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The best home modifications for aging in place

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As they get older, many — even most — Americans prefer to remain in their own homes as long as they can, or “age in place.” But to do that, many will need to make their residences safer and easier to navigate by making home modifications.

Home modification is the official term from the Americans with Disabilities Act for renovations and remodels geared towards the aged or the impaired. It means physically changing your home, removing potential hazards and making it more accessible, so you can continue living in it independently. Examples include anything from installing a shower bench to an entire ground-floor master suite, so you don’t have to walk up and down stairs.

Home modifications can be expensive, typically ranging from $3,000 to $15,000, with the average national spend being $9,500, according to Fixr, the remodeling reference site. But it can be a worthwhile investment.

“What not everyone considers is that you can save money by doing the right home modifications,” says DeDe Jones, a certified financial planner and managing director of Innovative Financial in Lakewood, Colorado. “The longer you can safely live in your home, the less you will need to pay for assisted living care, something that is not cheap.”

Here’s what you need to know about making home modifications for yourself or for loved ones.

Types of home modifications for aging in place

The best aging-in-place home modifications align with “universal design,” an architectural term for features that are easy for all to use and adaptable as needs dictate. This includes additions and changes to the exterior and interior of a home.

Simple home modifications

These can often be DIY jobs.

  • Adding easy-grip knobs and pulls, swapping knobs for levers
  • Installing adjustable handheld shower heads
  • Rearranging furniture for better passage
  • Removal of trip hazards such as carpeting or floor saddles
  • Installing mats and non-slip floor coverings

More complex home modifications

These probably would need a professional contractor, especially if you want them up to code standards.

  • Installing handrails
  • Adding automatic lighting outdoors
  • Installing automatic push-button doors
  • Smoothing out flooring
  • Installing doorway ramps

Home modifications by room

  • Bathroom: Grab bars and railing, roll- or walk-in shower/tub, shower bench
  • Kitchen: higher countertops, lever or touchless faucets, cabinet pull-out shelves
  • Bedroom: less-high bed, non-slip floor, walk-in closets, motion-activated light
  • Outside the house: ramps, porch or stair lifts, automatic push button doors
  • Throughout the house: well-lit and wider hallways and doorways, first-level master suite, elevators or chair lifts, “smart” window shades/thermostats/lighting, simpler windows

How much do home modifications cost?

Obviously, the costs of aging in place can range greatly, depending on the types of modifications you need to make: as little as $20 for a motion-sensor light, as much as $20,000 to raise a kitchen counter. While Fixr cites an average range of $3,000 to $15,000, you can end up spending as much as $50,000, if you want to remodel your entire home or make significant structural changes to it.

Here are some costs for several of the most common types of aging in place modifications, according to Fixr:

  • Grab bars: $90 to $300
  • Open shelves: $400 to $600
  • Wider doors: $300 to $800
  • Wider hallways: $800 to $1,400
  • Ramps: $1,400 to $3,000
  • Curbless shower: $2,500
  • Walk-in tub: $4,000
  • Stairlift: $1,800 to $2,000

What home modifications can cost: throughout the house $300 to $8,000 stairs $800 to $45,000 bathroom $20 to $25,000 exterior $300 to $5,000 bedroom $80 to $12,000 kitchen $8,000 to $50,000

Source: Fixr.com

Are home modifications tax deductible?

Some home modifications may qualify as medical expenses, and so be eligible for an itemized deduction on your income tax return. A home modification may be tax-deductible as a medical expense if it is made to accommodate the disabilities (preferably documented by a physician or other health care provider) of someone who lives in the home, according to the IRS.

What counts as a home modification for tax purposes? As the IRS outlines, capital expenditures for installing special medical equipment or reasonable home modifications made for medical reasons are sometimes fully tax-deductible, as long as they don’t add to the property value.

How do home modifications affect home value?

Like home improvements, home modifications can increase the functionality of the property and the quality of life for those residing there. Whether they increase its value is another story.

Sometimes a home modification overlaps with a fashionable home renovation: Lots of people are swapping bathtubs for super-sized, walk-in showers, for example, or going in for remote-controlled window shades. But in most cases, they may not add to the property value if the alterations aren’t permanent — or if it means new homeowners will have to make significant changes when they move in.

Permanent home improvements that do increase the value of your property may still be partially deductible as a medical expense — the cost of the improvement minus the increase in the property value is the amount that can be considered.

How to pay for home modifications

There are a number of ways to pay for home modifications. One option is a home improvement loan, either a home equity line of credit (HELOC), home equity loan or personal loan. Other alternatives include a reverse mortgage, or seeking assistance from your state housing agency.

  • Home equity line of credit – If you have considerable home equity, you can borrow against it in a home equity line of credit to finance home modifications. HELOC interest rates tend to be low, since your home is collateral for the loan, and you can draw funds from it as needed.
  • Home equity loan – A home equity loan is a lump sum that can be used to make home modifications. Like HELOCs, home equity loans tend to have a relatively lower interest rate than a personal loan because your home is used to secure it. With both a home equity loan or a HELOC, you can deduct the interest on up to $750,000 of the loan if the funds are used to “substantially improve” your home, according to the IRS.
  • Personal loan – Best for those with good credit, a home improvement personal loan from a bank, credit union or online or peer-to-peer lender generally doesn’t require a lien to be placed on the home.
  • Reverse mortgage – If you’re 62 or older and own your home, you may be eligible for a reverse mortgage, which converts a portion of your equity to cash while allowing you to continue living in the home. One of the most common kinds is a home equity conversion mortgage (HECM).
  • State housing finance agency loans – State agencies often offer financial assistance for seniors, as well as nonprofit organizations such as Rebuilding Together. There are also funds that may be provided by the Older Americans Act, given out by Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). Often, there are income-limit requirements.  Check for an HFA in your area to learn your options.

When should I make home modifications?

Getting older is a process, so it’s likely you’ll need to adapt your home more than once as your needs change. You can add home modifications gradually or all at once, if finances allow. Sometimes it’s cost-effective to add aging-in-place home modifications as part of other planned renovations, such as building an addition or remodeling a kitchen.

Then again, since new assistive technologies hit the market year after year, further home modifications may be necessary. The more you’re able to anticipate your evolving needs, the more you can plan ahead for home modifications that you’re likely to need in the future.

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Written by
Jeanne Lee
Contributing writer
Jeanne Lee writes about mortgages, personal finance and enjoys finding ways for people to hack their finances.
Edited by
Loans Editor