Dorothea Pesanelli's real estate clients often are confined to wheelchairs, partially paralyzed or otherwise physically disabled, but she views them as she would any potential home buyer:
A handicapped customer is "a person who needs a place to live and has a couple of special requirements," says Pesanelii, an agent with the Snider Brothers realty office in Wheaton. "That's no different than if you come to me and say, 'I want a house with a huge rec room, with a raise-hearth fireplace and built-in cabinets for my stereo.' It's your specific requirement."
Over the past year and a half Pesanelli has become a specialist in helping the disabled and their families find apartments or houses. She says that 60 to 70 percent of her clients are handicapped -- suffering from a spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, back problems or other illnesses -- and that a couple of dozen have bought or sold homes through her.
Her success results partly from her 10 years in nursing, she said, because it is easy for her to assess a client's need, such as extra space to maneuver a wheelchair, wide doorways or single-level living.
Pesanelli is one of several realty agents in the Washington area who specialize in working with the disabled. Among others are Jim Collins of Long & Foster's Alexandria-Mount Vernon office, Nelle Gobielle of Flaherty Inc. in Kensington, Wayne Shenk of Kay and Son Inc. in Bethesda, Marilyn Harrell of Archway Realty Inc. in Oxon Hill and Dorothy Scales of Long & Foster in College Park.
Dot Pesanelli began serving the handicapped when a man in a wheelchair came to her looking for an apartment. Then working for another firm, she checked with the company's rental property office but was told nothing was available for the disabled. "I said to myself, 'Well, that's ridiculous.' " she recalled. She knew his needs weren't hard to meet.
"All he needed was for somebody to go out and check a couple of apartments to see if he could possibly live in them. So I called him and told him, 'Well, I don't usually do it, but let me see what I can find.' And in two hours I found him a perfectly adequate apartment, which was exactly one-half of a block away from where he was working," she said.
That incident sparked her first awareness that the problem disabled face in finding housing is talking to real estate agents. Many agents are unaware of the disabled's needs and feel unable to help or uncomfortable with them, while the handicapped think they don't have access to homes on the market, Pesanelli said.
She recalled a woman whose bad back made it difficult for her to climb steps. The first agent she went to didn't understand her problem and showed her houses with basements and with steps leading to the front door. "She was uncomfortable even seeing the homes," Pesanelli said.
When the woman finally sought Pesanelli's help, "she said she didn't even need one step, and I knew exactly the community that might interest her. And she was very happy. I think I, showed her two houses, and that was more of a matter of do you want to live in this one or this one."
When Pesanelli looks at homes in Maryland and the District, where she is licensed, she keeps in mind the handicapped's special requirements. "You check doorways, you check the hallway, you check the turning space , you check the bathrooms," she said. "Can they have the counter lowered, can they have the mirror lowered, can they open cabinets, can they transfer into the tub, can grab bars be put in."
Often her housing search is for an apartment or rental home -- a task most real estate agents refuse to handle for anyone. Pesanelli's service is free because she said she knows her payoff will come when the customers later buy a house through her or refer friends to her. "I sold a man a house a year after I met him and had put him into an accessible apartment," she noted.
Pesanelli hasn't always remembered the disabled's problems. Before becoming a realty agent 2 1/2 years ago, she and her family bought a two-story house without thinking that her disabled brother wouldn't be able to get to the second floor's bedrooms or bathroom, she said. "I was up in the clouds and didn't think any more clearly than anybody else, even with a nursing background," she said.