What sort of tradesman do I need to install a staircase?

Basically, I want to install a staircase to connect two separate dwelling units.

I live in a three-story townhouse. The bottom floor is a separate apartment that I currently rent out. The top two floors are connected by a staircase, and I inhabit both of them. The entire place will be paid off soon, and I plan to stop renting the garden unit and occupy it as well. But currently, to get to the garden unit, you need to go out the front door, down the exterior steps, and back in the front door of the garden unit.

I want to put a new staircase (from bottom level to middle level) under the current staircase (which connects the middle level to the top level) so that it will be one big happy three-story apartment. Several identical townhouses in my development have done this, as I can see from peeking in their windows. However, of the ones I’ve asked how they did it, everyone has said they bought it that way. So either some were built that way in the first place, or they were retrofitted long ago.

My basic question is, what kind of outfit do I need to hire to do this? I doubt a carpenter alone would be enough. Do I need a general contractor? Do I need an architect? Do I likely need a permit? There is certainly some electrical work that will be necessary, but there is no plumbing in the area.

Looking for insights. Thanks!

A carpenter can do the install, but there may be permitting and structural issues that a GC would handle.

Presumably the lower-level apartment has a kitchen and bathroom for the occupant (or occupants). Do you intend to leave those in place? Another full bathroom might not be an issue but do you intend to keep the second kitchen?

In short, combining the two living units involves issues other than just getting between them.

In my area there are specialist firms that supply and install staircases. As I understand it, even a GC would call in a specialist for this. Maybe search for “staircase installer” and see what pops up?

Visit the planning/building department for your municipality. There may be code issues that prevent you from reducing the number of dwelling units, or there might be regulations about doing so. In most places you would need a permit to do this, assuming it is allowed. It’s a minor job for an architect, but you need someone to draw up the plans for the permit. A skilled designer can do that, and you might be save a little money over hiring a licensed architect. But there’s a good chance you’ll need engineering drawings, and I would suggest getting a structural engineer involved. The building code regarding staircases typically defines a minimum height for the risers, depth for the treads, variation allowed for both, sizes for landings (if any), width of the staircase, what type of railing and/or handrail you’ll need, and how much headroom you must have. If the staircase pops up into a room above, you will need a railing around the opening, too.

You could general this yourself as it’s mostly carpentry, but if you’re busy or not up to it, hire someone to coordinate the tradespeople. Hope you don’t need to relocate any plumbing, as that will be an annoying extra cost.

Staircases are a PITA because they seem always take up more space then you think they should.

I’d modify that to specify a carpenter who has experience adding a staircase to existing construction. The permit process varies with your location but you need to get that settled first. You will definitely be unhappy if an inspector won’t approve the big gaping hole in your floor.

You may also need an electrician to install required lighting.

And if the garden apartment is separately metered, you’ll need to get rid of the second meter and combine the service, which involves permitting issues and coordinating with the utility company.

Yes, I plan to leave the lower unit pretty much intact. The kitchen is tiny, but it will make a great wet-bar. It even has a pass-through to the living/dining area, which will become an entertainment room.

Thanks for all the great suggestions!

Just make sure that you hire a tradesman that has actually installed staircases, not just one that knows how. And insist on seeing his work first hand, in person and verify it was his work.

I’ve built numerous stairways, including one that does just what you intend, connect two floors in a existing home. My home in fact. I’ll be right over! Just kidding, my knees don’t like me building stuff anymore.

I second the recommendations to select someone with experience. Stairway codes have become much stricter over the years and a stairway that fits like the ones you have seen might not pass code anymore due to requirements for steps that are less steep.

Our building department let me slide a bit on the riser height due to space limitations, but i did have to provide a full depth landing at the top. That required bumping my entire second floor design out 12 inches.

If the kitchen with a stove happens to be next to the proposed stairs, that will not meet the fire code without a fire door.


It’s a pretty big job not just to build, but to plan and coordinate.

Just take it one step at a time.

How old is your townhouse? Is it possible that yours used to have the same 3 story access as the identical townhouses you mentioned? If there was, and it was remodeled away to create a separate apartment, that would be much easier to un-do.

Call a recommended contractor and have him write up an estimate and explain everything to you. He should know about permits needed and what the build will entail. And who to sub-contract to.

This sounds like the perfect opportunity to install a fire pole.

Or a Bat Pole!!

An elevator. Doesn’t that sound fun? Call Otis.

I’d recommend spending a some money before you even begin.
Hire expert, licensed professionals. One meeting with each may be enough, but make sure you have that meeting.
This could be a fairly minor job, or it could turn out to be a huge legal mess.

Start with licensed professionals who have experience in your specific jurisdiction. Not somebody who has experience building 200 houses , but located 10 miles away and across the county line. You need professionals who know the legal codes and the building codes in your precise location, and who know how to get the necessary permits issued from the specific local offices with jurisdiction over your specific address.

Start with some basic but vital questions:

Ask a licensed real-estate appraiser: (not a real estate agent,)
Is it legal to do this?
How is my piece of property defined in the local zoning plans? (i.e. how many living units are allowed on my property?)
How does having 2 full kitchens affect the property?(In some cities, the existence of two full kitchens is what defines the building as two separate living quarters)
How will my taxes be affected by changing the number of housing units on the lot?
Does this change affect the legal status of the lot? title deed of the property?(ie. number of housing units,)
Ask an architect:
What kind of plans need to be drawn before you can begin to draw the changes?(i.e.where are the structural beams and columns in the house)
Do I need a structural engineer to calculate loads and sign the plans?
As mentioned above: how many electric meters, water meters, etc are allowed/required? The water meters may belong to the city, and you need approval to move them.
What’s it going to cost me for drawing the architectural and the structural plans?

Trust me, I have considered that!

These questions are better asked of the planning/building department of the controlling municipality. Most such offices have counter hours where residents can just walk in and talk to staff members.

First, it is important to remember that fire poles and bat poles are by and large directional—they are less than ideal for getting back up to the main living levels, especially considering the lowest floor is going to house the bar!

On a more serious note, it seems most likely to me that all of these identical townhouses were initially three story, single family homes and yours was modified long ago (and apparently done well as it appears to be “normal” in its current condition). It is also possible these units were offered as either the three story—single family unit, or the two story single family with a rental unit below. There is another possibility I will address below, and it might come into play with regard to building codes for the lower staircase.

There are (and I believe there always has been) different criteria for different kinds of stairs. Main stairs by and large have lower risers and longer treads, while utility stairs can have pretty high risers and shorter treads. They both add up to the average human stride if you add a combination of risers and treads, but utility stairs are steeper and harder to climb or descend. (Older homes which have a fancy staircase in the living room or foyer would fall under “main staircase” codes; back stairs that go from the second floor directly into the kitchen, and basement or attic staircases are usually classified as “utility” stairs and they are allowed to be steeper requiring a shorter run.) If the townhouses in your area originally called the lowest floor a “servants quarters”, they could legally have a steeper staircase with one or two, possibly even three fewer steps (if the height between floors is enough). That makes a certain amount of sense if the place always had a small kitchen downstairs (for the live-in maid to use after her shift ended). Is the front door for the lower unit subterranean? Does it seem to be retrofit into a remodel? Or does it seem to be part of an overall original design for the unit? I suppose it could have been a private entrance for the hypothetical maid anyway. Does the unit have a back door that opens to a yard or garden or alleyway? Perhaps the first floor front door was an access to egress incase the main front door was blocked by fire.

In either case, I believe your unit at one time had that lower staircase, and it was removed to make the first floor a separate apartment. If that is the case, it is even possible the property is still described as a three story single family unit. Out here in the west it is very common for remodels and additions to not be recorded on deeds or legal descriptions. If that turns out to be true, it will be very easy to retrofit a staircase back into the home. (You may need to alter the original run to add a step, or designate the lower floor as servant quarters to avoid having to add that step no matter how you actually intend to use it. If there was originally a staircase, it might also have been built to “main staircase” codes and this would be most ideal for your plans.) I hope this is all understandable; please feel free to ask questions if I have been unclear or there is more you want to know.

Also I am curious, is the electrical panel for the apartment a sub-panel supplied from your panel? Or does it have its own separate power supply and a meter? Do the two panels seem to be from the same era? Or is one an ancient fuse box with knob and tube wires running from it while the other is a modern breaker box, for example? They could both have been replaced at the same time in the past and match which tells you little, but if they are different that suggests the apartment itself was a remodel. You have some good suggestions here; I could easily have quoted at least half of the posts above to say: ‘good point’.

One last warning, there is a tried and true formula for figuring the cost of a remodel; take the highest bid and add about ten percent to it for unanticipated costs. Then double that and multiply by something in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 depending upon how lucky you believe yourself to be – and how much of a stickler you are for getting the best end product. Then just accept the fact that it will take twice as long as promised, something you love will be damaged or destroyed during the process, and it won’t end up just as you are picturing it. A week or two after it is completed, it will seem just great and well worth the money, and you will wonder how you ever lived with it before the change. There is also the exception which proves the rule; on rare occasions a remodel will come in on time and under budget; no reason your project can’t be one of these. (My last comment, and it is meant to be helpful; the lowest bid is NEVER the most affordable way to do the job, that guy left something out and he is going to gouge you later. Keep getting bids until you get several in the same range, and then pick the guy you want to spend the most amount of time with – cause you are going to spend some time together.)

Good luck !