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Stairs can pose a problem as you get older, so take steps now to ease the climb
Some people can climb steps but don't have the stamina to do so often. In those cases, a remote electronic door lock and an intercom could, for instance, permit someone to let in a grocery delivery without extra trips.
Lifts vs. elevators
-- Ease the climb. When steps are insurmountable, stair risers or lifts and elevators become options. Stair lifts are the "quick solution," Butler said. He and others estimated that a straight lift that goes up one flight costs about $3,000. But if a lift needs to make turns or otherwise be customized, the price tag can quickly rise above $10,000.
Many people consider lifts ugly, and they can detract from the value of a house, Butler pointed out. But they can also be the difference between staying in a house and moving to a nursing home, Kohn said.
Elevators are more expensive, but sometimes preferable for aesthetics and convenience. A three-stop elevator (including the basement) costs $20,000 to $25,000 for the mechanical apparatus, Butler estimated. Finding a place to put it adds to the cost. "I usually tell people the cost of the shaft is going to equal that of the elevator," he said.
Some homes are designed with closets stacked atop one another that can convert to an elevator shaft. In other situations, "people sometimes say, 'Well, we'll add an elevator outside,' " Tenenbaum said. But running an elevator up the side of a house may be the most expensive way to improve access, he said -- it's like building an addition, but without the economy of scale.
Many homes also have exterior steps. For some people, even one or two steps up from a garage to the house can be too much. "People come out of rehab and just can't get into their homes," said Nicole Bernstein, who runs the Gaithersburg office of Mobility Consulting and Contracting. The short-term answer may be a modular aluminum ramp, she said. Wooden or concrete ramps provide a more permanent solution. If the problem is just one or two steps, say from a kitchen to a family room, a slanted threshold is possible.
-- Provide for one-story living, even in a two-story home. Stephen Hage, owner of Strategies for Independent Living, a Takoma Park remodeler specializing in accessibility, said people who have the space, money and time may add a first-floor bath so that a home office or other first-floor room can become a bedroom. Or they may build a larger addition. In such a situation, there's an opportunity to make sure that designs include other life-enhancing features such as bathroom grab bars and curbless shower stalls. These are less expensive to add from the start rather than retrofit.
Often, people in their 50s who are renovating make such changes, Tenenbaum said. "They say, 'I'd like to upgrade my house; I'd like a fancy bathroom. . . . Let's make sure we do it right.' "
What about buying a multistory house that has a first-floor master bedroom suite, with additional bedrooms upstairs? From a builder's perspective, such designs aren't the obvious option they may seem. Younger buyers simply don't like them -- they want to sleep on the same floor as their children, said Doug Van Lerberghe, an architect in the residential firm of Kephart Community Planning and Architecture in Denver.
"Most empty-nesters would prefer a ranch," he said. But two-story homes are cheaper per square foot, and they require less land. "Really it comes down to cost factors of a main-floor master versus two-story versus ranch," he said.
-- Planning makes a difference. People who look to the long term can weigh alternatives and decide what will work for them, Hage said. "Planning ahead gives you time to stock money ahead and be prepared."
But in the real world, it often doesn't work that way. People wait until their health has deteriorated or a crisis occurs, he said. Sometimes, people don't consider access until a relative is in rehab after an injury. "You need to decide in a quick time frame the things you can do. It sort of implies that money is not saved up," Hage said. Budget and time concerns can outweigh other factors.
"You have a short-term problem: 'What's going to get me back into the house safely?' Then, maybe, we can stage in longer-term planning," he said.