House Buying Tips for Wheelchair Users

Published: Sep 16, 2020

Buying a house is daunting for everyone. But for wheelchair users, it can be extremely difficult. Here are a few tips specifically for wheelchair user that will hopefully make things easier.

Know What You Want in a House

The first thing you want to do when looking for a house is make a list of the things you want. Don’t worry if the list is long, the goal right now is to make sure you have a solid reference for the kinds of things you’re looking for. An example list might look something like this:

  • 3 Bedrooms
  • Single Story
  • Walk in Closets
  • Large Backyard
  • Close to Shopping
  • Privacy Fence
  • Kitchen Island

But it should also probably include things like:

  • A flat backyard
  • A not‐too‐steep‐driveway
  • No interior steps (half-stories)
  • Majority of the living space on the main floor (if there’s a basement)

Once you have your list, break it into three categories: Must Have, Ideal, and Bonus. The Must Have category is probably the most important. It’s the items on your list that would cause you to reject a house outright if they were missing. Next comes your Ideals. These are the items that you would like to have, but are willing to compromise on. For example, your ideal house would have 2.5 bathrooms, but you would settle on a house with just 2. The Bonus Category should include extra items that might help you choose between two otherwise identical houses. For example, two houses on your list might have similar layouts and features, but the second house also has raised garden beds.

Know What You Want in a Neighborhood

A house’s location is just as important as its layout. When choosing a house, there’s a number of factors you may want to consider:

  • How many hills the neighborhood has.
  • How close the neighborhood is to necessities like a grocery store, pharmacy, and hospital.
  • Whether or not there are medical professionals nearby that are in‐network for your insurance.
  • How easily you could evacuate in the event of an emergency.
  • How quickly emergency services could reach you in event of an emergency.

Know What You Need and What You Can Change

Almost every house currently on the market is going to be in some way inaccessible. They key to finding a house that works for you is to know what kind of accessibility you need upfront, what you can build yourself, and what you can have changed at a later date. For example, you can easily have a ramp added to your garage or front door by a contractor after you move in. However, it’s much more difficult to widen doorways or hallways and there’s nothing you can do to improve the grade of your driveway or backyard.

You should also take into account how much floor-to-counter storage space you’ll need and how high work surfaces are. Are you comfortable cooking on a regular stove top or will you be using a separate burner on a lower surface like a table? How much cabinet space do you need at ground level vs overhead? Is the main bedroom large enough for your wheelchair and your bed?

Don’t Get More House Than You Can Maintain

All houses come with upkeep costs, there’s no avoiding it. That being said, these costs can be planned for and mitigated as long as you don’t buy more house than you can maintain. A lot of homeowners buy a house knowing that they’ll be doing some level of repairs themselves. For disabled folks, the only option they have is to hire someone to do that work for them, and it can really add up (especially the lawn care and snow removal). If it’s hard for you to mow, you might want to consider a house with a smaller lawn or one that already has a lot of landscaping in place. If general maintenance is a struggle, you should consider looking at newer homes that need less upkeep than a cheaper, older home that may come with hidden costs.

Plan for Your Future Needs and Abilities

Your health and mobility can change in the blink of an eye and you should take that into consideration when choosing a house. Are you a part‐time wheelchair user who never uses their chair in the house? Make sure you use your chair when touring houses. You want to make sure your chair moves easily through the house if you end up needing to use it more in the future.

Bathroom layouts are also important. You might be comfortable now steppping into a tub or navigating a smaller shower, but that could change in the future. You may want to consider buying a house with more accessible layout now instead of trying to retrofit it in the future.

If you happen to have a second story, I would set savings aside each month for installing either a stair lift or an elevator at some future point. I would also keep your wheelchair after your next upgrade so that the old chair can act as an upstairs (or basement) chair.

Hire a Realtor

Home buying can be stressful and overwhelming. After looking at dozens of houses across just as many real estate sites, they can all start to blend together. Instead of trying to figure everything out yourself, gather a few houses that represent what you’re looking for and contact a realtor. They’ll take the list of what you want and help you narrow down your choices as well as schedule showings so you can tour houses. Once you find a house you like, they will help you place an offer.

Know What You Can Ask For

When it comes to making a house accessible, there are things you can ask the seller to do (within reason). It’s not uncommon to ask the builder of a new home to put in a ramp or to flatten a door threshold. I’ve spoken to a number of builders who were more than happy to add a ramp or even make changes to the layout (if the house isn’t finished). As any good realtor will tell you: anything is up for negotiation.

Always Do a Physical Walkthrough

Virtual or remote home viewings are great when you want to quickly narrow down your list of potential houses without spending a lot of time. However, in order to guarantee that a house is right for you, you will need to do a physical walkthrough.

The first thing you need to note is the flooring. Hard floors are easier to move through than carpeting and you want to make sure that the ratio of hard flooring to carpeting is acceptable.

Make sure you can fit through every door in the house including linen closets and pantries. Remember: door widths aren’t fixed but they’re also not the easiest thing to change, so you really need to make sure you’re happy with the spacing here. Also note how many sharp turns there are in areas like entryways and hallways. Make sure you can easily clear them without bumping into the walls.

Check the layout of the bedroom closets. Is there plenty of shelf space within reach? Or will you need to spend money on a dresser or a custom closet setup?

Get a feel for the height of workspaces like kitchen counters, cabinets, stovetops, and islands. Will they be comfortable to work at? Will you be able to store things you need within easy reach?

Measure out the main living space to make sure that both you and your furniture will fit. For example, you might want to make sure that there's enough room for you to go around your couch and end tables without bumping into anything.

Finally, check out the backyard and ask about maintenance. Is there an HOA? Do they cover any lawn maintenance? These are important factors that will help you decide if a home is right for you.