An ADA-compliant home doesn't always require moving. It's worthwhile to price out the cost of an accessibility rehab right where you are.

By Nafeesah Allen
June 15, 2021
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Sure, vintage farmhouses and historical brownstones have their charm. But can they work for people with a new or degenerative disability, including folks who have experienced accident or disease, or simply those whose abilities have changed as they've aged?

Some people think an accessible home means making a move rather than retrofitting. But it's worthwhile to price out the cost of an accessibility rehab before assuming that, say, your aging parents need to leave a beloved home.

In fact, there are skilled home builders whose specialty is looking at a house and considering the cost-benefit of adding ramps, widening door frames, adding shower bars, and more. There are even Certified Aging-In-Place Specialists who cater entirely to changing ability levels as we age. Here's a brief roadmap of what to consider, how much to budget for common repairs, and how best to decide if an accessibility upgrade is worthwhile for your home.

man in wheelchair laughing with family outside home
Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Start by Researching Options

The U.S. Access Board is an independent agency that promotes equality across abilities by implementing accessible design and developing the guidelines and standards behind the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation applies to public, commercial, and government spaces, but the Board's website is a free resource that helps the public think broadly about how building standards can promote inclusion. Homeowners considering an accessibility rehab should do their homework here first; the site includes an explanation of ADA and a 10-chapter guide that explains the features and elements that uphold it.

Covering plumbing fixtures, boating facilities, and beyond, this guide helps you think through the type of home you have and what kinds of upgrades are possible. The residential dwelling unit guidance applies to new construction and can serve as a baseline of comparison when deciding between the cost of an assisted living facility and the cost of a remodel. The Department of Housing and Urban Development even has a design manual to make compliance with the Fair Housing Act foolproof. Before calling a contractor, review these free online resources to better understand your options and preferences.  

Grab Bars and Handrails Are Cheap and Easy

According to Alan Archuleta, CEO and president of Archuleta Builders of Morristown, New Jersey, "prices are really dependent on the location of customer, finishes, and materials selected, age of house, and the type of house (ranch vs. split-level vs. multi-level, etc.)."

Yet, based on conservative price ranges for an aging-in-place remodel, grab bars and handrails typically run about $250 to $500. The price varies based on whether you pick up the stock standard variety in a big-box store or if you want custom-made or highly decorative features. Of course, how many you need can also impact the price, as well as installation and labor. Archuleta reminds homeowners that "a professional remodeler likely would not take a project just to install one hand-rail or grab bar." Instead, you can DIY or call a handyperson to keep costs low. 

Update the Exterior

If you check the National Association of Home Builders' "Aging in Place Remodeling Checklist," one of the first recommendations is to keep the exterior of your house low-maintenance. This means greenery and facades shouldn't require much stress or strain to access or sustain.

One major external upgrade is a ramp system that can accommodate wheelchairs from the curb to the garage to the front door. Archuleta says that costs are very dependent on the type of ramp and material used, but a very basic metal ramp typically costs $2,000 to $5,000 just to purchase; a deck-type ramp usually goes for $5,000 to $10,000; and a poured concrete, hard-scaped, or decorative one can cost as much as $30,000. No matter which one you choose, the installation will require a trained professional-and those labor costs can be greater than the cost of the ramp itself.  

Size Up the Bathroom

Archuleta notes that a typical ADA-compliant bathroom "will likely be $25,000 to $50,000 because it will need the remodeled space to account for a wheelchair, using materials to improve mobility, increase function and safety, low-threshold bath, etc.," says Archuleta. This investment can be invaluable. Turning spaces, walk-in bathtubs, lowered sinks, and widened doorways are just a few of the visible changes an accessible bathroom will provide, but these upgrades also ensure an enhanced quality of life that secures the dignity of independent living. Changes to these intimate spaces can make a house feel truly livable and well-suited for residents' needs.  

Cost-Benefit Analysis

There are many other custom rehab features that might turn your Cape Cod into a space that can mitigate mobility barriers, but those collective changes can add up. Also, the age and size of existing homes can heavily influence the price of a remodel. Check the IRS tax guide for persons with disabilities to see if there are breaks or credits for the features you seek. Affordable fixes can include improved lighting, changing knobs to levers, adding treads, and removing tripping hazards. The minimal time and cost involved in these repairs can yield outsized benefits.

The best way to determine if large-scale changes-such as lowering cabinets or installing motorized lifts-are worthwhile is to compare estimates from local contractors to the asking price of new homes that already have these features (or, in the case of aging folks, the cost of assisted-living facilities that are already equipped with all the necessary bells and whistles). A side-by-side price comparison is particularly useful to help families make the emotionally charged decision to stay or to go. 

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