Many people who think of big-city living picture high rises, taxi cabs, and iconic groups of friends from pop culture. For most city dwellers, though, the reality is far less glamorous, especially for those who use wheelchairs and need to be much more selective about the home and area where they choose to live.
By working with the right people and keeping an eye out for key features that will ensure your comfort and safety, scoring a place you’ll love living in doesn’t have to be complicated. Whether you’re buying or renting an apartment, townhome, or condo, our guide discusses the winning strategies for finding wheelchair-accessible homes in the city.
Find the Right Agent
If you’re buying a home or interested in renting a private residence (in other words, a place that doesn’t have a leasing office), it’s a good idea to work with a real estate agent. They’ll be familiar with the area you’re looking in and will be privy to listings that match your needs before they’re available on home-listing sites, so you’ll be less likely to miss out on your dream home. They can also help ensure wheelchair-accessible homes are up to code, so you won’t run into any safety issues from shoddy workmanship or encounter problems from your local building authority.
You may not necessarily find an agent who has special training in accessibility housing, but at the very least, you should be able to find someone who has experience seeking out wheelchair-friendly homes. Start your search by asking for referrals from friends, especially those with mobility issues. When you’ve got a few good candidates, you can interview them to make sure you have a good rapport and to learn how specifically they can help you find your perfect place.
Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to work with someone who has a lot of experience finding homes that accommodate wheelchairs. If you find someone with a great reputation who you feel confident about hiring after your interview, you don’t have to continue searching. When it comes down to it, a great agent is going to look for the perfect home for their client regardless of their physical needs, and they’ll know what’s worth showing you and what simply won’t work for your lifestyle. They’ll also be knowledgeable about where you can apply for a mortgage as well as the best mortgages for first-time homebuyers and organizations that offer mortgage help for veterans.
Know Your Rights
Before going into the process of buying or renting a home, it’s important to know your rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to refuse to sell property to people with physical or mental limitations based solely on their disability, while the Fair Housing Act offers the same protection to those who want to rent. Furthermore, buildings made in or after 1991 that contain at least 4 units are required to have certain accessibility features in place.
Still, neither sellers nor renters are required by law to update housing to meet the accessibility needs of individuals with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs. However, landlords can’t prohibit tenants from making reasonable accommodations that make the home safer or more comfortable, such as installing grab bars next to toilets or widening entryways. They will, though, need to be made at the renter’s expense, and this right is only in place for individuals once they’ve signed a lease.
Understanding this information can be helpful in knowing whether you should rent or buy. Be sure to talk to your real estate agent about any questions you have so you find the right home for you.
The neighborhood you live in will be every bit as important as the actual building and unit you inhabit. If possible, narrow your search to areas that have wheelchair-friendly features, including:
- Curb cuts at the ends of sidewalks and anywhere else you may need them, like in front of a bus stop or neighborhood market
- Wide sidewalks with plenty of trash cans to keep walkways from becoming littered
- Slow-moving and/or a low volume of traffic
- Ample street lighting
Of course, you should also be sure to research the crime rate of the area you’re looking in. SpotCrime and Family Watchdog are two trusted resources for looking up local crime activity and sex offenders, respectively.
Be Specific About Your Needs
Whether you’re discussing what you need in a property with your agent, a home seller, or a landlord, be detailed. You’re less likely to see spaces that will actually work for you if you don’t speak up about your must-haves. Remember, you may be the only one familiar with the needs of people who use wheelchairs, and you’re certainly the only person who knows exactly what you need in order to feel comfortable in your own home.
You should also be specific when doing your own research, so be sure to choose tools that allow you to filter homes that meet your needs (and wants — you shouldn’t live in a place you hate just because it’s accessible!). Most real estate sites don’t yet have a filter for finding wheelchair-accessible homes, but most rental-only sites do. Realtor.com is a notable exception; it allows you to search for homes with “disability features” under its “More Filters” dropdown menu after you’ve chosen a location to look in.
However, most sites do let you choose single-story homes as your only candidates. In addition, apartment listings will always note which floor the unit is on, making it easier to take a closer look at those that will work for you.
If All Else Fails as a Buyer, Opt for Home Modifications
If you’re hoping to buy but you’re unable to find a wheelchair-accessible home, it may be worth it to purchase a place and add some features that make it more liveable. Updates will vary based on what your homeowners association (HOA), co-op, or condo board approves, but may include:
- Adding wheelchair ramps at entrances and over all thresholds
- Widening doorways to at least 32 inches
- Replacing shag carpeting with a low-pile version or hard flooring
- Installing lower light switches and electrical outlets
- Placing grab bars next to toilets and in bathtubs and showers
- Adding a walk-in shower with a bench
- Lowering countertops and sinks
- Installing smart home features, like remote-controlled thermostats, lights, and overhead fans
One strategy your real estate agent may suggest is to find a place that’s already in need of some TLC. Places that need repairs are usually listed at a lower price to begin with, and a skilled agent may be able to negotiate an even better deal, leaving you plenty of room in your home-buying budget to create an environment where you’ll thrive.
If All Else Fails as a Renter, Go Corporate
Remember, if you’re a renter, your landlord is legally required to let you make home modifications that are necessary to your health, safety, and comfort, but you’ll be responsible for paying for them. It’s important to consider if putting money into renovations on a home you don’t own — and therefore, won’t earn any kind of ROI on — is worth it.
A better option for many will be to work with a property management company that oversees a large structure or multiple buildings. This way, they can work with you on finding a wheelchair-accessible space in any of their properties as they become available. These companies also usually rent out in buildings with wheelchair-friendly accommodations in common areas as well as individual units, such as ramps and handrails at every entrance and exit, pathways in outdoor areas, sufficiently-wide doorways, and multiple elevators. Having a whole building you feel comfortable using is an added pro against smaller multi-family units that may not have all of these features.
Living in the city is a dream for many people, but finding a place to live can be intimidating no matter your physical abilities. You can make finding wheelchair-accessible homes in the city simpler by focusing on an area before considering any units, and be sure to work with a real estate agent or leasing office who will help put you in a home you’ll love.