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.
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 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 to 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.
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 of the features 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."
- Angle: 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.
- Handrail: 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.