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Accessible Homes: Not Just a Niche Anymore

Alex Eylar renders Wait Until Dark’s harrowing chase scene in LEGO form.

In the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman unwittingly caught up in an international drug smuggling plot and forced to fight off Alan Arkin, who plays a deadly intruder in her apartment. In a situation that may seem hopeless, Hepburn’s character levels the playing field by breaking (almost) every light bulb in the flat, plunging Arkin’s character into the same darkness she lives with every day.

So maybe it’s just a scary movie, but for some reason I often think about it when reflecting upon accessible housing. Maybe it’s because today we can all be glad that people don’t have to go to such lengths to create spaces that can be used with equal ease, regardless of ability. In fact, an accessible home can mean a better life for all occupants.

One of the best new guides I have run across to achieve this goal is The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities, by Deborah Pierce. The structure of this handbook is smart. Pierce leads off with the necessary definitions and then introduces readers to the accessible home from one activity to the next (living and dining, dressing and sleeping, etc.). She then leads readers on tours of 25 real accessible homes, dealing firsthand with the practical solutions needed by very different individuals and families.

To some real estate professionals, accessible housing remains a niche. But for the forward-thinking pros in the know, this is the future of housing. As Pierce notes, healthy active adults have a one-in-four chance of becoming disabled for at least three months at some point in their lives. And while aging in place is becoming a priority for older home buyers, younger home owners still want to accommodate family and friends visiting their homes, regardless of mobility issues.

Being able to point out features that make these desires possible is part of your job as a real estate professional in today’s market. And in contrast to the home with the clunky lift tacked on to the front steps as an afterthought, a truly accessible home sees measurable increases in property value and attracts a larger pool of interested buyers. Being sensitive to accessibility can also help you steer sellers looking into pre-sale or staging modifications away from changes that will unnecessarily narrow the market or make the home more difficult to navigate.

Something that surprised me again and again as I read this book was the long list of accessible design features that I didn’t automatically lump into the accessibility category. These are common in old homes and new homes, and you should be ready to point them out in your listings as a marker of a home that welcomes all, regardless of ability.

  • Sidelights running the length of a door may let the sunshine in, but they also allow a wheelchair-bound person to see who’s at the door before they open it.
  • High-contrast walkways are visually striking, but they also make it easier for sight-impaired people to navigate.
  • Windchimes offer those with low visibility a cue that they have arrived at an entrance to the home.
  • A bench outside the main entrance can provide a seat upon which mobility-challenged visitors can rest and wait for homeowners to open the door.
  • Covered landings and porches are homey, but also allow for more comfortable assisted entrances and exits during inclement weather.
  • Getting rid of decorative room dividers not only makes it easier for people with limited mobility to get around, it also makes the home easier to keep clean.
  • An open floor plan makes for better ventilation, improves sight lines, and makes it easier to hear what’s going on.

Meg White

Meg White is the multimedia web producer for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]realtors.org.

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Comments
  1. Meg,

    Thank you for posting about accessible homes.
    It remains a considerable challenge to find homes that provide these features.

    In addition to including these features on new homes and remodels, the industry could
    go a long way in helping people identity the homes that are available through improved marketing and MLS tags.

    Randy Chavers

  2. Hey, Randy: Great point! Just because it’s accessible in real life, doesn’t mean it’s findable online or in the MLS.

  3. I would like some good points for listing more homes

    Thanks

    David

  4. Thanks to Meg White for putting to rest the issue of whether accessibility improvements add or detract from house values. Well-designed improvements, well-built, increase property appeal, and are an asset to the neighborhood!

  5. It’s difficult to find anything in the traditional sites. I looked for months for a condo without success.

    That’s why I started http://www.accessibleproperties.net in May 2007.

    There are over 2 dozen access feature options so people can see what the access level actually is.

    I’m so glad to see this covered and especially the book by Deborah Pierce, as it shows how nice they really do look and may help with the msconception that having a home with access modifications makes it less desireable.

  6. Peter Mahoney

    Thank you for bringing up this important topic! Our home was featured in Deborah’s book, so we have some experience here. We need to think about universal design instead of accessibility — we found that by developing a truly accessible home, we have improved the lives of all of the residents. Open floor plans and zero steps make the physical space flow more elegantly and we all are connected with our outdoor space because it flows so seamlessly from the indoor space.

    Owning an accessible home has amazing benefits – it becomes the centerpiece for family visits because it is accessible to those with physical disabilities along with those who are a bit older and find the design more compatible with their current capabilities.

  7. There’s definately a great deal to learn about this topic. I like all of the points you’ve made.

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