Attic Ladder Installation & Cost Guide in 2021
We put together a guide on attic ladder cost, installation as well as up to four free contractor quotes you can access on our website.
All homes that have a pitched roof also have an attic or loft space under the roof and above the upper floor. Some householders have already converted the roofspace into liveable rooms to accommodate an ever expanding family but other homes still haven’t felt the need to do anything with the space. This article is aimed at those people who still have a roofspace that hasn’t been turned into habitable rooms and should help them get better use from this ‘wasted’ space.
What do we mean by an attic?
Some people call the space under the roof an attic and some people call it a loft. Many carpenters and other construction contractors tend to call it a roofspace. Although the words ‘attic’ and ‘loft’ have slightly different meanings, most people use them interchangeably with the same meaning.
For the purposes of this article we will be using the word attic as a generic term to mean the space under a roof.
What are attics used for?
For the purposes of this article we won’t be discussing the living space that can be gained from an attic, instead we will be talking about an attic that is used as storage space.
How many houses don’t fully use their attic space? We expect that most people already use a small piece of their attic space, the area around the hatch. You probably only use this area because it is all you can reach while standing on the top of the stepladders. That is the usual problem and means that all across the world we have underused attic spaces that could be used far more efficiently as store rooms if only there was better access.
How many homes need a place to store seasonal clothing, old college books, empty suitcases, children’s toys that the kids have grown out of (but still cannot bear to part with) and the Christmas decorations? If it wasn’t for the attic these items would be cluttering up closets and the spaces under the beds.
There is no doubt about it; attic spaces can give you valuable storage space, usually of the same area as your total house footprint. Often however you cannot properly use this space because of poor access.
Accessing the attic
Accessing the attic space of most homes can be a real problem. There are three main problems:
Usually the hatch opening into the attic is barely large enough to fit a fully grown adult, never mind one who has their arms full of packing boxes.
Normal household stepladders never reach high enough to allow you to step from the ladder onto the attic floor and when you are balanced on top ready to hoist yourself up into the darkness overhead (or even worse, ready to lower yourself down onto the top rung of the stepladders), the ladders are not the most stable of items.
If you do manage to pull yourself up into the attic there is rarely enough headroom between the hatch and the roof rafters. The hatch is often merely placed where it is convenient for the builder, with no thought for the user.
In addition to the problems getting into the attic there is the very dangerous job of getting yourself down again. A lot of injuries are caused when exiting the attic, and suspending yourself from the hatch. Your feet are moving randomly around trying to find the top rung and eventually you kick over the stepladders. You are then fully stuck in the hatch opening and cannot lift yourself up or down. Eventually all you can do is drop to the floor below and run the risk of breaking an ankle or worse.
This is where the attic ladder comes into their own. Attic ladders come in all shapes and sizes, some that look like proper staircases while others look like ladders. Some have handrails and some do not.
In this article we are going to discuss two types of attic ladder, how to install them and who can install them.
A built in attic ladder
Having an attic ladder that is built into the existing ceiling (the attic space floor) will make all the difference between having an attic that gets used efficiently and regularly and one that is just used now and again. You can buy ladders and stairs as pre-assembled kits along with a frame and hatch cover. These all-inclusive kits make installing an attic ladder a very easy DIY project for those who have the skills and a nice easy job for a contractor for those householders who don’t know one end of a hammer from the other.
There are two different types of ladder kit:
The ladder comes fitted to brackets that are screwed to existing ceiling joists. The existing hatch cover is hinged and fitted with a latch so that it will drop down into the room below. This one is really intended for a professional to fit.
The ladder comes with a rectangular frame, hatch cover and trim that drops between existing joists. The ladder then fits to the new frame. This one is easier for the average DIY enthusiast to fit.
Obviously the first version requires more carpentry skills than the second version but is cheaper to buy. The second version is more expensive to buy but requires less time fitting it. Both types come with full fitting instructions so there is no need to worry if you come across a type that isn’t covered here.
Where should I fit the ladder?
Let us talk about the kit intended for the DIY person. These kits usually come with a rigid plastic frame and hatch cover ready hinged to the frame. The size of the frame is designed to drop between two normal ceiling joists. You may find that you will need to enlarge an existing hatch opening slightly to allow the frame to fit. If this is the case then you may find you have to insert new ceiling timber framing or joists to give the new plastic frame a structurally sound support.
Before you start fitting your new ladder kit however ensure you have enough headroom in the attic space for the ladder to fold into and that the foot of the ladder will have enough room to rest safely on the floor and allow you to maneuvre with armloads of boxes.
What type of roof have I got?
You may not think that the type of roof you have is relevant to how you fit the attic ladder. You would be wrong. It is very relevant and we will find out why in this section. But before we do that there is something you must do before you start thinking about installing ladders and cutting joists and that is whether you need a building permit. If you are just installing a ladder then you probably won’t need a permit however if you have to alter the joists then you may need one. Check with your local permit office to find out whether one is necessary.
There are two types of pitch roof, a ‘cut roof’ is constructed from individual pieces of timber cut to fit and nailed together onsite by a skilled carpenter or roofer. The other is made from engineered timber fitted together in a factory into what are called trusses. You can add timber to trusses but you cannot cut them or take pieces away.
If your house is an older building then you will probably have what is called a ‘cut roof’ with joists. The joists are the horizontal lengths of wood that make the floor of the attic space and the ceiling of the storey below. They also stop the roof from collapsing by holding the ends of the rafters in place so at both ends of each joist will be a rafter sloping up to meet its corresponding partner in the center of the roof.
If your house is newer you probably have a ‘truss roof’. This means that the roof is made from pairs of rafters and a joist pre-constructed into a triangle that looks like a letter ‘A’ with lots of braces and struts to keep it in shape.
If you have an old style ‘cut roof’ it is quite safe to cut joists to make the hatch frame fit as long as other pieces of timber have been inserted to compensate. Do NOT try to cut any part of a roof truss as the forces and cross sectional areas of the timber has been calculated to provide a safe and strong roofing system. Any alterations to these systems, unless you have a professional to advise will definitely end in a catastrophic failure of the roof, so don’t touch. It is quite acceptable to add extra timbers to a truss but you must never move, cut or take any parts of a truss away. Always get professional advice before you even attempt to alter a truss.
In both types of roof the joists are spaced at a certain distance apart. In the USA the distance between joists (center to centee) should be either 16” or 24”. The gap between the joists will vary depending on the dimensions of the joist, the span of the joist and the distance apart (‘span’ means the length of the joist from wall to wall).
In UK, Canada and Australia you will find that the standard distance between joists (centre to centre) is the approximate metric equivalent of this, 400mm or 600mm. The gap in both cases will vary because the joist dimensions, span and centre distance are calculated to be able to support a certain load.
You will also find that older houses, built before the house building codes and regulations came into force, will have joists of any size with varying gaps between them.
Standard attic ladder kits are designed to fit between standard sized joists with standard gaps. If your joists are not in the correct position to site your ladder between joists or if the gap is not standard then you will have to add extra timber to give the ladder some support.
As we have said before, if you have roof trusses that will not accommodate your ladder kit then do not under any circumstances cut or move the joists unless you have advice from a professional. If you have a cut roof and the joists will not accommodate the ladder kit you will be able to cut the joists and add in extra timbers to make a suitable hatchway as long as you add in extra timbers known as ‘trimming joists’ or ‘trimmers’ and connect them using the industry best practice. If you are in any doubt as to how to do this then you must consult a professional before starting.
You may also find that the joists are running the wrong way to fit your ladder kit between them. If this is so, and you have a cut roof, then you can cut the joists and add trimmers or double up on joists to make the opening work. However if you have trusses in your roof, you will unfortunately be out of luck. If you aren’t sure how to cut and trim joists or if you aren’t sure of your options if your roof has trusses, then always consult a professional for advice.
What size opening do I need for the ladder?
As we said before there are many different sized ladder kits with different sized ladders, some partial ladders and some with full ladders or stairs. Use the following information as a guide only because we cannot foresee which ladder kit you will buy. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter so that the ladder is properly supported and will hold your weight.
For now let us assume that we are considering buying a full sized attic ladder or staircase which folds up into the roofspace. Let’s go through the things you will have to check.
Most full size ladders usually need an opening in the ceiling of at least 22.5” x 54”, so check you have enough room to cut a hatchway to accommodate this size.
✓ Make sure there is enough room in the appropriate place on the landing for the ladder to be fully extended and resting on the floor. The appropriate place means that the place where you are mounting and dismounting the ladder must be in a safe place (not at the top of the stairs or tight against a wall). Don’t forget you will be carrying boxes and other items so you will need some room to maneuvre as well.
✓ Check your headroom. You don’t want to bang your head against the hatchway every time you use the ladder.
✓ Make sure there is enough space in the room for the ladder to be fully extended.
✓ Make sure there is enough headroom in the roofspace for the ladder when it is folded and being pushed up inside the attic.
✓ Remember that all the required dimensions will vary depending on the model and make of ladder. Compare the dimensions of your house against the required dimensions needed to fit the ladder. Each manufacturer will have the appropriate distances listed on the fitting instructions that come with the ladder kit.
✓ If space is really tight then consider a model compact enough for use in closets or other confined spaces. Some models only need a hatch opening of about 18” x 24” and much smaller floor space requirements so don’t panic if you only have a small place to put it.
Attic ladders come in varying lengths so you can be sure to find one that will suit your ceiling height. Make sure you measure the height from your floor to ceiling and buy a suitable length ladder.
Another factor to consider is the amount of weight the ladder can carry. As a general rule, the more weight a ladder can carry, the sturdier it will be and the more expensive it is. It is a waste of money to buy one stronger than you need. Buy a ladder that can carry the heaviest person likely to use it while the person is carrying the heaviest load they can manage. On top of this add a factor of safety to the weight.
The normal weight you will need the ladder to carry will probably work out at about 250lbs but you may feel safer if you buy one with a minimum capacity of about 300lbs. Don’t forget that heavier ladders will probably need stronger framing around the hatch too.
What material should the ladder kit be?
Attic ladders can be made from numerous materials:
Aluminium. This material is lightweight and strong and completely rustproof.
Steel. Although this is very strong, it is also very heavy and can be prone to rust if the atmosphere is damp or humid. Likewise the runners and other mechanisms needed to fold and extend the ladder may seize up over time if not maintained properly.
Wood. Wood will probably last the lifetime of the house but because it is a natural material it may be susceptible to problems from damp. This may result in the runners not working smoothly and the wood swelling, contracting and eventually splitting. A wooden ladder may also be attacked by wood boring insects or rot.
Considering the properties of each type of material, probably the best material to choose is aluminium.
Let’s look at the styles
Attic ladder and stair kits come in many designs that have special features for added safety, convenience and ease of use. Whichever is best for you will be a matter of personal preference not to mention your available space and your budget for the job. Let’s look at a few of the features so you can see for yourself.
Telescoping or folding. Some types fold into the required position while some telescope similar to an extension ladder. Some types of stairs extend using a concertina movement to bring it out to the required length.
Angle. All attic ladders and stairs will tend to be steeper than normal staircases. This is so it takes up the minimum floor space when extended. If you prefer a smaller or greater angle, there is always room to alter this to a lesser or greater degree depending on the height of your ceiling. Attic ladders usually have the same angle you would use on a freestanding ladder when cleaning windows or painting a wall, while attic stairs are usually not as steep as the ladder.
Handrail. When using a normal ladder you don’t normally have a handrail fitted however an attic ladder as well as an attic staircase can include one. They usually only have a rail on one side allowing you to hold on tight while carrying something in your other hand.
Remember that sometimes a handrail may just get in the way if you are lifting something that extends past the edges of the ladder so carefully consider this before buying one or the other.
Steps or rungs. Attic stairs have shallower steps than a normal staircase whereas attic ladders may have steps or rungs (or both). Even though the steps are there they are not the same as a normal staircase and you should still climb them as if they are rungs and you are on a ladder.
Should I insulate the hatchway?
Attic hatch covers can be an area of significant heat transfer within the home. You will either lose heat during the winter or gain heat during the summer, depending on the temperature of your roofspace. Look for ladder kits with tight fitting hatch covers and if possible with plenty of insulation. If you wish you can also add weather-strip around the hatch cover to prevent heat loss through any gaps and cover the hatch door with rigid insulation.
Safety when installing the attic ladder
When converting or extending the hatchway in your ceiling and indeed when installing the ladder itself you should always follow a few simple rules to ensure you are kept safe and free from harm.
The following are a selection of rules which you may already know as most of them are common sense. It doesn’t matter if you already know the rules as repetition can only help instill them firmly within your mind.
✓ Before cutting the ceiling make sure there are no electric cables, plumbing or air conditioning vents in the way.
✓ Use a separate ladder to access the high places as the attic ladder will not be completely safe until fully installed.
✓ Electricity and water do not mix well. When using power tools or mobile lamps, make sure you do not trail electricity cables into sinks or baths.
✓ Never hold power saws above your head to cut ceilings or joists.
✓ Never use power tools when standing on the top rung of a ladder.
✓ When using a ladder, always have at least three points of contact at all times. For example two feet and one hand, one foot and two hands, two hands and two feet.
✓ When working in the roofspace to fit the ladder, place crawl boards across the joists to give yourself a working platform and to prevent putting your foot through the plasterboard ceiling.
✓ When sawing or drilling wear safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes.
✓ When sawing or drilling wear a dust mask to prevent inhalation of dust.
✓ Wear protective gloves to prevent damage to your hands from wood splinters or sharp metal.
✓ When in a confined space use a protective helmet to prevent impacts to your head.
✓ If you are working below someone else (someone in the attic and someone on the landing), wear a protective helmet to prevent damage from dropped tools.
Safety when using your attic ladder
It doesn’t matter which type of ladder you have installed, they all have similar or the same type of safety rules that must be followed.
Below are a few of the generic safety rules but there may be ones specific to your model of ladder. Always read the instructions that came with your own ladder kit as there may be safety procedures specific to your country.
✓ Always treat an extended ladder as if it was a normal loose ladder. It can be just as dangerous.
✓ Do not use the attic ladder for any other purpose.
✓ Do not disconnect the attic ladder from its fixings and use it independently.
✓ Only one person shall use the ladder at any one time.
✓ Do not carry loads in excess of those stated on the ladder’s specifications.
✓ Always wear footwear with non-slip soles while using the ladder.
✓ Always face the ladder when climbing or descending the ladder.
✓ Never over reach to the side or you may overbalance.
✓ Do not use the ladder in poor lighting.
✓ Do not use the ladder while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
✓ Do not use the ladder when tired.
✓ Keep the ladder clean and free from dirt and oil.
What if I cannot do the job myself?
If you are unable to install the attic ladder yourself you must hire a professional who is able to do the job for you. There may be parts of the job where ceiling joists need to be cut, joined and altered so it is sensible to choose a carpenter to carry out the work. A qualified carpenter will have the specialized knowledge necessary to ensure the alterations to your structural woodwork are done in a safe manner.
Choose a carpenter who is licensed and fully insured to do the work you are asking of him. There are many types of carpenters who may specialize in one or two aspects of the trade or you may be lucky and find one who knows everything. For a job such as this you will need someone who can handle structural carpentry as well as finishing work. You may find that someone who is skilled in structural work lacks the precision needed when dealing with woodwork that is seen. That is why you need someone who can do both.
The cost to hire a carpenter will vary depending on where you live, how experienced he is and how difficult the job is.
The usual hourly rate for a carpenter would be from $35 to $100 per hour. Always make sure you have agreed with the carpenter how you are being charged, whether it is by the hour or for the job. You can expect a carpenter to supply his own tools and clean up after him.
He may collect the attic ladder for you but expect to pay for his time and traveling costs. It will be cheaper if you buy the ladder yourself but make sure you have bought the correct model for your specific conditions. Ask the carpenter for advice if you aren’t sure.
In this article we have discovered the general ways to fit various types of attic ladders and stairs. Always remember that manufacturers make their products to be different from other manufacturers so every type and model will be different to install. For this reason use the information talked about today as a rough guide and always follow the supplied instructions to the letter.
We hope you have learned something new today. If not then we hope we have jogged your memory. Many thanks for reading.