What is involved in fixing my creaky stairs?

Property Clinic: Every step on my stairs creaks like a haunted house. Is it fixable or do I need new stairs?

My stairs creak. They creak like an old haunted house. They creak when it's hot or cold. I believe poor workmanship or shoddy construction is to blame as I can hear my adjoining neighbours' stairs creak too.

They didn't creak when I first purchased the house (three-bed mid-terrace duplex) 14 years ago – but slowly and surely over the years every single one of the stairs now makes a racket. I have carpet on them and in the next few months I'm planning on replacing it for new carpet so when I do, I'd like to fix the stairs.

I don’t have access to the underside of the stairs – there is a smallish cubby room under the stairs and it is plastered and sealed off so you would have to rip that out to see beneath.

I’ve heard it might be best to get a new staircase fitted but I’m hoping to avoid this cost. However if it’s the only way to fix it I will consider it. Do you have any idea how much one should cost – ballpark? It’s a regular stairs up with a small return near the top, then three more steps to the second floor.

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Creaking stairs are a perennial problem as many a late-night returning errant youth will testify. This is because timber, as a natural material, is prone to move, warp, shrink and expand with changes in the environment. Eventually these minor distortions cause the intricate parts of traditional staircase construction to part company and rub against each other when walked on.

The introduction of central heating systems in modern houses has exacerbated the problem with creaking of traditional timber stairs because the ambient internal environment will often be much drier than the conditions in the factory where the stairs were made, thus causing the timbers to shrink as the house dries out following construction.

Timber stairs are properly made from ‘strings’ which rise from bottom to top and carry the weight. Treads and risers are cut into the strings and secured with small wedges which are glued into place in precisely-cut grooves in the strings. Shrinkage of any of these parts will allow small differential movements and can cause the annoying creaks you describe.

Normally a repair can be carried out from below by driving the wedges further in, using gluing and screwing techniques. However, if inaccessible – as in your case – the ideal time to attempt a repair is prior to recarpeting, although such repairs may not be totally successful.

A good joiner should be able to attempt the repair well and can use a number of methods once the errant step and location of the moving part is identified. The fix may include driving small wedges between the steps and the strings. Simply fixing the strings more thoroughly to the walls might also solve the issue.

If a repair is not possible and you are driven to change the staircase then I suggest that you consider reconfiguring the flight in order to avoid the top return, which is much safer when located at the bottom as prescribed in the building regulations. Such a staircase could cost well over €4,000 by the time it is supplied, fitted and repairs and decorations are complete.

Your party wall is a different issue – a house of this age should not allow sound to pass through in the way you describe. If in doubt, contact your local building surveyor who can advise appropriate actions, particularly if new stairs are needed or sound transfer investigation is an issue.

Fergus Merriman is a chartered building surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, scsi.ie