How to tell if a wall is load-bearing

man in yellow shirt and blue denim jeans jumping on brown wooden railings under blue and

Love the home you’re touring but want to see if you can remove a wall? Here’s how to tell if a wall in a home is load-bearing. 

In this article

When you’re touring a home, it’s easy to fall in love with the house. But it’s also common to envision future renovations. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of how to tell if a wall is load-bearing and whether or not it can be removed during a remodel. Determining whether or not a wall is load-bearing will help you make an informed decision when it comes time to make an offer or negotiate the sale price

What you’ll learn:

  • What it means for a wall to be load-bearing and why load-bearing walls are necessary
  • How to tell if a wall is load-bearing by looking at other structural elements
  • Tips for how to determine if a wall is load-bearing even if you can’t see the structural elements
  • How to determine whether or not you can remove a load-bearing wall and the steps involved
  • What it means if a wall is not load-bearing

Why you should know whether a wall is load-bearing or not

If you tour a home and don’t love the layout, there are certain situations where a wall can be removed to create the space that you want. But a wall might also be a permanent part of the home. 

Older homes tend to have lots of smaller rooms, while today’s designs include more open concept spaces. But what if you find a home you love, except for a wall here or there that’s blocking the view or making rooms smaller than you want?

Knowing the difference between a load-bearing wall and a wall that isn’t load-bearing will determine how safe, affordable, and time-consuming a potential remodel will be.

Removing a wall that isn’t load-bearing is a project that can be done on your own, but it’s still a substantial project that requires repairing the ceiling, floor, and remaining walls as well as hiring experts to move any plumbing, wiring, or ductwork that was in the wall.

A load-bearing wall is another thing altogether.

What is a load-bearing wall?

As the name implies, a load-bearing wall, sometimes called a structural wall, bears the weight, or load, of a structure. In a building, the weight of the structure follows the load path that transfers the weight of the building from one element to another until it reaches the soil below the foundation. 

In the diagram below, Engineers Daily shows how a load is transferred from a slab to the beams. It then transfers to the columns and then to the footing and ultimately to the soil below the structure.

To support a building, exterior walls are nearly always load-bearing. Interior walls can be load-bearing, or they can simply break up the space and define different rooms.

How can I tell if a wall in the home is load-bearing?

If you’re planning a remodel, there are a few ways to tell if a wall is load-bearing, so you can assess how involved a renovation would have to be. If you’re touring a home, there are a few things you can check during the tour that will give you a good idea of which walls are load-bearing.

  • How is the wall oriented in relation to the joists? If the floor joists are exposed, you’ll be able to see them from below in the basement. If the wall runs perpendicular to the joists, then it is likely load-bearing. If it runs parallel, then it is probably a partition wall. This is also how to tell if a basement wall is load bearing. You can also use your attic as a reference. If a roof support meets a ceiling beam over a wall, it is a load-bearing wall. 
  • Are the walls stacked? In a multi-story home, walls that are stacked above each other are usually acting as part of the load path, transferring the weight of the home to the foundation. These walls are load-bearing.
  • Is it an exterior wall? Most exterior walls are load-bearing, so make sure that you like the exterior footprint of the home as it is difficult to remove any exterior walls.

What if I can’t see the floor or ceiling joists?

If you can’t tell if a wall is load-bearing during the tour or if you’re already in the home, there are a couple of other strategies that will help you figure out whether a wall is load-bearing or not. 

  • Ask the agent: It’s possible that the agent has seen the blueprints or they’ve discussed renovation potential with the sellers or seller’s agent, so they may know which walls are load-bearing.
  • Use a stud finder or magnet: Ceiling joists double as studs on the ceiling, so if you use a stud finder to locate the studs, you will know which way the ceiling joists run and determine whether or not the wall runs parallel (partition wall) or perpendicular (load-bearing wall). 
  • Hire a professional: Having a contractor come to the house to take a look at your plan for a remodel is another way to find out if a wall is load-bearing. With their experience, they should be able to tell you if the wall you want to remove can actually be removed as well as how much time, effort, and cost it will take.
  • Test with a nail or small drill bit: Another way to test for a ceiling joist is to hammer a small nail or drive a small drill bit into the ceiling. Start at 16 inches from the wall and in an inconspicuous place. If it’s solid above the sheetrock, you’ve hit a joist. If there’s no resistance, then shift over an inch and try again.
  • Look under the sheetrock: You can remove some of the sheetrock to get a visual and confirm the direction of the joists. Keep in mind that you will have to repair the sheetrock if you don’t move forward with removing the wall.
  • Check the blueprints: If the house was built fairly recently, your realtor might have a set of blueprints or be able to get one for you. If the house was built more than 50 years ago, you may have to do some digging, but it’s still possible to acquire a set of blueprints by contacting your city hall, digging through historical archives, or meeting with neighbors who have a similar house style and may have blueprints. If you do end up with a copy of the blueprints, load-bearing walls will be marked as structural with an “S”.

Can I remove a load-bearing wall?

The short answer is yes. 

The long answer is that it really depends on the location of the wall and the steps you’re willing to take to remove it. 

Removing a load-bearing wall requires the use of temporary walls on either side of the load-bearing wall to support the weight of the structure. Once temporary walls are in place, the load-bearing wall can be removed. Another structural support must be put in place—usually a beam that is supported at both ends or a beam-and-post system where the beam is supported by posts along its length. These beams can be installed either above or below the ceiling.

Hire a professional if you wish to remove a load-bearing wall.  But you should be able to tell whether or not a wall is load-bearing on your own. The cost to remove a load-bearing wall varies, but according to HomeGuide, it ranges from $4,000 to $10,000. In contrast, the cost to remove a non-load-bearing wall is between $500 and $2,000.

Removing a load-bearing wall often requires permits because you are changing the actual structure of the home. Inspections are also necessary to ensure that the project hasn’t compromised the safety of the building and that all of the wiring is up to code.

yellow and blue metal fence
Most walls on the outside of a home are load-bearing but some interior walls may just be partition walls between rooms

What does it mean if a wall is not load-bearing?

Many interior walls in a home are stud walls—walls that are framed using studs, secured to the floor, ceiling, and other walls, and covered with sheet rock. Stud walls are not load-bearing. These non-load-bearing walls, also called partition walls, are just that—a partition to separate certain areas in the home. They aren’t necessary for the structural integrity of the building, and therefore can be removed if necessary. 

When removing any wall, it’s important to remember it may have other structural elements in it like wiring, plumbing or ductwork. 

A final thought

Buying a home that you know you’ll want to renovate can be a difficult decision. But going into it with as much knowledge as possible can ease some of the stress. Determining which walls are load-bearing and which are partition walls during the home tour will allow you to see the potential in the home and start planning even before the papers are signed. It will also give you a better idea of what a renovation project will cost and whether or not you’ll want to tackle it. 

FAQ

How can you tell if a wall is load-bearing in a single story house?

In any house, there are floor joists and ceiling joists. These are the horizontal boards that support the floor and ceiling. These joists are also supported by load-bearing walls that run perpendicular—or at a 90-degree angle—to them. If you can see the floor or ceiling joists in a single-story house and the wall runs perpendicular to them, the wall is likely load-bearing.

You can also reference the blueprints of the house and look for walls labeled “S” for structural.

Are interior walls load-bearing?

Some interior walls are load-bearing while others are partition walls that are there to separate the space.

How do I know if I can knock down an internal wall?

Once you’ve identified whether or not an internal wall is load-bearing, you’ll be able to decide whether or not you can knock it down. If it is not load-bearing, then you can knock it down fairly easily and repair the wall, floor, and ceiling that it was attached to. If it is load-bearing, the process is more involved, and you will need to hire a professional.

How big can an opening be in a load-bearing wall?

The size of the opening depends on the structure of the home and the amount of support for the load that the wall will carry. If you don’t want to remove the entire wall, you can create a pass-through where a portion of the wall is removed and additional support is added.

How can you tell the difference between a load-bearing and a non-load-bearing wall?

In the simplest terms, a load-bearing wall will run perpendicular to the floor and ceiling joists while a non-load-bearing wall will run parallel to them.

About the author: Stephanie Mickelson is a freelance writer based in Northwest Wisconsin who specializes in real estate, building materials, and design. When she’s not writing, she can be found juggling kids and coffee.

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