Home Mods: Finding the Perfect, Used Accessible Home

by Bethany Broadwell on September 1, 2008 - 11:50am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 5

When Andy and Becky Donohoe decided to purchase a house after renting for 20 years, they knew they wanted to remain in Berkeley, Calif., because of the many services the community offered for people with disabilities.

Andy, 43, has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD) and Becky, 46, has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). Both use power wheelchairs for mobility. They decided to work with real estate agent Stephen Beard after Becky met him at a seminar. She explained, “We chose him because he is disabled himself, and we felt he could represent us best.”

Specialty realtors understand disability needs

Beard, a real estate agent and accessibility specialist in Oakland, Calif., takes extra care to meet special needs. He’s aware of locally available financing programs for buyers with disabilities and knows how to search the local multiple listing service (MLS) for accessible property. Plus, he has experience communicating with listing agents regarding property access issues.

Not only does Beard preview property for clients with mobility challenges, but he also owns a 5-foot portable ramp to provide client access to places with one or two threshold steps.

Donohoe said she and her husband knew they weren’t likely to find an accessible home, so they decided to shop for a home they could make accessible.

Beard (www.accessiblehomesforyou.com) has a network of people in the community who assist with various aspects of the home purchase and modification, including contractors who build ramps, install roll-in showers and modify rooms to meet special needs, and lawyers who can address legal matters. To find accessibility-knowledgeable realtors and consultants around the country, visit the Home Access Program at www.homeaccessprogram.org.

It’s essential for potential buyers to be educated about the home shopping process, Donohoe advised. “The financial institution may find that you can, on paper, afford a higher amount, but there are hidden costs for the disabled that may not be incorporated into a financial application.”

She suggested giving real estate agents as much information as possible about daily routines, mobility capabilities and out-of-pocket costs for attendant care and medical equipment. It took the Donohoes two years to buy a home. The housing peak was finally declining when they closed their deal in January 2006, and purchased a well-maintained house originally built in 1910. “After renting for most of our lives,” she said, “we are happy to have a home we can call our own.”

Darren Fowler, of Tulare, Calif., also emphasized the importance of working with knowledgeable realtors to successfully purchase a house. Fowler has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease. Depending on his strength, he uses a power wheelchair, a manual wheelchair, a walker or a cane for mobility. His son Matthew, 11, has the same disease. Darren’s wife, Ruth Reneé, was undergoing cancer treatment at the time they were home shopping and needed to be shown pictures and videos of prospective houses.

The Fowler’s lender referred them to their real estate agent, Mary Papazian, broker/owner of Papazian Real Estate in Visalia, Calif. Papazian helped them buy a home she described as “spotless,” with an open floor plan, in the school district they wanted, at a price lower than they expected to pay. The home even had lowered cabinets and light switches.

It required a lot of patience to find these helpful features. “It takes as long as it takes,” Papazian concluded. Although she doesn’t specialize in serving any specific client base, one of her main clients is an attorney who had polio. Working with him has helped her understand some of the needs of people who use wheelchairs.

Papazian worked with the Fowlers for approximately a year to locate the “just right” home and for them to meet their loan specifications and says she cried at the family’s closing. “I was so happy to see them happy and they were so grateful, it just filled my heart.”

Professional advice a plus

A few years ago, Karla Kebede, of Harrisburg, Pa., moved from her split-level home to a nearby ranch-style house due to the progression of her myasthenia gravis. She uses a walker or a cane and, at times, a power wheelchair for long distances.

Kebede emphasized the value of working with a caseworker or therapist to check into modifications that could become necessary. “If you need modifications done,” she advised, “check with the township first because they may not approve.”

The home she purchased in 2004 had already been renovated, so the township was open about approving further modifications. However, Kebede was limited in the work she could do to her previous house because of the location and size of the property.

Michael Carter, an occupational therapist and residential accessibility consultant in North Carolina, said it’s fundamental for those with neuromuscular disease to understand their current and future physical needs and to plan accordingly.

Carter makes assessments by visiting clients in the home setting, with anyone present who might be assisting them. He asks for details of their condition and observes their movements. Then he tours the site, noting the type of construction, roof lines, load-bearing walls and potential expansion spaces. When Carter learns the clients’ goals with home modifications, their budgetary concerns, how long they plan on living in the location, what level of assistance they anticipate needing and any other information they wish to share, he draws up floor plans and provides a report detailing the changes to be made.

The number of professionals trained to understand these issues is limited, but increasing. One idea is to contact the American Occupational Therapy Association (www.aota.org) to learn who is specializing in environmental modification. Carter can be e-mailed at michaelwcarter@mindspring.com.

It may cost hundreds of dollars for a thorough assessment and the expense is not apt to be covered by insurance. Nevertheless, the outcome could prove to be invaluable.

Carter explained his ultimate goal is to provide a document clients can give to contractors or handymen who can then provide a cost estimate. He concluded, “I try to take the angst out of making the decisions and guide my clients toward a home modification that will allow them to live in their home as long and independently as possible.”

Patience and luck may pay off

Cody Fuller
Finding just the right house for Cody Fuller, who has DMD, was difficult, but not impossible.

Deedee Fuller didn’t work with an agent when her family moved from Rockwall to Mansfield, Texas, in April 2008, due to her husband’s job transfer. Their son Cody, 20, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), so they were looking for a one-story home with wide doorways, an accessible bathroom and an open floor plan.

Fuller managed to find an accessible home, complete with a beach-access swimming pool, through Realtor.com, the official site of the National Association of Realtors, which offers consumers real-estate-related information and online photo tours of prospective houses.

“Finding a home was harder than we thought,” Fuller said. “We were really thinking that we would either have to buy an older home and do some major remodeling or have a home built. We figured it would be too expensive, so we gave up for a while.

“Then this beautiful home popped up — it was a brand new listing. Pure luck!”

Bethany Broadwell, Traverse City, Mich., is a freelance writer and Web designer. She has spinal muscular atrophy.

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