What are the building code requirements for a handrail at stairs?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A handrail is defined by the International Residential Code (IRC) and the Residential Edition of the Florida Building Code (FBC) as “a horizontal or sloping rail intended for grasping by the hand for guidance or support." It must be easy to grab and hold onto to prevent a fall, particularly on stairs. A handrail is not the same as a guardrail, which is intended to protect a person from falling through it, but may be attached to one. 

    Here’s a summary of the handrail requirements found at R311.7.8 of the International Residential Code (IRC) and the Residential Edition of the Florida Building Code (FBC):

• A handrail is required when there are 4 or more risers (3 treads).

• Handrail height must be 34 to 38 inches high, measured from the tread nosing or ramp surface, with two exceptions allowed: 1) a volute (shown below) is allowed over the lowest tread, and 2) the transition from handrail to guard, or at the start of a stair flight, my exceed 38 inches.

• Handrail should be continuous for the full length of the stair flight, from above the highest riser to above the lowest riser, but can be interrupted by a newel post.

• Handrails ends should be returned to the wall or terminate at newel post or safety terminal. 

• Handrails next to a wall must have a minimum of 1.5 inches between wall and handrail.

• A round handrail diameter must be between 1.25 and 2 inches. If handrail is not round, the perimeter should be between 4 and 6.25 inches, and have edges slightly rounded with a diameter of at least 1/100th of an inch. 

• Handrails with a perimeter of more than 6.25 inches must have a finger-grippable recess on both sides. The requirements for the shape and recess are very specific: "The finger recess shall begin within a distance of 3/4 inch (19mm) measured vertically from the tallest portion of the profile and achieve a depth of not less than 5/16 inch (8 mm) within 7/8 inch (22 mm) below depth shall continue for not less than 3/8 inch (10mm) to a level that is not less than 1-3/4 inches (45mm) below the tallest portion of the profile. The width of the handrail above the recess shall be not less than 1-1/4 inches (32 mm) and not more than 2 3/4 inches (70 mm). Edges shall have a radius of not less than 0.01 inch (0.25 mm)."

     Here’s some examples of both acceptable and rejected handrail profiles from the folks at Code Check®. 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about STAIRS:

 What is the minimum headroom clearance for stairs?

 Is a landing always required at the top and bottom of stairs? 

 When is a railing required at stairs?

 What is the building code for the minimum height of stair steps (risers)? 

 When is a nosing required on a stair tread?

 What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?  

 Are open stair risers acceptable?

 What is the steepest residential stair allowed?

 Why is a single step dangerous in a house?

 Do I need stairs at all exit doors from a mobile home? 

 The stairs feel too steep. What's the building code? 

• What do home inspectors check when inspecting stairs?

• What is the longest stair run allowed? 

• What is the lighting requirement for stairs?

• A light is required over a stair after how many steps/risers? 

• When is safety glass required for windows at stairs and stair landings?

• What is the difference between a handrail and a guardrail? 

    Visit our STAIRS page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

How To Look At A House

McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of  

site-built, mobile/manfuactured and modular homes









Air Conditioner & Furnace Age/Size



Aging in Place


Click Below  

for Links to Collections

of Blog Posts

by Subject


Doors and Windows


Energy Efficiency

Fireplaces and Chimneys

Heating and Air Conditioning

Home Inspection

Hurricane Resistance

Electric Receptacle Outlets

Electric Panels

Garages and Carports

Common Problems

Exterior Walls & Structures



Life Expectancy

Mobile/Manufactured Homes

Older and Historic Houses

Mold, Lead & Other Contaminants

Modular Homes

Metal Roofs



Pool and Spa

Roof and Attic




"Should I Buy A..."


Termites, Wood Rot & Pests

Structure and Rooms


Water Heaters

Water Heater Age

Septic Tank Systems

Plumbing Pipes


When It First Became Code

Park Model Homes

Shingle Roofs


Wind Mitigation Form

"Does A Home


"What Is The Difference Between..."


Concrete and Concrete Block


4-Point Inspections

Rain Gutters


Crawl Spaces

Building Permits

Clay Soil




HUD-Code for Mobile Homes

Flat Roofs

Sprinkler Systems

4-Point Inspections

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Building Codes

Inspector Licensing

& Standards