By Erica Christoffer, Contributing Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
Home modifications are an important step in getting buyers with disabilities into a new home. That’s why it’s important for real estate practitioners to be educated on the needs of their clients, where they can find specialized contractors, and the availability of financing programs.
According to the U.S. Census, 51.2 million people have some level of disability, which accounts for 18 percent of the population. Of those, an estimated 1.6 million Americans residing outside of institutions are wheelchair users.
Stephen Beard is a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty in Oakland/Piedmont, Calif. who specializes in accessible housing for people with disabilities. He has developed relationships with contractors who specialize in building wheelchair ramps and other types of home modifications and accessibility architecture. This is especially important in more established markets with older homes that typically do not easily lend themselves to modifications.
Beard understands the issues around mobility challenges as someone living with Cerebral Palsy who uses a cane.
“I saw an opportunity to specialize in real estate in a way that would allow me to serve this community that has not had many advocates in the real estate community in the past,” Beard says. “I am always thinking, ‘Are we going to be able to build a ramp here? Or is the bathroom big enough to do a 360-degree turn around in a wheelchair?’ because there are so few properties that are accessible to begin with here [in the Bay area].”
According to Access Living, a Chicago-based non-profit advocacy group for people with disabilities, approximately 95 percent of new single-family homes and townhouses built with federal assistance fail to incorporate accessibility features.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the Inclusive Home Design Act, H.R.1408, which would require that at least one entrance of a new home be built without stairs, all doorways in the home be at least 32 inches wide, light switches and climate controls be placed at a wheelchair-accessible level, and at least one bathroom on the main floor of the home be wheelchair accessible. However, the measure has not moved out of the Financial Services Committee since it was introduced in March 2009.
In addition to the universal design elements that are being encouraged in new homes, there are various custom modifications and adaptations that can meet the needs of buyers, such as adding grab-bars, installing wheel-in showers, and adding accessible counters and sinks.
“We have to find a home that is close enough so that we can modify it to meet each individual’s needs,” says Beard.
It is also particularly important to know if the home is going to be accessible enough to view before your client arrives. “I lose a lot of credibility if I take a client in a wheelchair to a home they can’t get into,” says Beard.
There are several Web sites that serve as educational resources or information clearinghouses for housing modifications and financing.
- Homeaccessprogram.org: Recommended by Beard, this site was created by Handi-Ramp, a manufacturer and distributor of handicap accessible ramps. It lists real estate practitioners who specialize in accessible homes, and directs users to resources, such as the Home Access Program’s mortgage partnership and Homes 4 Angels.
- Homemods.org: created by the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification and run through the University of Southern California Andrus Gerontology Center, offers the Executive Certificate in Home Modification. Encouraged for anyone working with the supportive and/or adapted housing community, the program consists of five online courses that cover the ins and outs of home modifications, ethical issues, and community resources.
- Centers for independent living: These local, community-based non-profits are great places to find independent living resources for people with disabilities. The ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization) has a directory of centers for independent living throughout the country.
- State and local programs: Many states, counties, and local non-profits have incentive programs encouraging home ownership for people with disabilities. Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development is one example, along with Wisconsin-based Movin’ Out, Inc.
Beard, who has worked in real estate since 2004, does not approach his job as a sales person, but rather as a consultant or a service provider. He learned as much as he could about the various subsections of the disabilities community during his first years on the job through networking and meeting with leaders of various advocacy groups. He also became more involved, joining the board of directors for the World Institute on Disability, a nonprofit promoting independence, as well as serving on the Alameda County Board of Developmental Disabilities Planning and Advisory Council.
Because Beard took the time to educate himself on the needs of the community he sought to serve, now 70-80 percent of Beard’s clients are people who have physical handicaps, cognitive challenges, and learning disabilities. He has become a go-to real estate pro in his niche.
“One of my passions around this community is to broaden awareness. I want more REALTORS® to be aware of how to serve this community; I think it’s so important,” says Beard, who welcomes phone calls and inquires on his Web site.