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Making homes more accommodating for older or disabled residents

If access from outside proves too problematic, one solution, albeit a costly one, is a home addition, if the property and zoning permit. Leahy advises against adding on if it will hurt resale; a move to a more accessible home may make more sense.

Interior accessibility
Once the issue of exterior access has been solved, things can take a decided turn for the better inside, depending on the specific needs of the occupants and the design of the home.

"You work your way from the exterior to the interior, saying here are all the things that would have to change, and taking into consideration all the aesthetic considerations and cost considerations," says Leahy.

Here are a few of the most common retrofit elements:

  • Doorways: Typical width for residential interior doors is 30 inches, too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through. Doors to powder rooms, pantries and walk-in closets are often even narrower, from 24 to 28 inches. Retrofit cost for 34-inch or 36-inch doors: $300 to $600 per door.

  • Door knobs: Children and the elderly have equal trouble with round doorknobs. The solution: levered handles. "Sometimes aesthetics meet need; levered handles are very popular in high-end housing now and work beautifully for the disabled," says Leahy. Various styles are readily available at big-box home improvement centers, as well as at local hardware and specialty design stores.

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  • Countertops: Lowering existing 36-inch kitchen countertops can wreak havoc on backsplashes, plumbing and appliances and adversely affect resale. A popular solution: a lower 30-inch to 34-inch island with sink and cutaway undercabinet to allow for a wheelchair beneath (arm height is typically 29 inches). "Raising and lowering cabinetry and countertops to get variety in the kitchen is the big thing right now," says Leahy. "It can look like you actually made an aesthetic decision to drop that center island."

  • Dishwashers and ovens: Both tend to be too low for the elderly and disabled to use without difficulty. Raise them up to allow a wheelchair to fit under the open door.

  • Refrigerators: For ease of use from a wheelchair, refrigerators should be positioned away from the corner of the kitchen so that the door can open 135 degrees. Loop handles can help, but a self-opening attachment may be necessary as refrigerator doors are heavy and seal tight.

  • Cabinet hardware: Do a favor for young and old alike and replace hard-to-grip kitchen knobs with D-shaped pulls. They're in fashion, as well. Again, check out Lowe's, Home Depot or the hardware store down the street.

  • Flooring: Hardwood or laminate flooring provide the least difficulty for wheelchairs but may not be suitable for walker use. In carpeting, choose a low pile instead of a thick pile for easy mobility.

  • Showers: Roll-in showers are great for new construction but often difficult to retrofit and can negatively affect resale. The good news is that grab bars you can place throughout the bathroom now come in a variety of styles that are attractive as well as functional. "Universal design doesn't have to be ugly anymore," says Leahy.

  • Sinks: Pedestal and wall-mounted sinks are all the rage, enabling wheelchair users to roll beneath them.

  • Stairway options: High-end two-story and three-story homes are often designed with an elevator either installed or provided for in hidden spaces such as laundry chutes and guest closets. The cost has come down to approximately $10,000 per stop. If your home is an older one without a logical place for elevator installation, or you want a more budget-conscious alternative, motorized stair lifts start at around $1,500.

Creative solutions to other age-in-place challenges, from sliding shelves to adjustable closet rods, can be found online at several academic sites, including North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design and Wright State University's Rehabilitation Engineering Department.

But what about resale?
Eleanor Smith believes so strongly that homes should be designed for everyone that she started her own nonprofit organization, Concrete Change, to help make it happen. She works with cities such as Irvine, Calif., and Austin, Texas, to make basic age-in-place features standard in building codes.

Such a grassroots approach is an offshoot of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that opened access for the disabled to public, commercial and multifamily residential buildings. The federal legislation, however, does not apply to single-family homes so some states and municipalities are slowly bridging that gap.

Concrete Change also promotes incentives such as favorable loan rates for homebuyers of houses that are more accessible and functional for the young, old and disabled who live there or are visiting.

"We hope to induce people to build their homes without the major barriers in the first place so they won't have to face the rather steep costs to retrofit," she says.

Lee says the effects are already being felt in the housing market.

"What is becoming more common are wider doorways as standard, and configurations within the bathrooms and kitchens that can be easily adjusted to accommodate the appropriate accessibility," says the Illinois real estate professional.

And shades of the 1950s, Lee says the single-level ranch home is back, in part a reflection of a shift in preference for single-floor living. Barring unsightly exterior ramps, she says age-in-place features won't hurt resale, especially as the baby boomer buyer pool, in the immortal words of Jimmy Buffett, grows older but not up.

Leahy says it's high time many of these features became standard, regardless of the age or health of the homeowner.

"It truly becomes value-added. It becomes an investment more than an expense," says the design company president. "God forbid, you or I get hit by a car and break both legs, we're only going to be in a wheelchair for a few months, but how the heck do you live within your own home if that happens?"

Homeowners and home builders alike, Leahy says, are increasingly becoming aware of one unavoidable fact: One of these days, those old folks at home may well be us.

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.


-- Posted: July 15, 2004
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