DEAR MIKE: My garage is overflowing with junk and I need to clean it up. I was thinking of shelving and cabinets, but then the idea of pull-down stairs dawned on me. What is the cost and difficulty of installing them? -- Fred S.
DEAR FRED: Don't feel bad. If you are like most people, you still have boxes of unopened things from when you moved into the house, probably years ago.
You could spend several hundred dollars on shelving and cabinets for the garage, or you could spend around $100 for an attic ladder. Cabinets would decrease the amount of floor space in your garage, whereas an attic ladder would not.
I have installed attic ladders in all my houses, and as far as storage is concerned, it is one of the best things I could have done. I also installed lights in my attic, and the framing of my roof is such that I can walk from one side to the other. It's also a great place to hide things because nobody else will go up there.
One of the most important aspects of installing the ladder is where to install it.
First, look in the attic to see what obstructions will need to be avoided. Gain entry into the attic by moving the drywall cutout that the builder used to cover the attic access. Move over to the fire wall, and cut a small hole in it so you can peer into the garage's attic space. >From here you can determine the best place to locate the ladder.
You can poke a hole through the ceiling with a metal coat hangar, and then once you are in the attic, you can look for the coat hangar and see what challenges that location presents. Choose an area that is high enough so that as you enter the attic, you won't hit your head. Look for electrical cables, pipes, and ductwork to avoid. It's sometimes better to choose another location than to move obstructions. Also, make sure you have at least 2 feet of space in front of the ladder once it is pulled down.
Your roof is either constructed using a hand-framed system with 16-inch centers or roof trusses with 24-inch centers. Your house likely has trusses, which cannot be cut. Trusses are engineered from smaller dimensional lumber to act as a structural unit, so cutting it will compromise its strength and cause structural failure. With trusses, you simply buy a ladder that is 22 1/2-inches wide (the distance between trusses). The unit slides right in.
Once you decide where to install the ladder, it is time to cut the rough opening in the garage's ceiling. Use a drywall saw (about $6) to cut the opening to the manufacturer's specified dimensions.
Now it's time for some fun. Call your spouse to come and look at the large hole you just made in the ceiling, then tell her you think the hole is in the wrong spot. Make sure the garage door is closed or the screaming will wake the neighbors. After you tell her you were just kidding, you might want to put a mattress in the attic, because that is where you will be spending the next couple of nights.
Next, you need to frame the opening to provide the proper support for the stair unit. With a truss system, you will need to cut support blocks to form the rectangle for the opening. Use corner hangers (35 cents each) to strengthen the framed opening. Make sure the opening is square, and secure the corner hangers to the framing.
Cut two lengths of 1X4 to use as temporary cleats and screw them through the ceiling into the trusses. The ladder unit weighs about 50 pounds, so it sure is nice to have a helper guide it into the opening while you lift it into place. The ladder unit will rest on the temporary cleats until you secure the unit to the framing. Buy a pack of shims ($1) and square the unit in the opening. Then, nail the unit to the framing using 16d nails per the manufacturer's recommendations. You can also use 3-inch deck screws, but pre-drill the frame to avoid splitting.
Remove the temporary cleats and extend the ladder to the floor in its full open position. Next, cut the legs of the ladder to length. Measure along the ladder on both legs to the floor. The legs will be slightly different because of irregularities in the garage floor. Take measurements at the front and the back of both legs to make the angled cut conform to the floor.
Finally, trim the rough opening with door casing or other molding. Miter the cuts at the corners. Use 4d nails to attach the casing, then paint the molding and the underside of the ladder unit to match the ceiling.
You can also install a light switch just inside the opening and run lights in the attic. Additionally, you can build a walkway to act as an aisle down the trusses, and add shelving to your heart's delight. You may like it so much, you'll look for excuses to go up there.