Attic stairs and ladders: How to choose the right steps for your space

All the details to consider when designing a way to access your attic

attic ladder
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Attic storage is essential for stashing away things like seasonal items and boxes of hand-me-down kids clothes. The trick is getting up there and back down safely while carrying those boxes of holiday decorations or kids’ winter clothes. If you don’t have attic stairs or a ladder designed specifically for attics, or if yours is unsafe and needs replacing, you have some options. 

Before tackling this relatively simple DIY project, read all manufacturer’s instructions for the unit you’re going to install. Here are a few things to consider before making a purchase.

Cost of a new attic ladder

The cost of installing a new attic stair assembly varies depending on labor and materials. The unit itself can cost from $100 for lightweight wooden fold-out stairs to $1600 for a fire-rated steel scissor attic ladder. The cost of other materials, like bolts and wood for reinforcing the trusses, would be under $100.

Of course, DIYing the project would save on the labor cost. Otherwise, plan to pay someone for 2 to 4 hours of labor. And, if you’re installing an electric version, you may need to hire an electrician to wire it in, adding to that labor.

  • Keep reading: Attic insulation - a guide to types, costs, and how to insulate your attic

Where to place your attic stairs

If your home doesn’t have a point of access for the attic, you can put it where it’s most convenient for you. Consider the following when creating a new attic hatch.

Typically, an attic hatch is placed between the attic trusses. Anything smaller will make carrying boxes through it difficult. And, if you plan to store large items in your attic, a larger opening would be ideal.

Reinforce the joists where you plan to place the stairs with additional framing to support the ladder assembly and your weight.

If you’re installing folding stairs, choose a location that affords plenty of clearance for the stairs to swing out and down. (See how to measure, below.)

Think about where you’ll step once you get to the top. Carrying a large box up to the attic and immediately having to tiptoe across the rafters isn’t fun or safe.

Also, make sure you’ll have plenty of headroom at the top of the stairs.

Types of attic ladders

Attic ladders either fold, telescope, scissor, or slide up into the attic space. Telescoping ladders can be mobile and stored elsewhere. Wood is the most popular material but they also come in aluminum and steel.

The best attic ladder for your home is one you can raise and lower easily and is strong enough to hold the weight of your heaviest family member plus whatever they may be carrying. The professionals recommend choosing a load weight of at least 300 pounds. 

A few distinguishing features of each type of attic stairs or ladders include:

Telescoping

  • Takes up less space than folding
  • Collapses into itself
  • Pull the bottom step and the ladder extends
  • Easiest to install

Scissor

  • Has scissor-style collapsible rungs
  • Doesn’t require a lot of space to unfold
  • Installed similarly to telescoping ladder

Folding

  • Stronger than telescoping
  • Takes up space on attic floor when folded
  • More difficult to install
  • Install requires hatch reinforcement

Electric

  • Directly wired to a switch that raises and lowers
  • May require the help of an electrician
  • Otherwise installed similarly to folding stairs
  • Ideal for residents who would struggle to lower the stairs manually
  • Can be smart device operated

What to consider when purchasing new attic stairs

There are a few key considerations that will help you choose the right attic stairs or ladder for your space. 

Attic and opening dimensions

The dimensions you're working with in your attic hatch opening and the landing space below it will automatically eliminate certain options, and make others stand out at more feasible. There are four particular measurements to take when shopping for an attic stair or ladder assembly.

Height—To determine the right height for your situation, measure from the ceiling, where your access door is located, to the floor directly underneath. Purchase a ladder designed for your ceiling’s height. Most units will fit a ceiling height of 7-10 feet.

Hatch opening size—Next measure the opening for the attic. If you’re going to purchase a ready-made assembly, you’ll want a standard-sized opening, which is 22.5 x 54 inches.

Clearance—Folding stairs require a swing clearance before they settle onto the floor. The standard measurement is 74 inches. You also want to place your stairs where you’ll have at least 2-feet of clearance in front of the bottom step to make ascending and descending safe and easy.

Landing space—This measurement is how much floor space will be taken up from the wall behind the stairs to in front of the bottom rung when the ladder is fully extended. It varies depending on the ceiling height and could range from 4 to 5 ½ feet.

Attic stair materials

Attic stair ladders come in aluminum, steel, and wood.

Aluminum

  • Strong 
  • Easy to install
  • Not susceptible to moisture
  • Have adjustable length stringers

Steel

  • The most expensive choice 
  • Best choice for frequent use 
  • Moisture resistant 
  • Fire resistant

Wood

  • Most popular choice 
  • Least expensive 
  • Not fire or moisture-resistant unless treated

If you plan to use your attic for anything other than storage, choosing a fire-resistant material is important. Before adding a TV and gaming chairs for the kids in your newly found space, make sure the stair assembly you choose has a “fire-rated” certification.

Other things to think about when installing attic stairs 

  • Install weather stripping around the perimeter of the hatch door, foam insulation to the door panel, and make sure the door closes tightly to prevent heat loss. 
  • Never use an attic ladder that is wobbly or has loose steps. The legs, or stringers, of the ladder must seat firmly on the floor. 
  • Do not attempt to use a ladder that doesn’t reach the floor. And if it’s too long, trim the stringers to fit. 
  • For additional safety, choose a unit with a handrail and steps rather than rungs, with a non-slip surface. 
  • If you have wooden, folding stairs, periodically check all bolts on the stringers and jambs, and that there are no gaps in the stringers when extended, to make sure your ladder is secure.
Carol J. Alexander
Carol J. Alexander

Carol J. Alexander writes website copy, blog posts, and feature articles on home remodeling and construction topics from her home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In addition to Real Homes, notable clients include, This Old House, Family Handyman, and Florida Roofing magazine.