Handicap-accessible housing market is still a work in progress


A ramp for easier mobility on Holly Smith's late father's home in Gainesville. (amanda scott)
September 2, 2011

When their father died in May, Holly Smith and her two sisters thought his home in the Heritage Hunt active-adult community in Gainesville would sell quickly to someone looking for a wheelchair-accessible property.

George F. Smith Jr., a career Army officer, and his wife had bought the spacious new home — with its wide hallways and doorways and its one-level living — in 2005 because it backed onto a golf course and they both loved to play golf.

But after he received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2009, the house was adapted for wheelchair use. The Department of Veterans Affairs paid for about $40,000 in changes, including a front ramp, alterations to the master bath and a lift on the rear deck, Holly Smith says. “The adaptations . . . made all the difference to his comfort. He might have had to go into a hospital or nursing home if the modifications had not been made.”

The house was listed at $589,000 this summer. But the family hasn’t had a single offer. They’ve struggled to connect with buyers who need the special features or who value them for possible future use.

The ideal buyer, Holly Smith says, would need “a home with features like these, to save the expense and the waste of having these features removed if the new owners aren’t handicapped.”

Smith and her Long & Foster agent, Amanda Scott, have concentrated on finding ways to connect with such buyers. The experience has led Smith to wonder about the market for such homes: how others have sold and how people with disabilities find the right home. Smith, a London magazine editor, said she found just one Web site dedicated to the topic: www.barrierfreehome.com, run by a paralyzed veteran in Dallas.

It appears to be the only site devoted to selling adapted houses nationally, according to real estate associations, accessible housing specialists and organizations for the disabled.

Jackie Simon, a Gaithersburg real estate agent who has built a reputation for linking interested buyers with accessible housing, finds houses and clients mostly through direct-mail advertising aimed at those in the accessible-housing field; local chapters of associations of disabled people, such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; and other interested groups, such as special-needs lawyers and occupational therapists.

“Many times when I have the listing, I don’t have the client,” she says. “And when I have the client, I don’t have the listing.”

The Washington area multiple-listing service — the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems — gives agents a “tick box” to indicate whether a property has “handicap-accessible features.” In five years, houses with such features have sold in the region at an average rate of about 23,000 a year. Of 50,000 active listings in early August, about 13,000 were designated in this way.

But the definition of “accessible” in listings is typically broad, and the details are sparse. Those searching for specifics still have to make many calls or visits, Simon and other agents say.

J.P. Montalvan, an agent with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in Chevy Chase, said information about accessibility is not usually provided by agents, and when it is, the meaning varies widely. “Accessibility can mean different things to different people,” he said.

Montalvan recently winnowed many listings for a client expecting to begin using a wheelchair soon. He eventually found a condominium unit in the Kentlands development in Gaithersburg that had an open floor plan and wide doorways that could be further adapted.

In a recent search for a property to convert into a group home for the disabled, Simon looked for any house that could be made “visitable,” meaning that a person with impaired mobility could visit or live in the home, at least temporarily.

“I screened 800 houses on the computer and visited more than 100 and finally found two where it was economically feasible and reasonable to make it work,” she says.

To qualify as visitable, a house must have a no-step entry at the front, back or side, doorways with 32 inches of clearance and at least a half-bath on the main floor with enough room for a wheelchair.

For a person with disabilities to live comfortably in a home, it is generally necessary to go beyond visitability standards. To satisfy “universal design” standards — intended to provide everyone, regardless of age or ability, with maximum access and use — a house would also have bathroom features such as grab bars, a roll-in shower and enough floor space to turn a wheelchair around. There would be a main-level bedroom and a kitchen with easy-reach appliances and fixtures.

It is a huge challenge to find adapted houses, say people who advocate government visitability standards at least for new construction. A recent report published by the AARP Public Policy Institute says most existing single-family housing and the great majority of new houses have steps at all entrances and narrow interior doors, particularly bathroom doors.

Federal law “requires access for people with mobility impairments only to all new multifamily residences and to a small percentage (5 percent) of single-family units constructed with public funds,” the report says. The Americans with Disabilities Act generally does not apply to private housing.

The document shows a substantial and growing need. According to the latest census data, about 20 percent of Americans have a disability. By 2030, there will be more than 70 million seniors, “many of whom will have mobility issues,” the report says.

Simon, who is working with the Montgomery County Commission on People With Disabilities on legislation to require visitability in new housing, says people with disabilities “are forced into premature institutionalization or forced to modify their homes at great expense” because so few properties are available.

Marty Davis, 54, started Barrier Free Home three years ago because of long experience with the difficulty of finding accessible housing. While in the Navy in 1980, he was paralyzed in an accident. Afterward, he says, “trying to find an apartment or a house for a wheelchair [in Memphis] was terrible. There was zero” available and no information in the listings, he says.

When he moved to Florida in 1985, he could not find an accessible house, so he had one built. He later sold the house and traveled the country with his wife in an accessorized RV. In the early 1990s, they landed in Dallas, where he again ran into problems house-hunting. He had another home built.

That’s when Davis decided to set up his own listings Web site. “I saw a vacuum there and decided to try to fill it,” Davis says. He had taken classes to become a software and Web site designer, so he wrote his own program code.

“My experience has been that there is almost like a secret underground society when it comes to” finding and selling such houses, Davis says.

Sometimes the prices put such homes out of reach. Or, he says, “when people find something they tend to stay there, in their little nest.”

Barrierfreehome.com has listed 60 homes in the past two years, and about half of them have sold, Davis says. A three-month listing costs $40.25; to list a house until its sells, with 20 photos, is $58.75. Four houses in Virginia and two in Maryland are on the site.

Louis Tenenbaum, a Montgomery County consultant on accessible housing and universal design, suggests that sellers of accessible houses contact “affinity groups,” such as the local chapters of the MS Society, United Cerebral Palsy and the National Parkinson Foundation. “They might help put the word out.”

Former clients of Tenenbaum’s, Susan Catlette and her husband, bought a Chevy Chase rambler in 1998 because he had Huntington’s disease and anticipated having to use a wheelchair. Tenenbaum’s renovation was meant to allow them to age in place without the home looking institutional, Catlette says.

After her husband died, Catlette decided to sell the house, which she was able to do almost immediately in 2009. But it was “serendipity,” she says.

She sold to a family that was in the market for such a house. The family wanted the house “because of the features . . . but not because they would be needed immediately,” she says. The family had a special-needs son, and the mother, a lawyer who practices disability rights law, “was interested in the features,” Catlette says.

“I think it’s great that someone is listing these kinds of properties now,” says Catlette, 60, who has remarried. “I just moved for the second time, and I specifically bought this property because it has a step-free entrance. I’m getting older, and I want to be able to stay in my house as I age.”

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