If you have your dream home in your mind’s-eye, maybe a remodeled version of your present home, odds are it includes a beautiful staircase. When you move beyond the dreaming stage, getting what you want within your budget is the big challenge. As with most things, better quality and elaborate design cost more. Concerning style, think about how the design fits the rest of the house, especially the area surrounding the stair. If you want to update a stair, keep the new design in line with the character of the existing trim and finishes.
A handrail should be sturdy. When we climb and descend a stair, it should feel comfortable and safe. If you’re buying an existing home, check the soundness of any joints in the handrail, the handrail connections to posts, and if balusters are tight in their mountings. Posts should not wiggle. Finish should be in good shape – it is expensive to refinish. Squeaks can be annoying, but don’t usually mean the stair is faulty overall, and can usually be remedied by an experienced stair carpenter. A good home inspector should be also able to inform you about quality, condition, code compliance and safety.
I love the look of beautiful wood stairs. Wood stair treads are easier to clean than carpeted ones. But they are also more expensive and can be slippery to stocking feet. A hybrid alternative that saves money over full wood treads and provides the safety of a carpeted stair, is the use of partial treads and risers with a carpet runner between them. To make eventual refinishing practical, use solid hardwood partial treads rather than veneered ones. Set the treads flush with the rough plywood treads between them and have the carpet installed as if the partial treads actually extend under the carpet.
What factors increase cost? 1) Better quality and exotic materials 2) Complex designs with larger numbers of individual parts to install, including intricate assemblies of high quality – such as elaborate box newel posts with lots of “detail.” 3) Most curved pieces, especially custom made ones. 4) Unique designs that require design time and communications between designers, suppliers, fabricators, finishers and installers.
How to get a nice stair for less? Carefully select styles of off-the-shelf components that go together well and install them in an elegant but comparatively simple design. An expert in stairs can be very helpful here, and can bid the job as well. Get more than one bid. Your fair scrutiny of the bidding and building process should keep price realistic, but quality always has its costs. Labor is quite competitive now, but the cost of materials and of being in business have certainly not decreased, so, as always, expect to get what you pay for.
Howard Grim has been building stairs out of his Hollywood Hill/Woodinville location for 23 years. www.woodstairways.com.