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Attic Access, One Step at a Time

Do-it-yourself: Installing a pull-down ladder to ease the storage crunch can be done cheaply and relatively pain-free.


It's not quite what Led Zeppelin had in mind, but I couldn't help it. Halfway through the project the song just burst out.

After all, for a guy with a wife and teenage daughter who never, ever throw away anything, the pull-down access ladder to the attic really was a stairway to heaven--heaven being a previously under-utilized attic that now holds all kinds of goodies that once took up valuable garage space.

There's the six big cardboard moving boxes crammed with baby clothes, old finger paintings and macaroni ornaments that track our daughter's early development.

There's the Barbies--a big plastic storage bin full of them; and the Barbie clothes--two bins full.

My wife's wedding gown is up there, in a hermetically sealed (we hope) storage box. Next to it are things like a 55-gallon trash bag stuffed with stuffed animals; four big framed pictures that fit into the decor in previous homes but don't go with the latest interior scheme; the remnants of the roll of vinyl flooring the builder used in the upstairs bathrooms; an oak dining table inherited from my dad; a moth-eaten footstool--even a few of my things.

When we first moved into this house I was in heaven because it had a three-car garage. Space! Enough room for my workshop, both cars and some cleverly engineered overhead storage.

But I was dreaming. I built more than 200 square feet of overhead storage in the garage, lined every wall with shelving and Pegboard and still ran out of space about three hours after we moved in.

For more than two years I struggled with the attic the way the builder left it--a tiny opening, lots of loose, itchy insulation and no place, really, to put anything.

Every time I decided to store something up there I had to lug a rickety stepladder up from the garage (amazing how they are all rickety, even the one you just bought), push open the drywall slab that closed up the attic--leaving black fingerprints on it every time--and wrestle the bag, box or roll of whatever up the ladder and through the hole, trying not to fall.

I knew about spring-loaded, pull-down ladders but couldn't afford to hire a professional carpenter to install one and was reluctant to try it myself--daunted by the thought of cutting a big hole in the ceiling and then getting into trouble and being unable to complete the job.

But finally the day came when the garage would hold no more.


Emboldened by earlier do-it-yourself successes--and armed with the knowledge that I have several very competent neighbors if anything really ugly happened--I decided I could, indeed, install an attic stairway.

If you can read directions, use a saw, hammer a nail and read a tape measure, your attic no longer has to be a no-man's land.

The preassembled access ladders sold in most larger home improvement stores and lumber yards (Werner is the leading chain store brand, Bessler stairs are a premium brand carried by full-service lumber yards) are actually quite easy.

Mine took two four-hour shifts over a weekend--with help from two neighbors for about two hours when we actually installed the 60-pound assembly.

The cost?

A few skinned knuckles, some refreshments for the neighbors and just under $100 for the access ladder kit, framing lumber, trim molding, paint and spray-on ceiling texture. I used a fairly basic wooden one, spring-loaded. Pricier models can have aluminum ladders and some even roll on pulleys so you don't have to wrestle against the spring tension.

The first thing to do if you are considering an attic ladder is to go into the attic and determine whether the ceiling construction will let you install one (we'll get to that in a minute). Equally important, determine whether there's enough attic to warrant the work. No sense putting in a nice stairway if you can't use the attic for storing anything bigger than a large box.

Also consider your reasons for wanting attic storage.

If you are planning to store items like cast iron bathtubs, old engine blocks and outboard motors, don't do it, warns Dennis D'Ambra, president of D'Ambra Inc. remodeling contractors in Westminster.

Most ceiling truss systems already are holding quite a bit of weight, so adding a bunch of heavy stuff can be dangerous, he says. It is a good practice to check with your local building department to see if a permit is needed and what, if any, weight restrictions apply. (Look in the white pages under your city name to find the building department's number. For unincorporated areas, look under county government.)

It also is a good idea to cut some plywood to fit over the joists for attic flooring in the area you plan to use for storage, says Richard Alcaraz, president of Irvine Viejo Builders in Irvine. That will give you a secure place to walk so you don't have to balance on the narrow joists. And it will give you a solid place to stack items without fear of them slipping off the joists and plunging through the ceiling.

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