Is There An Exterior Stair Railing Code?

It’s always important to be up to code, whether it be in a business or even at home. But it can be difficult enough to remember everything that needs done around the house without having to think about the laws.

Exterior Stair Railing Code

Exterior Stair Railing CodeView in gallery

The law doesn’t usually get involved but it is usually best to keep it that way. You can do that by making sure that everything in your home, or more importantly, business, is up to code. For example, your stair railing.

The rules for interior stair railing aren’t very strict and are rarely monitored. But those for exterior stair railing can get in your way if a neighbor reports an unsafe exterior stair handrail. So let’s prevent that from happening. 

Why Does The Exterior Stair Railing Code Exist?

Your first thought may be, “why does it matter what I do with my handrails?” The answer isn’t as simple as the question though. There are a few reasons that there are laws and codes in place regarding handrails.

Exterior stair railing codes are in place for your safety, of course, but also for the safety of others. Not to mention, the codes are intact so that the chances of the state having another emergency room visit are lessened.

So everything comes around, but when it comes to private homes, things are more lenient. You can definitely get by with more. But in public spaces, the codes are strict and there isn’t any room for taking chances. 

Exterior Stair Rail Codes

Exterior Stair Rail Codes

Exterior Stair Rail CodesView in gallery

Your local government’s building regulations usually dictate which codes are in place near you. But when it comes to the standard regulations, there are three primary organizations that take care of things.

These three organizations are the International Building Code, the International Residential Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 set the standard for building regulations in the United States.

Exterior Rail Height 

The first rule in place says that stairs that must be crossed on your way in and out of the building must have handrails. These rails must be between 34 and 38 inches above the floor or steps, which is a generous range.

Although you can probably get by with anything above 30-inches, it is usually better to stick to around 36-inches. This is a more comfortable height for most people anyway so it will be natural for you.

Exterior Rail Load

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The rails also must be able to support a load of at least 200 pounds. Though this may not cover anyone, it will cover the weight put on the rail as you won’t use your full weight when leaning on a handrail.

It is always better to add extra support but there isn’t an easy way to test how much the railing can support before you install them. So this is a good time to hire a professional or get a railing kit to make things easier. 

Exterior Rail 

Handrails must extend a minimum of 12 inches horizontally past the riser of the top step. This gives enough space for someone to grab onto the rail before they start walking down the stairs. Without it, the railing would be useless. 

Because most people fall near the top of the stairs rather than in the middle. So make sure that the handrail extends above and below. This way, people have something to hold onto before they get on the stairs and after they step off.

Minimum Deck Height

To be fair, a railing is not always mandatory. If you have two or fewer risers or steps on your deck, then you can get by without railing. But if you have more than two, then you need to have a railing for safety reasons. 

This usually ends up being about 16-inches or so. So if you build a deck out of 12-inch boards, you can use them as a guide. This will give you room for a few inches below the board on the side of the deck.

Is There An Interior Stair Handrail Code?

When it comes to stair railing codes on the inside of your home, the rules are different. Most of the time, codes won’t be enforced unless the home is a duplex or condo. However, there are guidelines.

These include the standard 34 to 38-inch handrails. However, you don’t need to add them unless you have four or more risers rather than the standard two for the exterior stairs. That is the primary difference. 

Exterior Stair Railing Types

Exterior Stair Railing Types

Exterior Stair Railing TypesView in gallery

Because stair railing designs are more about personal preference, we are going to talk about different materials used for stair railings. These can work both indoors or outdoors, around decks and on the stairs. 


Wood is by far the most popular type of railing both indoors and outdoors. It can be treated to go outdoors and comes in almost any wood color or grain. The railing can also be stained or painted after being built. 

Probably the best thing about wood is that it is the most versatile option. You can make wood look like just about anything you can imagine. It isn’t as strong as metal but it is strong enough to last a lifetime. 

There aren’t many problems with wood unless you want something super unique. Because even the fanciest wood railing can look traditional compared to something more modern or eclectic in comparison. 


Steel is a popular material for handrails and is often used in public spaces. It isn’t quite as common for private homes but it can add an eclectic, exotic, or modern look to any type of stairwell, even outdoors.

Steel used outdoors needs to be galvanized but if you are buying the rails pre-built then it will already be galvanized to protect it from the elements and corrosion. There are many reasons to use steel railing.

Steel is very durable and safe to use. Not only is the material strong but it also has a strong hold and requires little maintenance. The problem lies with the heat and the lack of versatility that steel has.


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Yes, glass is fragile and that’s the most obvious con to having a glass railing. Not only can it break but if it does break, it can also cut someone. So the material itself isn’t safe, but it can be made to be safe. 

The most common way to use a glass railing is to use it as windows or panels on the railing that is made of metal or wood. The combo makes the glass safer and it won’t have to be load-bearing as it would if used for handrails. 

What people really like about glass is how clean it can look, how modern it can be, and how airy it will make a room look. The absence of open space doesn’t mean you can’t fake it with something like glass.


Wrought iron railing in particular is one of the oldest types of railings. Because it is easy to form when it is heated, it is a popular choice for those who want a decorative touch. Not to mention, iron is very strong.

Today, it isn’t as popular as it was in the 1700s and 1800s because there are more common and easily-found choices. However, it is very popular for historic buildings and can be very alluring in the right design.

Though most older iron is rough and textured, it can be smoothed down to have a sleek and shiny appearance. This isn’t often done with iron railing but both options leave you with an attractive railing.


So, picket isn’t exactly a material, but most picket railing is made with easy to install and affordable aluminum. It usually comes in kits that you can put together yourself and looks similar to upside-down gutters.

This may not sound very cute but in the end, it is still a solid choice, especially if you want the railing for safety reasons only and don’t care too much about what it looks like. It is a great choice for public spaces. 

The only problem with the visual is that it looks common and often dated. Though not exactly traditional like a picket fence made of wood, it looks like railing you’d see at any balcony on any hotel in town.


Cable railing looks quite modern when finished but it definitely isn’t for everyone. Although it gives you more open space, it can feel cold. The metal is thin and feels like it belongs, well, on a cable line.

It can be tasteful, though, if done right. However, it isn’t very versatile. Thankfully, because it does offer a lot of open space, you can usually distract from it with a nice frame for the cable on your railing.

That, and some good patio furniture can make it almost disappear while still helping you stay up to date on rules and regulations. This can give you more time to focus on making your porch or patio look amazing. 

Making Your Final Decisions

Choosing a deck material only matters if the material affects the safety of the railing. When it comes to codes, you can use just about any material that you want, as long as the railing follows those codes.

So get creative or keep it traditional. If someone is going to be making sure that your exterior handrails are up to code you might as well give them some nice handrails to look at. Don’t be afraid to show them off!