A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Apartment Hunting

Published: Jan 19, 2019

Apartment hunting as a wheelchair user can be an absolute pain. I’ve put together this brief and not‐at‐all comprehensive guide to help folks navigate the world of renting as a wheelchair user. Please keep in mind that I Am Not A Lawyer or even an expert when it comes to this stuff and nearly everything in here is based on my personal experience with renting apartments in both the Midwest and Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Do As Much Research As You Can Online

I would start by checking Craigslist for listings in your area. From there, expand your search and start looking for apartment management companies in your area. Stay away from anything that isn’t an actual apartment complex with a decent‐sized company behind it. You’ll have a much easier time getting clear answers about accessibility from a corporation than from an individual landlord.

Have a List of Questions You Want Answered

Consistency is important when researching apartments. Create a list of questions that you want every landlord to answer. This will make it easier to compare and contrast locations when it’s time to make a decision.

Have a Clear Understanding of What You Mean By “Accessible”

There is such a thing as an ADA Unit but they are really rare and designed to cover multiple types of disabilities. For example, they might have a larger bathroom (which takes up living space) and side‐by‐ washer and dryer (more lost living space), but they’ll also have lower counter tops (which are really hard for standing folk to use), a counter top microwave (which takes up a lot of rare counter space), and a flashing doorbell / fire alarm system (for deaf/hard of hearing folk). Oh, and there’ll be more grab bars and hand holds in the bathtub than a challenge on American Ninja Warrior.

Depending on your disability, there’s a good chance you won’t need every feature an ADA unit offers. You would be better off having a clear idea of what you need upfront and talking with the landlord about what they’d be willing to change after the fact.

Look at the Layout Plans

A lot of apartment complexes will show the blueprints of their available layouts on the site and you can learn a lot about potential accessibility issues from these. For example, bathrooms that show the bathtub to the side of the toilet tend to have less room for a wheelchair than bathrooms where the tub is in front.

Remember That (Some) Accessibility Can be Added Later

Grab bars are easy to install and any reasonable landlord should be willing and able to have them installed in the bathroom if you request it. For things like smoke detector batteries or lightbulb changes, landlord should be willing to take of those items for you (just remember to ask). The same thing goes for any after‐market items you might want to have installed to make your life easier. For example, you might have your own flexible shower head that you use to make bathing easier, but there’s no way for you to install it yourself. Most landlords would be more than happy to do that for you. Again, you just have to ask.

As a side note to wheelchair users: ask about getting a strike plate added to your front door. It’s a metal sheet that goes along the bottom of doors and protects it from being scratched by things like carts or wheelchairs.

Never Rent a Unit You Haven’t Toured

Never sign a lease on a unit that you haven’t physically seen. The blueprints and layout diagrams never cover everything and there can be some subtle differences between “identical” units that make one way less accessible than than other. This is especially true for unfinished units that are under construction. It’s better to risk losing out on a unit in order to do a live tour after it’s completed than to sign on a unit that isn’t finished only to discover that there’s no way for you to actually get into it come move‐in day (this actually happened to me).