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Think about aging and accessibility when buying, building or remodeling a home

By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

Bobbie Snover used to live on a small acreage 20 miles south of Spokane.

It had everything she needed – but not everything she will eventually need.

“Even though the house was built on a single level,” she explained, “it became obvious that it would not allow me to age in place. It was too isolated. If something were to happen, an ambulance ride would be too slow.

“As you get older, you start thinking about these things.”

Anticipating challenges is second nature to Snover. Before joining Eastern Washington University’s occupational therapy faculty, she spent years helping design life-support systems for the Air Force’s $339 million F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter.

“I used to work on situations where humans were maladapted to their environment,” she said.

Today, an environment where people are increasingly maladapted is their own home – that magical Craftsman or split-level where they raised their family, but whose stairs now present an insurmountable obstacle.

Even one-story ranchers can become inhospitable if their halls and doorways are too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs, or the washer and drier are marooned in the basement.

The phrase “first-time homebuyer” conjures images of eager young couples with hope in their hearts and a spring in their steps.

Eventually, though, they become “last-time homebuyers” – empty-nesters looking for low-maintenance, handicap-accessible homes where they can live comfortably and independently late in life.

People like Snover.

“I’m 65. I just had to sign up for Medicare,” she said.

“I’ve always been active, and still am. I ride my horse and walk my dog. But my favorite hobbies tend to be more sedentary, and sitting is very, very hard on the body. It doesn’t activate the core.

“I’m healthy now, but probably in about 10 years I won’t want to climb stairs. And that’s assuming no major falls in the meantime.”

When Snover decided to move closer to hospitals, shopping and bus lines two years ago, her first choice was South Hill’s Manito Neighborhood. “But the house I found in my price range had a master bedroom suite at the top of a narrow stairway with a right-turn landing. I thought, ‘No way.’ And my aging dog couldn’t get down to the backyard, which also had a stairway.”

Snover kept looking and eventually bought in the Perry District.

“It’s an old house – built in 1903 – but it has a level entry, and I didn’t want to deal with slopes and stairs in the snow.

“And even though it’s a story and a half, with the bedroom and full bath upstairs, it has a half-bath and laundry room downstairs in what used to be the back porch.

“The kitchen is fairly modern, but not open concept. If they had opened the house up when they did the modifications, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I want” – which is convert either the formal living area or dining room into a bedroom, and live on the main floor.

“I just paid $3,000 to add a shower unit to the downstairs bathroom,” Snover said, “and I could probably turn the dining room into a bedroom for $2,000.

“After that, I could live in my house forever, because if I needed skilled nursing and had the means to hire it, I have an upstairs suite they could live in.”

Few accessible homes in desirable neighborhood

Third-generation real-estate agent Katie DeBill, a broker with Windermere/Manito, helps many clients like Snover – buyers looking for homes in which to grow old.

“The last thing they want to do is check into a retirement home or 55-plus community,” she said.

But the same features that make South Hill so desirable to her older clients – tree-lined, walkable streets flanked by handsome, century-old cottages – make fulfilling their wishes challenging.

Recently, DeBill searched the Multiple Listing Service for residences within a mile of Manito Park priced under $500,000, and found 68.

When she filtered the list for those with 32-inch doorways – wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs – the number dropped to nine. And seven of those were retirement-community condos.

“Many buyers are looking for main-floor utilities and homes they can stay in longer, but even new construction is typically not designed for main-floor living,” DeBill said. “You’re usually looking at stairs unless you have a custom, which is why people are hiring remodelers to widen hallways and doors, and turning a spare bedroom into a laundry room.”

Whether money spent on accessibility is a good investment depends, DeBill said.

“One of my clients retrofitted a master bath to accommodate his wife, who couldn’t use a traditional bathroom any longer.

“Retrofitting only one room doesn’t add a lot of value, and may actually take away value.

“But if you change your entire house – what’s called ‘universal design’ – then yes, that will add value.”

Think ahead when remodeling kitchens, bathrooms

Fourteen years ago, the National Association of Home Builders launched a training program called Certified Age-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) to address what it calls the fastest-growing segment of the residential remodeling industry: home modifications for seniors who don’t want to move.

Since then, almost 7,000 remodelers have been certified.

One of the first was Bob Wright, who began remodeling Spokane homes in 1978.

“We learned how to build ramps properly, how to make 30-inch doors wider by swapping out the hinges, and the importance of taller toilets and grab bars,” he said.

“And, at 77, I’m getting to the age where I have to think of those things,” said Wright, who chairs the Spokane Home Builders Association’s remodelers council.

Wright acknowledged that today’s homebuilders could do a better job of addressing accessibility issues – for instance, moving beyond standard 30-inch-wide doorways.

“When my son built his house, he put in all 3-foot-wide doors, looking ahead to the day when someone might be in a wheelchair.”

When remodeling a kitchen, Wright suggests considering a lower sink so a person in a wheelchair can reach it.

“As far as accessibility requests, most have involved bathrooms – people who can no longer climb into the bathtub.

“We’ve taken out a lot of tubs and put in handicap-accessible showers with minimum curbs,” he said. “We typically don’t do curbless, because that requires modifying the floor joists. We generally suggest a cultured-marble shower with a small ramp.

“If you have enough space, you can make the shower accessible to a wheelchair. If not, you put in grab bars and a seat, so a person can sit down while bathing.”

Wright said accessibility hasn’t become an issue for him yet, “but it has for my wife. She has a lot of trouble with her knees.”

He built their house 16 years ago.

“Everything is on the main floor, except when I dug the basement, I didn’t dig it deep enough – I did a lot of it by hand and got tired of digging – so we have seven steps from our garage floor up to the main floor, which is a struggle for her.

“It may get to the point where I have to put a chair lift or something to help her get up to the main floor. But once she’s on the main floor, everything is there – washer, drier, roll-in shower.”

Designers have more accessibility options

Tammie Ladd studied interior design at Washington State University during the 1990s, not long after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “so that was part of our education,” she said.

“Until 2000, the bulk of my experience was in commercial design, and every public space had to be ADA accessible.

“Since then, I’ve worked more with residential design – empty nesters building their dream homes – and being able to stay in their home is always a consideration.”

Ladd said designers have more options today than they did in 2000.

“For instance, there have always been curbless showers. But now there’s something called a ‘trench drain’ or ‘lineal drain’ that allows you to slope the shower floor in one direction and eliminate the need for a curb.

“I always recommend at least one shower with a lineal drain and no curb.”

Ladd said ADA standards are relatively easy to achieve in bathrooms, with features such as 5-foot turnarounds and appropriate-height vanities.

“Kitchens are more challenging because of the need for under-counter clearance,” she said.

She recommends integrating lights into toe kicks for better nighttime visibility, and blocking for grab bars “even if grab bars are not installed right away.”

At 47, Ladd already knows that, short of installing an elevator, she’ll have to move someday.

“When we purchased that house 10 years ago, accessibility was not a high priority. Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with a mild arthritis condition, so I think about it more,” she said.

Couple built a house in their 50s with an eye toward aging

Johannes and Mallene Herzog were early proponents of accessibility when they designed their Rockwood neighborhood home 26 years ago.

“We were 50 and 56 when we built the home, our kids were gone and we wanted to stay here forever,” Mallene said.

“Our top priorities were laundry, master bedroom, guest bedroom and office on the main floor, so we could live here as we aged without having to deal with steps.”

“One of my priorities,” Johannes said, “was to be able to communicate with family members and friends while I cook. In the olden days, the kitchen was shut off. I didn’t like that. I don’t want to be excluded from the conversation.”

“Downstairs, we added a full apartment for my aging parents,” Mallene said, “but they never got to live here. So it became a place where we invited other families to stay, and someday may be a place where our caregiver lives.”

There were some compromises back in 1990.

“At the time, our budget was limited.” Johannes said. “And we didn’t think about comfort-height toilets, because my knees still bent pretty well in those days.”

After the Herzogs sold their day care business and retired, Johannes remodeled the main floor in anticipation of someday needing a wheelchair. Changes included swapping out wall-to-wall carpet in favor of wood floors, and replacing a wall in the master bath with folding glass doors to allow easier wheelchair access to the toilet and shower.

They also added radiant floor heat in the bathroom, a rack for warming towels, taller toilets, grab bars … “and a bidet,” Johannes said enthusiastically, “which takes care of a very important function for old people – younger people, as well.”

“It washes your butt,” Mallene elaborated playfully.

Asked if they now have a “forever house,” Johannes replied, “We plan on 15 years.”

Then what?

“We’ll be in our 90s, and we’ll die, just like our parents did,” he said, laughing, as if stating the obvious. “Everybody is terminal.”

In the meantime, the Herzogs have no intention of moving.

“We can’t!” Johannes said. “We’ve accumulated too much c-r-a-p over the years.”

“We’re not tossers,” Mallene agreed, smiling at her husband. “We hang onto things.”

Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at

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