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How to choose the best stairlift for you or your loved ones

Find out how you can regain your independence with the best stairlift

best stairlift
Finding the best stairlift for you is about regaining your mobility
(Image: © Bruno)

Finding the best stairlift is a lot more involved than reading a review or skimming an article. It requires understanding your specific needs and knowing what questions to answer before talking to a dealership. That said, choosing to get a stairlift is a big deal. It’s an investment on your future and your quality of life because it gives you your mobility back. By installing a stairlift, you’re preserving your independence by making it easier to move throughout your home safely. But you’re also choosing something that you’ll use a lot and which costs a significant amount. 

In this article, we cover the various types of stairlifts before going into the questions you need to ask yourself before talking to a dealership. Finally, we cover the most frequently asked questions about stairlifts.

Types of stairlifts

On the surface, a stairlift is just a tool to safely move you up and down a flight of stairs. And to be honest, there really isn’t much different between most models of stairlifts. Because of certain regulations, they all move at roughly the same speed and have the same standard safety features. That said, here are the types of stairlifts to consider:

Straight: These stairlifts are made for straight staircases. The rails don’t curve and are affixed to the stairs, not the wall. Since the rails are straight, these are the most affordable stairlifts because nothing has to be customized to fit your home. The rails are prefabricated at various common lengths and ready to install.

Curved: Curved stairlifts are custom made to fit the specific curvatures of your home’s stairs. Since there’s no such thing as a common or standard curved staircase, they can’t be prefabricated. As such, these stairlifts are more expensive, often costing two to three times as much as a straight staircase.

Outdoor: An outdoor staircase can be made in either straight or curved variations. They are made from sturdier materials and made to handle the inclement weather of rain, snow, ice, and UV rays. As such, expect to pay a premium for an outdoor staircase.

best stairlift

A bariatric stairlift needs to lift over 450 pounds. (Image credit: Harmar)

Bariatric: These stairlifts are made for large people who weigh over 300 pounds. Standard stairlifts max out at about 280 to 350 pounds while a bariatric stairlift maxes out at 600 pounds. It features a wider seat and heavy duty rails.

Perched seat: Many seniors have back and knee problems that can make it difficult to get out of a sitting position. If you’re one of these seniors, look for a perched seat. It’s typically an option with a specific model, but the perched seat has a raised seat so you’re almost in a standing position as you ride the stairlift. Often the seat has powered controls to help you in or out.

Rack and pinion versus Worm-gear: Most stairlifts are made with either a rack and pinion motor or a worm-gear motor system to move you up and down the stairs. Both are reliable options, with the rack and pinion system being the most common and most durable. The worm-gear option provides a smoother and quieter ride, but has a tendency to wear out faster.

 Questions to ask before you buy 

Buying a stairlift is an investment. But for the investment to make sense, you need to ask yourself some basic questions:

What is your level of mobility?
Whether you’re using a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair, you need to gauge your level of mobility to help you choose the best stairlift for your situation. Your level of mobility helps you decide what type of features you need. For example, if you have severe mobility issues, you’re going to want to get a stairlift with powered swivel and powered foot rest, as you don’t want to be bending over to pull a lever every time you need to swivel out of your chair.

Do you have difficulty getting out of a sitting position?
As mentioned earlier, many seniors struggle to get out of a sitting position due to knee and back issues. If you have this problem, you need a perched style seat. 

Do you live alone or with family?
If you share your home with family members or you have grandchildren over a lot, choosing a stairlift with a slim profile is the best way to make sure the seat is not a major obstacle every time someone goes up or down the stairs. However, if you live alone, this is not as big of an issue. In fact, you might never fold the chair up when it’s parked.

best stairlift

Curved stairlifts start at about $6,600 and cost as much as $15,000. (Image credit: Bruno)

What does your budget look like?
Stairlifts are expensive and most seniors live on a fixed income. Take a close look at your budget. Can you afford to make a monthly payment? Before you talk to a dealership, know how much you can afford monthly so you don’t overstep your budget.

What type of curved stairs do you have?
Installing a stairlift to curved stairs is difficult. The rails need to be custom fitted to your stairs. This raises the cost by thousands. In some cases, if the only curve is near the landing, it might be more cost effective to make modifications to your home and turn the stairs into a straight staircase.

Do you have arthritis?
You control the stairlift using controls on the armrest. This is the case with every stairlift on the market. If you have arthritis, some controls might be difficult to use. Look for controls that require as little dexterity as possible. Buttons are not good for this. Most dealerships have experts to help you find the best controls for your type of arthritis. Some even have certifications from the Arthritis Foundation.

 Frequently-asked questions about stairlifts 

How much do stairlifts cost?
To put it simply, stairlifts cost between $1,600 and $15,000. That’s quite a dramatic swing, but it has a lot to do with the type of stairlift and whether you have to have rails customized to your stairs. Straight stairlifts cost between $1,600 to $5,000 because the rails can be prefabricated. However, curved stairlifts cost between $6,600 and $15,000 because the rails need to be customized to fit your specific stairs. They can’t be prefabricated or refurbished. Outdoor stairlifts cost several thousand more than their indoor counterparts.

Are stairlifts safe?
Absolutely. Stairlifts are all about providing you with a safe way to access all parts of your house. In other words, you don’t want to fall down your stairs when using a device meant to keep you from falling down the stairs. For this reason, you shouldn’t ignore the safety features. These ensure you’re safely carried up and down the stairs and that nothing gets caught between the rails and the seat. 

Every stairlift should come with at least a seatbelt and an object sensor that stops the seat if it detects something in the way. The best stairlifts stop for everything, whether it’s a grandchild’s finger on the rail or a sock dropped when taking laundry up stairs. And if you want the best in safety (especially if you have grandkids over...they love to ride stairlifts), make sure you choose a model that won’t budge unless the safety belt is secured. You can also get a lock system with some models to ensure your grandchildren aren’t taking the stairlift for a joyride, which they will surely want to do.

What is the weight limit of a stairlift?
Every stairlift has an electric  motor to move it up a rail system. The strength of the motor, the angle of the stairs, and the design of the chair all determine the maximum weight capacity. As a rule, you don’t want to choose a lift where your weight is less than 80-percent of the maximum weight limit. While the stairlift might be rated for 300 pounds doesn’t mean you should test its limits. By making sure you’re at least 80 percent under the weight limit, you give yourself plenty of room to ensure a safe and secure performance up and down the stairs. 

So, if you weigh 240 pounds, you may want to get the stairlift rated for 350 pounds over the one rated for 300 pounds, even though the one rated for 300 pounds is capable. While the latter is certainly rated to carry you, it would be safer to choose the former. 

Most standard stairlifts are rated to carry between 250 and 350 pounds, but only at specific angles. If your stairs have a steeper angle than it’s rated for, the stairlift’s maximum weight limit decreases significantly. If you weigh more than what the standard stairlifts are capable of handling, then you want to find a bariatric stairlift, which ranges between 400 and 600 pounds.

best stairlift

Some curved stairlifts attach to the stairs and the wall for added stability. (Image credit: AmeriGlide)

What type of rail is best?
The rails of a stairlift are not unlike the rails of a roller coaster. They act as a guide and anchor for the stairlift to move along. Stairlifts either come with one or two rails. And the rails typically mount to the floor of the stairs. Rarely do stairlifts mount to the walls. Only in a few cases with a double-rail system on curved stairs will the rail be securely fastened to the studs in the wall. But this doesn’t require any modifications to your home.

Most people prefer floor mounted stairlifts because they don’t require drilling into the wall and some simply rest on the stairs, requiring no screws into the floor or wall. But the wall mounted rails are typically more secure and provide more space on your stairs. That said, it often depends on the layout and space of your staircase. If the staircase is too narrow, then a wall-mounted rail might be necessary.

If you have curved stairs, you have to get customized rails put in. The upside is the curved rails fit your stairs snugly and provide the safest experience. The downside is you likely can’t return the rails if the company has a buy-back program.

What type of power does a stairlift use?
The best stairlifts use a battery that recharges whenever the lift is parked rather than an internally powered plug-in system. This way, you never have to worry about recharging the battery and the stairs still work when the powers out. However, these batteries are difficult to replace and often don’t last as long as companies suggest. Plus the batteries are difficult to find and aren’t usually sold by the stairlift manufacturer.

What kind of warranty do stairlifts have?
Every manufacturer offers some type of warranty that replaces the stairlift if it stops working due to a manufacturers defect. The standard is one year with most stairlifts, but the best warranties run between five and ten years. The best stairlifts, however, come with lifetime warranties.

How fast does a stairlift move?
Stairlift speed is closely regulated to ensure safety. As such, don’t expect any stairlifts to move like a roller coaster. The motors are designed to move no faster than 20 feet per minute. Most curved stairlifts are slower, moving at just 15 feet per minute.

Does medicare pay for stairlifts?
No, medicare doesn’t pay for stairlifts, even if you have a doctor’s note prescribing a stairlift.

What can I do with my stairlift once I don’t need it anymore?
Your first option is to see if a dealership will buy it back from you. This is a common practice, as it allows the dealership to sell the stairlift again to seniors. That said, don’t expect to get back what you spent. If a dealership won’t take it back, ask if they’ll recycle or remove it. Disposing of a stairlift is a difficult process because of the size of the rails and the toxicity of the batteries. A dealership likely has a removal fee of several hundred dollars, but it’s far less than a fine for illegal disposal.

How long should a stairlift last?
The best warranty on the market has a term limit of ten years. This is typically considered to be the “life” of a well-made motor and rail system. That said, many warranties are only 3 to 5 years. So, if you want your stairlift to last a long time, make sure you choose a high-quality brand with a good warranty.

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Jeph Preece

Jeph Preece is an ambitiously creative writer, editor, and content strategist with over seven years of digital publishing experience and five years teaching and admin experience in academia. He is specialized in short-form and long-form, purpose-driven content. Jeph is also an accomplished artist, musician, and author of innovative fiction.