How can I tell if a wall is load bearing?

Answered by Jeffrey Anderson ~ November 2, 2012 ~ No Comments

We have a small, two bedroom home with a hip roof built in 1940. The wall that runs through the middle of the house under the main center-point of the roof has three doorways in it: Kitchen/Dining-room, Living-room/hall and the Master closet door. Side by side with the Master closet is the other bedroom closet. I want to expand the opening of both closets to have more access to the area inside the closet. My concern is that there may be a load-bearing issue. My husband assures me that all of the inside walls are load bearing and if I alter them, the house will fall down. Help please.

Mary - St Louis, MO

Jeffrey Anderson

Mary, it sounds to me like your husband might be exaggerating a bit in an attempt to avoid a remodeling project. However, he is correct in that you do have to be cautious when making changes that could affect a load bearing wall.

The best method for determining if the wall in question might be structural or weight bearing is to ask an architect or construction professional to take a look at your framing layout. For a wall to function as a structural component, the load has to be carried all the way down to the foundation. An architect should be able to look at the framing in the attic and basement or crawl space if applicable and be able to tell you within a matter of minutes whether the wall is actually load bearing.

That's my official recommendation, but you should be able to get a pretty good ideal of the wall's function by checking the headers over the closet doors. Go inside one of the closets and use a small nail to probe the area over the door trim in the middle of the opening. Tap it through the sheetrock starting about 3 inches over the trim to see if you hit solid framing. Make similar holes above the initial probe spacing each about 2 inches over the previous attempt.

You should only need to make about 4 holes -- if you hit solid framing each time, there's a pretty good chance that you have a load bearing wall. Just to be sure, move about 6 inches to the left or right and repeat the exercise -- this should eliminate the chance that you happened to hit a vertical framing member with your initial holes.

Load bearing walls should have horizontal headers that are at least 6 inches high but may be as large as 10 inches to carry the load over the door opening. If you hit solid framing with your nail, it's a pretty good indication that there is a header in place. A non-structural wall would have a horizontal framing member about 2 inches high and then a series of vertical studs up to the top plates.

Either way, you should be able to open up the closet doorways. If the wall isn't load bearing, the openings can be any size without having to be concerned about structural issues. However, if the wall is carrying a load, an engineer or architect should determine how large a new header would need to be to span the proposed opening.

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