Home & Garden Columns
I’m often amazed at the lack of attention paid to places where people can fall, slip or trip around the house (not to mention commercial or municipal buildings). Maybe other people aren’t as clumsy as I am. It is a plus, though, that in my job I seem to be admirably suited to finding any obstacle that might ultimately cause any other person at any future date to slip, trip or fall. No divination required; I’m just the poster boy for smacking your cranium.
It’s amazing that so many of these conditions go unaltered year after year, even after people have been hurt. The problem is, I think, that rather than finding the physical environs at fault, people tend to blame their own clumsiness (or others blame them for not paying attention). The truth is that all of us are rushing to and fro all day long from the first rush to the bathroom, to the gym, to work, to the market and so forth. It’s a wonder that people aren’t crashing into things more often (well, actually they are!).
Ideally, our physical settings should be built to minimize harm under these high velocity conditions, but that’s just not how things work. As with most things, we alter our built environment only when it’s absolutely demanded of us, when people have been crippled or killed.
Over half a million people in North America end up in the hospital each year as a result of a slip or fall. Three hundred thousand of these end up as disabling injuries such as broken legs or hips. Twenty thousand are fatalities, making them the second most prevalent cause of accidental death, right after auto accidents.
This is serious stuff, but it’s very hard as a home inspector to get items along these lines taken seriously. Everyone wants to know whether they’re going to need a new roof or a new foundation because there’s money on the line. Try and talk about a slippery set of stairs and the eyes begin to roll. Frankly, although I’ll always report them, I don’t care that much about a leaky roof. I have yet to hear about one person who died because the roof leaked and I haven’t seen a single roof that had to be reframed because of leaks (other than the occasional garage that had been solidly ignored for 40 years).
If the roof leaks, you may have to put a new roof on and perhaps new sheetrock on the ceiling, but nobody dies. On the other hand, a balcony railing over a driveway with a 20 drop which has nine-inch spaces may result in the death of a 3-year-old. Now let’s get very real. Which do you really car about, a leaky roof or the death of a child? Sorry, but this is what we’re talking about and the place to start is by asking “What might happen?”
Let’s talk about tripping. Many homes have doorways that have overly large sills or transition strips that can cause a trip. If you tripped once looking around the house, that means that more people are going to trip. If you had to look twice and step over it, it’s time to change it.
Now, look at what you would have fallen on. If you have a set of stairs with a small bump at the top and there’s a long way to fall or a short way to a hard surface, it’s time to fix it. Here’s how I think my way through these things. I imagine that there’s a party. It’s dark and there’s a woman in high heels who’s had a lot to drink. She’s my imaginary test case (of course, if there are any men out there who wear high heels—and you know who you are—you can substitute). Now take her (him) around this house that she’s never been in before. One hand on a champagne glass and one hand on a paper plate full of hor d’oeuvres, she steps over doorways, walks down stairways and walks the various paths through the backyard, sideyard and front yard. If there are uneven paths, or stairways that have steps that vary in riser height she may go head first down to the concrete landing. Driveways and patios are often broken up or lifted in places and it doesn’t take much more than about one centimeter to cause a trip. An inch is a lot. As we age, we also don’t lift our feet as much and older people are quite vulnerable to tripping and falling when sidewalks are uneven or when a porch board is sticking up just a bit.
Slipping is also a serious issue and beyond the obvious wet clean-ups that we need to get to in the bath or kitchen, there are some endemic ones that are often over-looked. My favorite is the smoothly painted concrete porch and staircase that’s often sporting the front of our older craftsman or classic revival homes. When rains wet these surfaces they are both slippery and very hard. It is therefore easy to slip and fall on them with great potential for injury. Wooden stairs are often painted smooth and these are similarly treacherous, although the falls aren’t as harmful. In either case, repainting these with a textured paint is a great idea. You can request that crushed walnuts or sand be added to the paint at the paint store and then hurry home to paint before they have a chance to settle out. Be sure to use a “decking” paint designed for walking surfaces and prepare your old painted surface properly. If your pathways, driveway or patios are similarly painted, it’s a good idea to include them in this repainting measure. A bare concrete surface usually has plenty of tooth and needs no special treatment. Some folks like to use special friction tape, available by the foot at your local hardware store, but I prefer the painted approach if you can manage it. If not, the tape is still a very good choice.
Smooth tile is a very poor choice for almost any floor and certainly for any outside surface. It’s bad enough that we have to slip in the bathroom on smooth tile but a smoothly tiled porch, balcony or stairway is almost a sure formula for misery. If you have smooth tile in such an area, there are paint-applied compounds that can be installed to give them some tack but it’s best to avoid such materials and I’d even recommend removing them if there’s potential for a serious fall.
As far as falls go, you’ll have to look around and see if you can find any place on your property where you or your 3-year-old (or the tipsy damsel in heels) might take a serious spill. Railings should be high enough to keep small ones from falling from any surface more than three inches high. Special attention should be paid to very high surfaces or ones where the fall ends on concrete. Look at windows that have low sills and balconies that have benches to climb upon. Railings should be tight enough to keep small heads from getting through. The current code calls for four inches but it’s also important to be sure that the railing cannot be easily climbed. Kids are adventurous and when we’re small we are all immortal, right?
An often missed falling hazard is at the top of a retaining wall where there is no barrier and the bottom is many feet down and paved with a hard surface. There’s a house in my neighborhood that I pass every day. The front yard is about seven feet above the sidewalk and it’s on a street corner. Yes, there are plants along the edges but they’ll just serve to trip you when it’s dark and you’re looking for the way to your car. By the way, lighting is a great way to lessen all of these hazards and, although the code tries harder today to address it, most of us are in old houses that are exempt.
You know, this isn’t about morality. It’s about opening our eyes and taking notice of “what might happen.” There’s a school in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union that I’ve often passed and marveled at. I’ve told my wife, because she graduated from that school. It has a lovely grassy area about 14 feet above the parking lot that has no real barrier along it’s edge. They sometimes have some blind students. Now ask yourself, “What might happen?”
Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at firstname.lastname@example.org.