How to Tell If a Wall is Load Bearing (a.k.a. Structural)

January 6, 2010 | by Fred (email) |

With open floor plans all the rage, many of us with older homes are looking to remove interior walls to bring our over-divided houses in line with modern design standards.

Before you go knocking down walls in your house, though, you must be sure that the wall isn’t load bearing. Since each home is different, and this is an extremely important data point, you should always contact a structural engineer before you remove walls to confirm the walls you want to remove are not load bearing.

Remember! Home Owner’s insurance most likely will not cover a second floor or roof collapse due to the homeowner removing walls that are holding up the house. Don’t skip talking to a professional.

Load Bearing vs. Non-Load-Bearing Walls

Structural (or load bearing) walls are those that are holding up the upper floors of a house and the roof or are essential horizontal bracing members.

Non-structural (or non-load-bearing) walls are there just for show–to create privacy in a room or a design division. Even if a wall is not load bearing, it may be hiding electric, plumbing, or HVAC vents inside and could be difficult to remove without re-routing these elements.

Considerations for Removing Walls

In general, non-structural walls can be removed without any reinforcement to the building’s structure or the floors and roof above.

For load bearing walls, in order to remove or cut a hole in the wall, you must transfer the load around the proposed gap. This is usually achieved by installing a header below the joists or roof structure and running supports on each end of the header down to the load-bearing member under the floor below.

In some installations, you can avoid having a header at the top of the doorway by installing the header in-line with the joists using joist hangers. This installation is more complicated and only works if the header (rim joist) to be installed can be the same width or less that the size of the lumber used for the joists. This decision is affected by the span distance of the gap and the unavailable space on the floor above.

Either of these latter two operations we would reserve for a licensed contractor under the supervision of a structural engineer.

Ways to Determine if a Wall is Load Bearing

We’d like to stress that it is important to accurately assess whether a wall is load bearing before you remove it. Contact a structural engineer and get an assessment.

Remember, even walls that were not originally load bearing could become load bearing if other walls are removed–so this is a sophisticated analysis.

Here are some basic steps you can take to determine if a wall is load bearing. None of these are universally true; however, so the structural assessment is key.

Signs a wall is load bearing:

  • The wall is an exterior wall of the house.
  • The wall used to be exterior walls but have been made interior by an addition.
  • The wall is built above a steel beam. If you look in the basement of your home and can see one or more beams holding up the structure, it is likely that the walls built on top of these beams on the first floor are holding up the second floor.
  • The wall is perpendicular to the floor joists, especially if it is close to the support beams.
  • The wall has a larger wood top frame member (e.g. two 2x4s or larger, instead of just one 2×4 top plate).
  • Doorways or openings in the wall have large headers supporting the gap over the door.

Signs a wall is not load bearing:

  • The wall runs parallel to the floor joists.
  • The wall is a half wall.
  • The wall doesn’t have a mechanism to transfer weight to the structure below.

What do you think? Will you be removing walls in your home?

17 Responses
  1. Todd says:

    Great advice Fred. Being a structural engineer myself I’ve seen SO MANY load bear walls removed by home owners causing some pretty serious problems. Identifying load bearing walls is getting harder and harder today with all the new advanced framing materials. Some of the old rules of thumb no longer always apply. For instance, the ceiling joists may run parallel to an interior load bearing wall that is supporting a girder truss above.

    At any rate, your advice is great….for me the first thing to check is whether door openings have a header above them. This can be as simple as knocking on the drywall or inserting a small nail through the drywall. If there’s no header you probably have a non-load bearing wall. At that point you can do some preliminary planning. If you plan will work then contact an engineer to verify your hunch.

  2. I have an excellent solution for this…. I live with an Engineer. 😉

    We’ll see how good he is if the house doesn’t collapse on us.

  3. Jennifer B. says:

    This is a bit off topic, but I would like to know more about what areas of a floor are “load bearing”. I keep aquariums, which can be quite heavy, and I was wondering whether there is any particular place in the house that is better for supporting that weight. I have been keeping them against outside walls.

  4. Fred says:

    Hi Jennifer…

    We’ve got good experience with this. We raised discus in a 135 gallon oceanic tank for years. Best place for an aquarium is across the joists (perpendicular, not parallel), as close to the underlying support wall or beam below. Across the joists on an exterior wall is good.

    What you definitely don’t want to do is install it parallel to the joists, which could put substantially all of the weight onto one joist.

    In our house, we decided to sister additional joists to the existing structure to provide additional weight transfer to the supports… could have been overkill, but since the tank was 1600 lbs and we had other furniture in the room, we think it makes sense.

  5. Why S? says:

    We removed a number of walls from our 100 year old house. So many, that we don’t really have much wall space left to hang art. Unlike the commenter above, I don’t live with an engineer. I live with a sometime set designer. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

  6. b matthews says:

    ive removed a studded wall downstairs and now there is movement upstairs is this normal

  7. Ray says:

    I have a 1970’s style rancher. We have a wall on the main floor that runs half the length of the home right down the middle. It seperates to living rooms. I would love to tear it down since we have a fireplace in the rear living room area. In the basement the I beam runs the same as the wall above it and the joists run from front to back. We do not have a 2nd floor just attic.

    Can anyone help??


  8. Fred says:

    Ray, what kind of attic is it? Is it a truss roof or is it an actual room that you can use for storage? If the wall is sitting on the beam and it’s a steal beam, odds are pretty good it’s load bearing. Have you used any of the recommended methods in the post for making a determination?

  9. Bob says:

    We bought a 1970s “Vancouver Special”. We have no floorplans or original plans but we do know the previous owners renovated the “mud room” and made an open suite downstairs.

    The top 2 bedrooms above it are sloped towards the exterior wall and you can obvious see the 2nd floor hallway (although short) sloped considerably as well. The bedroom doors do not stay ‘open’ by themselves as we need a magnetic doorstop to hold it against the wall.

    I’m concerned there was a load bearing wall underneath by looking at the opposite side of the house where there is another wall directly lined up across the hallway. There is one wall in the suite at the far south area where the bathroom and kitchen are divided and then the bedroom…but that’s it.

    Is the sloping of the above 2 bedrooms a sign of a load bearing wall being taken out? Other than hiring an expensive structural engineer just to look at the one room, is there anything else?

  10. Ray says:

    Fred…Thanks for the comments. It is a truss roof. I was told by a builder that it most likely is not a load bearing wall due to it being a rancher and having a truss roof. Does this sound right?

    I actually just found this site the other day and I am off the coast of Yemen running a Fiber Optic line so I can’t check any of the recommended methods right now.

    Thanks again for all your help!


  11. Duane says:

    I own a 70 year old house that has an unusable fireplace in it. We are in the midst of tearing down the fireplace to install a new woodstove and we noticed, once quite a bit of brick is out, that the brick is actually making up part of the wall. The fireplace itself is located on the main floor, and the ash trap, etc is located in the basement. We are wanting to know what the chances are that the brick is making up part of a load bearing wall? I want the entire thing down tomorrow, and with it being a national holiday, I can’t get anyone here to check it. Again, is it possible that the wall is load bearing through the brick, or would it be safe to assume that the fireplace can come out?

  12. dadskills says:

    thanks……… another question i have had answered

  13. HANDYMAN51 says:

    My wife, and an over- eager son, have suggested several times in the past that we should ” knock some walls down”. Thank you for the good advice- have someone who REALLY knows check things first. I’ll pull this up the next time the discussion starts with them!

  14. Shawn says:

    I have a question regarding a fake fireplace in the corner of my living room. I would assume the area above the fireplace but cannot be sure. I want to remove the fake corner wall area and open it up a bit. Any thoughts?

  15. Frank Napoleon says:

    I want to install a pocket door in a bedroom and after opening the sheet rock I found at the door frame has 2 2x4s next to each other running up the wall not sure if it was just to be able to frame in the door jam or if it structural. It’s not at the corner of the room. I just don’t know if it will hurt anything taking those 2 beams out to frame in pocket door. Any suggestions

  16. Phil says:

    I have an interested situation. I have a clearly load bearing wall above an I Beam and perpendicular to. To the joists . I am NOT removing it. There was a half wall (so not load bearing) at a ninety degree angle attached the load bearing wall. I removed the half wall completely except for right king stud and bottom plate. just today I removed bottom plate while leaving right side king stud. It seemed to float above the subfloor. MY CONCERN IS THE LOAD BEARING WALL- will it be weakened by not having the half wall there to support? Is it possible a half wall supports a load bearing wall??? The load wall was is and will be still perfectly framed without issue.

    Let me know if I ruined something FAST?!?!

  17. Sara says:

    I have 2 half walls with spindles, 3 spindles on each wall that I would like to remove. One wall runs the length of the house, the other runs across the house and they share an entryway into the living room. (Like an “L” form) There is almost 15in. of drywall above the spindles. Is this something I need to hire a contractor to look at 1st or do you think I can remove these ugly spindles? Thanks!

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