An attic ladder is a retractable stairway that pulls down from the ceiling to provide access to attic space, then folds up into a ceiling frame out of the way when it is not needed. An attic ladder makes every trip up and down from the attic easier, faster, and safer. It can make the difference between an attic storage space that actually gets used and one that is quickly forgotten—along with its contents.
Installing an attic ladder or fold-down stairway is a very doable DIY project that can take just a few hours. Most retractable attic ladders come as pre-assembled kits that you can order for shipment to your house or pick up at a local building supply store. But there are several factors to weigh as you consider which ladder to buy, and our comprehensive guide walks you through them.
Before Buying an Attic Ladder
An attic, just like a basement or garage, can be a great place to store items that aren't used all the time, such as holiday decorations or seasonal clothes, but to get access to your attic, a ladder comes into the equation. Selecting an attic ladder that will work best for your needs depends on what type you feel the most comfortable going up and down on, which one will fit best in your home, and within your budget.
It could be that there is already an attic ladder in your home and it needs to be replaced, as you want something that is sturdier or safer to use, or it could be that there is no ladder available to access your attic. Whatever the reason, you'll want to start looking around for a new one so you can start making use of that extra space in your home.
Buying Considerations for an Attic Ladder
Location of the Ladder
Attic ladder kits are made to fit between existing framing in the ceiling (that is, the floor of the attic). Where possible, choose a size and location for your attic ladder that allows it to fit between existing ceiling joists or trusses. In some cases the ladder may fit into an existing attic access hatch. In other cases, though, the access hatch may need to be enlarged, or an entirely new opening will need to be cut. When locating your attic ladder, make sure the bottom of the ladder will fall in a safe spot where there is room to maneuver—both from the bottom of the stairs and as you enter the attic.
How you enlarge or install an attic hatchway opening will depend on the type of framing used in your attic.
Type of Framing
Your attic floor and roof are probably framed with either trusses or with individual rafters and floor joists. A truss functions as an interlocking system of framing members joined by gussets or metal connectors. The components cannot be cut or altered, or you risk ruining the structural strength. When installing an attic hatchway and retractable stairway unit, the normal strategy is to position them in the gap between two trusses.
Standard framing using rafters and floor joists, on the other hand, can usually be reorganized easily in order to frame a hatchway opening or install a new one.
Joist (or Truss) Spacing and Orientation
Standard-size attic ladder kits are designed to fit between floor joists (or trusses) that have a 24-inch spacing (on center). This means there is about 22 1/2 inches of open space between each joist pair. If the gap between your framing measures 22 1/2 inches and one of those gaps falls over where you’d like to install the ladder, you’re in luck. If not, additional framing will be required.
It's also possible that the joists are running in the wrong direction for the ladder installation. With standard framing, this can be overcome by simply cutting out sections of the joists and then framing the rough opening with doubled-up headers and joists. With trusses, however, you may be out of luck. Check with a professional about your options. If an alteration is possible at all, it may be an involved process that is fairly expensive.
Basic Space Requirements for an Attic Ladder
Full-size attic ladders usually need an opening in the ceiling that is at least 22 1/2 x 54 inches. Looking for a space adequate for this opening is your first step. Also, make sure there is a suitable landing space in the attic, so you can safely mount and dismount the ladder while carrying items. Check for headroom, too, since you don't want to bang your head against the roof framing every time you use the ladder. Finally, make sure there's enough open space in the room and on the floor below the attic opening to accommodate the ladder when it is fully extended. These dimensions vary by the ladder-type and model, so check the manufacturer's requirements for the exact model you're considering.
If space is tight, look for compact ladder models designed for closets and other small spaces. Some models need only an 18 x 24-inch opening, and require less floor space than standard ladders.
Length and Weight
Attic ladders are sold in different lengths. Be sure to measure the distance from your ceiling to the floor and buy an appropriate size. The weight rating relates to the load capacity of the ladder itself. As a general rule, the more weight a ladder can hold, the sturdier it is. At the very least, buy a ladder that can handle the weight of the heaviest person who will be using it, plus the heaviest load they will be hauling up and down. This may mean that a 250-pound capacity is sufficient, although 300 pounds may be a better choice, even if it requires some extra framing.
You can find attic ladders made of aluminum, steel, or wood. Aluminum is generally the best all-around choice because it is lightweight and strong. Because aluminum is a rust-resistant metal, it's unlikely to be affected by humidity and temperature over the years. A wood ladder also might very well last as long as the house, but it may be more prone to the effects of moisture and temperature change, as well as potential natural defects.
Some attic ladders offer additional safety features. Slip-resistant steps, handrails, latches, and locks are nice to have options. There are some ladders that have locking mechanisms on the hinges to ensure the ladder stays in place. If there are children in the home, a lock that secures the opening hatch is also an important safety feature to consider.
Attic ladders come in a variety of styles and designs that incorporate various features that improve convenience, safety, and general usability. Much of this comes down to personal preference. Here are some to consider, keeping in mind that you may be limited by your available space and your budget:
Rungs vs. Steps
Some retractable attic stairs have shallow steps, while others have ladder-style rungs. The steps aren't like those of a regular staircase, and, in most cases, it's best to climb up and down as if you're on a ladder, holding a higher step while climbing.
Folding vs. Telescoping
Some ladders fold out, while others telescope like an extension ladder. There are also stairs that extend on scissor-like mechanisms (picture an old-fashioned shaving mirror), sometimes called "concertina."
There are some attic ladders that can be raised and lowered all by the push of a button or a smart device. These types of ladders will require electrical wiring to be done during the installation.
Attic ladders and stairs are almost always steeper than regular staircases. Some may prefer less or more of an angle. Ladders typically have the same steep angle as those used when painting a house or cleaning windows. Stairs usually have a somewhat flatter angle.
Some attic ladders include a handrail. Keep in mind that climbing attic ladders usually means carrying items in one hand while climbing with the other. Is it preferable to climb with a handrail or just use the ladder rungs? It depends on personal preference.
Attic access panels can be a significant source of energy loss in a home. Look for attic ladder and stairway models with tight-fitting doors and, if possible, insulation. Some models come with insulation covers that fit over the hatchway from above. Or, you can add weatherstripping around the door opening to stop air leakage, and cover the door panel with a rigid foam insulation board to slow heat loss.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $150 up to $1,000 or more, depending on the type of attic ladder you decide to buy. A wood ladder kit can run between $150 to $750 at a home improvement store, while an aluminum scissor folding ladder kit runs around $700 to $1,000 or higher. Keep in mind that the cost will vary depending on the length and width of the ladder too.
You might need a professional contractor to come in and do the installation. The price will revolve around how much work there is to install the ladder. Will a hole need to be cut or enlarged? Does the attic flooring need work? Are there any structural issues? Any additional work requires time and money. Make sure to get estimates so you know the approximate cost for a professional to do the installation for you. It could run anywhere from $250 up to $800 or even more, depending on what needs to be done.
To save some money, watch for sales. Typically springtime, when a lot of people are doing home improvement projects, or holiday events, such as Black Friday, Labor Day, and Memorial Day, are times of the year when these types of items go on sale.
How to Choose an Attic Ladder
Choosing the right attic ladder all comes down to your preference. There are many options available and you need to find something that you yourself feel comfortable using, or have people in your family use. It needs to fit your needs and your budget, so to start deciphering which one might be a good choice, ask yourself some questions.
How Often Will You Use Your Attic Ladder?
Figure out just how much you will use your attic ladder. Will you be going up and down the attic ladder frequently? Or will it be once or twice a year? If it's only going to get infrequent use, do you want to get a ladder that's lower in cost but still permits you to access the attic?
Who Will Be Using It Most?
Think about who will be trekking up those stairs in the family. Putting up boxes and other items to store in the attic, most likely an adult will be handling the job, with another person handing the stuff to them from below. A teenager or young adult might be assigned the chore, too. If someone who will be navigating this ladder has medical issues, such as bad knees or hips, you might prefer to select a ladder that is angled more or has handrails, making it easier to climb.
Where to Shop
Attic ladders can be purchased in home improvement stores, supercenters, hardware stores, and online retailers. Some people prefer to view the different options available in person, so they can see how the ladder actually operates and what it looks like. Others just don't have the time or know what they want and go straight online for their purchase. While others, go check it out in person, then see what's available online and compare prices before buying one. Whatever way you decide, make sure you know the return policy and delivery options provided by the company. The whole idea is to get one that provides you with the perfect attic ladder for your home. One that fits within your budget, is safe and comfortable to use and functions well.
How do you know what size height attic ladder to get?
To make sure you get the right size ladder to access your attic you need to measure the height in the room you will be accessing it from: measure from the attic's opening in the ceiling to the floor.
How long does an attic ladder last?
A pull-down attic ladder should last around 30-40 years if maintained. Check the hinges, screws, and nuts once a year to ensure that everything has stayed tight and that nothing has loosened up and is working properly.
Wood vs. Aluminum Attic Ladder
Wood is typically heavier and can be affected by the change of temperature, but it is durable, strong, and is an affordable option. Aluminum is lighter in weight, durable, fire-resistant, and also rust and rot resistant. Overall, an aluminum attic ladder is the better option.