Making homes more accommodating for older or disabled
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.
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,"
Here are a few of the most common retrofit elements:
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
- 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
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
"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
"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.