrote on that a while back Using Authoritative Sources.

For those who may be aghast at the citation, the TREC standard report preamble includes the following (all current Texas home inspection reports are required to contain this verbiage):

The inspection report may address issues that are code-based or may refer to a particular code; however, this is NOT a code compliance inspection and does NOT verify compliance with manufacturer’s installation instructions.

In this case, you could cite guidance from or others as your authoritative source.

Don’t let anyone discount your opinion by stating it “wasn’t code when the house was built”. Safety applies in the here and now. Grandfathering is for code compliance. That’s not why you’re there. You’re there to inform your client of things about the house that may have negative consequences for them so that they may make informed decisions regarding their purchase of the property.

The agent was out-of-line.


Thank you that is very helpful.

Hate to say it - but since about 75% of what we’re inspecting is based on code - we are code inspectors.
We just don’t word it ‘that’ way, but we are trained ‘that’ way. We keep people from getting hurt.
Calling out variable stair risers taint no different then calling out an improper furnace flue, or ungrounded electrical. If sh*t’s unsafe - then we recommend somebody correct it.
Smart Realtors already know this.
Just an opinion.
I could suggest what you should do about that agent you’re dealing with, but it wouldn’t be nice. :flushed:

Nobody is going tear apart an interior set of stairs so really all you can do is tell them that if the risers are not equal then caution is advised because the steps do not meet modern requirements. Many old homes and sometimes newer home with utility type steps into the attic will not meet modern requirements. As a home inspector I take no stand on if repairs are made or not.

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As Ben says we are not code inspectors but we use code for safety. I never call it a code issue but a safety issue. I recently performed a inspection for a woman who was buying her mother in-laws house. Her mother in-law had fallen down the front steps and died because one riser was too high and the steps were non conforming. The elderly have issues with steps. You did the right thing. I always call them out and nobody ever questions me.

I inspected a property yesterday that had a 9 1/2 inch riser which we called out in the report, this is not only our obligation to our clients but if you had not reported it and they or someone else got hurt on those stairs you would have a much larger problem on your hands than a realtor upset with you.

Some locales allow higher riser, such as NY. Here the code allows 8.25" max a riser.

And they also allow a tread depth of 9".
That is really odd.
I trip on stairs with 8" or more and slide down my as on a 9" tread. LOL

John, the agent’s comment assumes the stair code is an arbitrary rule when, of course, it’s a minimum safety standard based on experience independent of the code and that’s why it was put in the code in the first place.

R.S.Means Construction Standards states that a person judges the riser height of all steps by the first step. People instinctively assume the cadence will remain the same and when it’s thrown off by even small changes in riser height, falls happen. Stairs are also the most frequent location in the home for injury accidents. Shame on that agent.