Building Our Dream Home

James and Laura Leitsch's single-story dream house in Lexington, Ky., includes an accessible entrance and a tall garage to accommodate an adapted van. Photos by Jeff Rogers
by James Leitsch on December 1, 2002 - 5:52am

When I was a single guy I lived kind of haphazardly. Often some friends would live together and share the rent. While I was working for the city of Lexington, Ky., writing grants, I'd buy a house and rent it to the guys.

Usually, one of them would live for free and take care of me because I have spinal muscular atrophy type 2 and use a wheelchair.

Then I got married.

Laura and I have been married seven years; we've known each other for almost 20. We might even have kids one day so we wanted an adapted house that would serve us well through several phases of our life — a house adapted to us instead of our having to do the adapting.

What kind of house did we want?

We decided on a ranch house because a typical two-story house is not only more expensive than a one-story house, but it's also less practical. Half the home would be inaccessible without including a stairlift or elevator.

I received my diagnosis soon after birth, and at age 40 I've been using a wheelchair for a long time (I've had a power wheelchair since college). I also have a limited reach and I don't have much grip strength. Laura works outside the house, and I do occasional work at home so we had to have a house that met my needs.

At the same time we wanted a house that afforded ordinary things — for example, privacy, which wasn't a part of my bachelor life. Some adaptations don't have anything to do with disabilities!

Preliminary decisions

Did we want to build a house or adapt one? The decision is a big one.

James Leitsch
A drawer in James Leitsch's kitchen
James Leitsch demonstrates the advantages of a ready water supply, a convenient table height and well-designed kitchen hardware.

We would've bought or adapted a home rather than building one if at all possible. But not many houses with an attached, raised-roof garage, two kitchens and two separate entrances come on the market. This is why we decided to build.

The building process turned out to take practically as much energy as a full-time job. Delays and unforeseen surprises lengthened the path to our dream house, and afterward we realized we didn't have the perfect house. The perfect house just doesn't exist, not in this life. We did, however, get closer to it by building.

All it takes to build is common sense, lots of hard work and research, and perhaps a big loan from the bank. Put these together and you can create a daily home life with a minimum of challenges.

I'm sharing my home-building experiences, both good and bad, with Quest readers to help take some of the mystery out of the process. Of course, everything didn't turn out the way we'd hoped, and there were many things we overlooked. Yet I learned much and am grateful for the experience.

Finding a floor plan

Once we decided to build we immediately had to think about two major concerns, a floor plan and a lot. The two influence each other significantly, as we discovered.

We started with a floor plan. For many the real joy of building a house is in the time spent developing a floor plan. The public library is an easy place to begin gathering samples, but many agencies and businesses also offer plans.

Extra money spent for an architect wouldn't be wasted. It's an experienced architect's important work that will dictate the permanent structures of the home, such as walls, closets and bathroom fixtures. We had a consulting architect but she hadn't produced the plans so she wasn't always able to help us by generating immediate changes.

We designed our home with the worst-case scenario of my future physical limitations in mind. We didn't want to rebuild a residence every five years because my condition had changed and the home was no longer suited to it.

We tried to plan ahead for changes like limited reach, the addition of a new wheelchair and bathing needs. We requested wider hallways, bigger doors, gradual turns and so on. That's the advantage of building — you can do it right the first time.

Finding a lot

For us, finding a lot for our home was the hard part. You can't be close to everything, and prices can be high.

We found that the floor plan we selected wouldn't fit our lot. So we changed the floor plan, taking a foot out in a couple of places like the perimeter of the house. More architectural assistance would've been helpful.

At the same time the lot provided a bonus. It contained quite a slope, allowing us to construct a walk-out basement.

Attendant care

This setup allowed us to resolve another problem: attendant care. In good weather, I can ride down the sidewalk right into the downstairs area that serves as a separate apartment for a personal attendant. We included an inside staircase that leads directly from the apartment to our living quarters.

I learned it's much better to offer free, separate but attached living quarters to a friend in exchange for regular help getting in and out of bed than to rely on someone who comes in from elsewhere. This arrangement takes care of many no-show and turnover problems. When someone lives downstairs or next door there's much more reliability.

Putting in a kitchen for that apartment was one of our biggest expenses. After all, it was a duplication of the most expensive services in the house.

Many residential areas are zoned to prevent two kitchens in a single dwelling. Some people don't bother with these technicalities and build the second kitchen, hoping not to get caught. But they risk being required to remove the second apartment if neighbors complain.

With our zoning restrictions, we had to apply for a "conditional use" permit, which allows us two kitchens for as long as we live in the home.

Permits

To get a permit, however, we had to endure a three-month process in appeals to the Board of Adjustment. First we needed written refusal from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Division of Building Inspections so that we had a specific technical basis for our appeal. We had to send a letter outlining the proposed exception to all homeowners within a 400-foot radius.

Then a hearing was scheduled to permit these homeowners to express either support or opposition to the request. The Board of Adjustment weighs any comments and makes a binding decision. In our case the zoning request was approved without a hitch.

With the permits issued, we were finally ready for construction to proceed. It was October 1996, and we were assured the house would be done by July. We were excited to see the hole for the foundation appear! But that hole yawned at us until March, when construction finally began.

Buildings...

We had no trouble finding a trustworthy contractor; we chose a member of a sister church to our church who's been in business along time.

Because our contractor ran a small operation, though, construction took longer than we thought it would. Instead of a lot of people working on a project, his crews were often comprised of one person — one mason for the foundation and the basement, one roofer and so on.

A big challenge was getting the work done the way we wanted it done. The responsibility was on me to say, "OK, do it like this."

The builder poured the foundation, did the masonry work and began the wood framing. When these procedures were finished we were able to enter our new, unroofed house for the first time.

James Leitsch bathroom
Letisch's shower
Letisch's sunken tub
The changing table (left, in the top picture), sunken shower and raised tub make daily routines safer and more comfortable.

Planning pays off

Then the electrician came in for a walk-through with us. This was a critical point for ensuring that our house met our specific needs.

For example, we requested an electric outlet right above the front door in the ceiling to power an electric door opener. Also, we asked that the outlet for the battery charger in the bathroom be on its own circuit, just in case it pulls too many amps.

This was also our opportunity to plan for several "two-way switches" so I can turn on appliances with wall switches. The light switches are placed low on the wall, as is the thermostat. We have since put in a programmable thermostat, which helps minimize the fuss involved with it quite a bit.

Challenges big and little often cropped up in unanticipated places and required imaginative solutions. The sliding door that opens onto the deck, for example, slides on a rail that was too high for a wheelchair to go over easily. The builder put in 3-inch-wide wooden wedges on either side of the rail to permit easy passage.

We wanted several innovations in the bathroom, too. We purchased an extra-large shower stall, and lowered the floor under it. This sunken shower prevents the step up and immediate step down into the typical shower. We have only a step down to keep the water in, and it's much easier to roll a shower chair into it.

The bathtub, in contrast, was placed higher than is customary, on a wooden platform hidden by cultured marble. This arrangement makes for a much easier lift coming in and out of a bath.

I didn't want to be carried a long way to the bedroom after bathing so we also built a "changing table" where I can dress and undress in the corner of the bathroom where my chair charges. Its countertop is padded with medium-quality foam and covered with leatherlike commercial upholstery. We built cabinets under it to shelve clothes and added a dirty-clothes hamper.

An important issue often overlooked with flooring is the extra wear caused by a wheelchair. Where we used carpeting we installed commercial-grade carpet with a heavy pad underneath. Elsewhere, we used "inlaid" vinyl flooring, which means it has the color pattern all the way through to the backing so that wear doesn't show in heavy traffic spots. We're happy with this flooring but the carpet still tends to show the imprint of the wheelchair.

The garage

In planning our house, we had to take into account building codes that weren't necessarily designed with accessibility in mind. Our garage is a good example. Where we live, the law requires a step up from an attached garage because of possible automotive fluid leakage.

We got around this by building the floor of the garage at a steady slope going up into the house. This meets the requirement while allowing easy entrance.

In fact, the garage was our biggest problem. To accommodate our lift-equipped, raised-roof van, we purchased an oversized garage door. The lift on the side of the van required extra space, and I needed to be able to maneuver around the van. We had to build what amounts to a small extra room in the garage.

Accessibility, cost and aesthetics

Leitsch's doorway wedge
A simple wedge makes the deck handy.

When it came to choosing hardware for the house we sometimes felt as if we had to decide among accessibility and cost and aesthetics.

We couldn't find an accessible sink that didn't stick out like a sore thumb — a big sink with insulation for the pipes and big wing faucets seems to belong in an airport, not a home. All the options here are extremely expensive, too.

One of my goals was to be able to get drinking water independently. In my daily routine, most of my needs are covered. Neighborhood kids come over to make my lunch, help me tidy my office and open mail in Laura's absence. And I use an evaporating hand cleaner.

So we found it much cheaper to buy a refrigerator with an outside water dispenser rather than adapt the sink for my use.

We chose French-style doorknobs throughout the house, which makes it much easier to open doors. The kitchen island and the desks in the study are built to the perfect height for me to function. We even installed handles on the cabinets that worked best for me. Since I don't have much grip strength I needed something I could lock into and pull.

By September 1997, decisions made and executed, problems resolved or overlooked, we finally had our house under roof.

...And loans

Whether building a house or adapting one, the question of cost is like sleeping with an elephant: Every time he moves you know it, and you keep hoping he doesn't roll over. We figured out a few ways to make the elephant sleep more peacefully.

First of all, the special costs of making a home functional are tax-deductible as medical expenses. After medical expenses have equaled 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income, the special costs in excess of that figure, minus any possible increase to the fair market value, may be deducted on Schedule A of Form 1040.

Our builder was most familiar with the extra costs of constructing our accessible home, and his guidance was helpful. Even administrative review fees may be deductible.

To increase our resources, we changed our W-4 rate of withholding because of excessive deductions. This allowed us to keep more of our working dollar as we earned it, rather than having a large refund the next year. Money that we would've paid in taxes instead went toward the cost of the home.

Another income source we discovered was tax-deferred money we had already invested in a 401K, which we were able to draw without penalty to pay for the extra costs above the 7.5 percent threshold. The withdrawal was, however, subject to income taxes. Of course it's imperative to speak with a tax consultant to review specific issues.

A completed accessible home may have been more expensive to build than a comparable inaccessible home. The result of the added expense may have property tax implications. The yearly property tax on our home is around 1 percent of the assessed valuation. We contacted the property assessment office, seeking to reduce our real estate taxes by appealing the assessed value.

The burden of proof was on us to show those expenses that artificially increased the price of the property. We took a half-day to review the comparable cost of homes in our neighborhood on file at the assessor's office, and considered any other factors that would specifically decrease the value of our home. Lowering your property assessment can easily save you a couple of hundred dollars each year.

Owning a home is a financial challenge for anyone. It takes regular income, savings and a good credit history to make the initial leap.

But someone who has earned income and is renting will reap significant tax savings by owning a home. Whether modifying an existing property or building a custom home, you can suddenly deduct mortgage interest, property taxes and accessibility expenses, all while building equity in the home.

Buying a duplex or building an additional kitchen could help you secure more reliable attendant care. Consider what you really need — and will need — and how you can make your home last. Do the research, set a goal and make the sacrifices to move toward it each month.

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