Letter to the Author: House Hunting for the Handicapped

Memo to: Dylan Chalk House Talk

From a reader, Chuck Ramey, who loves The Confident House Hunter and wishes to add information for handicapped and wheelchair dependent buyers:

I am a big fan of your new book which provides much-needed information about houses for prospective home-buyers. As a professional in the building trades, with a long career as an executive at Weyerhaeuser, I do understand houses. I have also bought and sold numerous houses over the years, and your book provides a new level of understanding about how a house works, as well as things to look for in the home you own. I especially like the way you break a house down to three understandable pieces: Core Systems, Entrenched Systems and Disposable Systems. Such a clean simple way to view the complexity of a house!

I write because I think there is a very important point of view missing, while it impacts a small percentage of home buyers, it is of great importance to them. I hope these ideas will facilitate a fuller discussion about handicapped access for disabled people.

ACCESS: The key ingredient for a handicapped person. I don’t mean access for vehicles, but for people.

As a handicapped person who has lived with significant disabilities for 20 years and lived in 6 houses during that time, I hope my experience will be helpful.

Relatively few houses are designed with our needs in mind. So the house hunter is challenged to find an existing property which can be modified to fulfill handicapped needs at reasonable cost. For our disabled and elderly populace much of the focus of “access” consideration lies with home interiors and transfer mobility from outside to indoors in their constrained living context. The convenience of the neighborhood is also important. How close is the property to major shopping areas, freeway entrance, hospital and airport?

Look carefully at the house you are proposing to purchase. Begin with the basics:

Exterior considerations:

Is the structure positioned on its land to facilitate safe access / egress for vehicles and pedestrians; wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, etc.? Are there any obvious problems or risks? To what extent might the natural terrain impede safe access?

  • Is the entryway level and wide enough for convenient use of a wheelchair?
  • If the main entry is not suitable, is there an accessible side or rear entrance?
  • Can entry / egress ramps be readily installed (front / rear / garage) for a wheelchair?
  • Are there hard, smooth sidewalks from the base of each ramp to a paved driveway?
  • Availability of safety lighting for walkways?
  • How might landscaping be used to shield visibility of access ramp?

Interior structural needs;

  • Low threshold plates on all doors both hinged and sliding
  • Ensure minimum door widths (34 inches) for all wheelchairs
  • At least one bedroom with large bath on main floor for wheelchair operability
    • If this becomes (is) necessary the bath should be able to accommodate a glass / roll-in shower, and a lower vanity / sink for wheelchair accessibility
  • Floors ideally should be hard and smooth with no raised or recessed rooms or areas

Some basic design concepts to ease handicapped safety and livability:

  • Stairs: ideally low rise with deep treads and double handrails
  • Elevators where feasible – review structural architecture to evaluate possibilities
  • Stairchair alternative if stairway will accommodate one

If the house meets basic structural needs, I urge development of a total budget for necessary access /egress improvements. In many states, and also if purchaser is a veteran, he/she may be able to wrap the costs of “access improvements” into the mortgage package. It is important that all improvements be well-designed and the use of quality materials will enhance the appearance – and the re-sale value – of this work. Engineering safe and convenient use of bathroom facilities by a wheelchair-bound person, or enabling the person to be effective and self-supporting in a kitchen, are critical needs for the handicapped person and for his / her care-giver.

Basic needs:

  • Extensive mounting of safety grab bars for all closets, bathroom areas and kitchen
  • Design-in wheelchair height workspace with sink, cutting board surface in kitchen
  • Closets need shelves for ease of access to folded items and hanging bars at a convenient height for wheelchair access

Home improvements focused on access are likely to benefit from America’s changing demographics. More seniors, living longer, yet incurring the infirmities of age, seem likely to stimulate demand for homes well-suited for them to live safely and independently. Many veterans and their families have similar needs. Ensuring access to and within these contexts is an ongoing challenge in creating value in housing investments. The access-oriented house, well-planned, should be a sound investment for the buyer.

Best wishes,


Dylan Chalk

Author: Dylan Chalk

Dylan Chalk is the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press www.dylanchalk.com. In June of 2017, Dylan's book The Confident House Hunter won the Silver Award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors. He is also the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions - www.getscribeware.com and he is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC. In early 2017 Dylan became the Vice-President of Western Washington chapter of (ASHI) American Society of Home Inspectors. www.orcainspect.com.