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Question DetailsAsked on 1/9/2018

If I have a drop ceiling attic access (opening covered by a moveable board) what are my options for a ladder?

Our builder originally put in a drop ceiling attic access in a small hallway (one in which you just move the framed board covering the hole to get in the attic - you must have a ladder to get to the ceiling, obviously). I'm sure he probably didn't do a full-size ladder because it's a small space, but that was 20+ years ago... are there any options now that would allow some kind of drop-down ladder for this opening?

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OK - assuming you mean just a board or piece of drywall held up by pieces of trim around the bottom edge of the opening into the attic as the hatch, that is normal, and not a "dropped ceiling".

If you actually meant a dropped ceiling, not just drywall on the underside of the attic joists or trusses with the "hatch" sitting roughly even with that on top of the retaining trim, then usually you have to fasten the ladder to the joists or truss bottom chords themselves, not to the dropped ceiling framing, because true "dropped ceiling" framing might not be built to handle the ladderloads, especially if just sheeet metal rather than 2x wood framing. Your installer would have to look at whether the framing is just enough to hold the drywall up, or can actually support 350-400 pounds or so of used carrying a load plus the ladder.

Generally, you just remove the trim and put in new trim to frame out the opening to needed size and to prevent tearing up the drywall edges when going up and down the ladder. This retrimming, which would commonly only be an inch or two larger - to provide "clearance" for the full opening rather than an interior overhang to holdup the hatch, so removing the trim is normally just a few minutes with hammer and prybar to remove the trim (or just barehand pull it off sometimes) and then use utility knife to open the opening in the drywall up as necessary to the proper installation dimension. Sometimes involves some reframing around the drywall opening to get it to the correct size and properly support the drywall edges.

The key is get a ladder that is correct for reasonably available (between-joist) opening and correct for the floor to mounting height you have - easier to get a ladder that fits that reframe to adapt to a larger ladder, especially if the larger ladder is going to mean having to reframe roof supports.

The ladder usually has hinged mounting brackets which mount to the inside or inside and over the top of the attic joists/truss joists - can be very easy to install, or can take a bit of monkeying around if it has to go over the top and an angled truss brace or truss framing plate is in the way - or if your attic has plywood truss-joists or such rather than 2x wood framing. Sometimes (depending on how the hatch was originally built) some trim-out wood and 2x blocking across the "ends" of the opening are needed as well, so it commonly goes from a "simple 1 hour job" per manufacturer instruction to a 2-4 hour job.

Also - these tilt-down or fold-up ladders are basically made to be used with the ladder parallel to the attic framing - going the other way is usually a significant problem to install. This is normally not a problem in closets, but can be in many hallways in normal roughly rectangular houses as they run perpendicular to the attic framing, so if there is not room to run the ladder crosswise to the hallway that can be a problem and sometimes calls for a vertical extensible ladderor, with high headroom attic over the opening (always check headroom before starting the project) sometimes a vertical slide-up ladder like the bottom ladder on fire escapes can be used.

Or the easiest solution, which is a portable ladder of appropriate length and width which you can put "ears" or "dogs" into the attic opening to holding place when in use - like a standard one-piece 8 or 10 foot aluminum ladder for about $100 at box stores, which you just carry into place from the garage or wherever you can store it and set up as needed. But you generally do NOT want a step ladder for accessing the attic - unless it will fit up into the opening entirely so it cannot tilt sideways in use. So like with a 7 foot ceiling an 8' step ladder would commonly be good, or a 10' for a full 8' ceiling.

Hint - On DIY if you don't have a second person to hold your work ladder during mounting the hardware - putting a scrap of 2x across the otp of the attic joists or bottom chords and a rope around that to hold the ladder unit in place while installing it can make it a one-person job. But you pretty much need a 6-8 foot stepladder or one of those multi-position folding ladders notmore than about 8 feet long to do the installation.

On costs - below is one previous similar question with some info on what he got as labor bids - and about $200-300 on up to $1000 would cover most installations as long as attic reframing of roof support trusses or joists is not needed. The ladders themselves run from just over $100 - 200 for low-end and pretty wobbly ones at box stores and Amazon (some have a max load rating of only 150-200 pounds, so be careful about those), more commonly $300-500 range for higher capacity and higher quality ones if person using it is over about 200-250# or you plan on using it a lot. Labor commonly about $50-100/hr for Handymen or Carpenter - Framing (your normal Search the List category for this type job), so for figuring "normal job" where the ladder can just fit up into the space between the attic framing 2-4 hours about $200-400 for labor. Plus you would need trim wood for around the opening at the drywall if you don't want him to have to make a store run to get it.

For jobs where the ladder cannot fit between the joists - like with the 12-16" light-duty framing or truss-joists used in some houses and more commonly with flat roofs, then reframing at the opening is needed because a 12" opening is pretty useless - most people cannot fit through that, much less carrying a box - which requires a Structural Engineer's design for the reframing and another 2-4 hours work, so that type of situation can run you double to triple the above - generally $1000 or two.

Google this search phrase - attic access ladder - or - attic access ladder Amazon - to see examples of the type of tilt down (lay up in the opening when not in use - exposed on ceiling or concealed in the hole), slide-down (either totally up in the attic when stored, or tilted up into the ceilign opening for storage and have a sliding lower4 section that slides down for use), and fold-down ladders (folds in half before it goes up into the ceiling recess) now available. Or go to this website (one of the more common brands for ladders) to see the types of options available - I amm not specifically recommending or disrecommending this brand, they just have a pretty full range and are sold at most box stores and lumber yards and such.

On the cost - some of the nicer (more expensive) ceiling-mount ladders come with bottom fake wood panels on the underside or a hinged bottom hatch to conceal them when folded up. If the one you choose does not have that, or you want something fancier, then that could add $50 or so materials and a hundred or two labor to the job cost. Drywall is NOT recommended for that because it will be cracked and edge scraped when the ladder is opened and closed, though I have seen drywall back-glued to 3/8 or 1/2" plywood for this aesthetic purpose, with wood trim around it to prevent edge scraping and scuffing.

Answered 10 months ago by LCD

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