Illinois Gamble: Able-bodied Buyers, Accessible Homes

October 1, 2001

Practitioners in Illinois will soon learn the market attraction of homes accessible to the disabled.

In September the state’s housing finance agency started disbursing up to $5,000 in grants to developers for each new home designed to be disabled accessible.

The program is the result of a compromise hammered out two years ago between state lawmakers, advocates for the disabled, and real estate industry groups led by the Illinois Association of REALTORS® and the Home Builders Association of Illinois.

Lawmakers originally wanted to mandate that 10 percent of all new homes be disabled accessible. The idea was to make homes not only user-friendly for their occupants but also “visitable,” that is, accessible to elderly and disabled visitors. But IAR and the homebuilders got the 10 percent mandate pared back to the all-voluntary, incentive-based program.

“We didn’t like to see the government artificially dictating the market,” says Greg St. Aubin, IAR’s director of government affairs.

The visitable-home movement isn’t impacting just Illinois. States and localities across the country have adopted or been considering changes in building codes. Others have considered launching programs to encourage or require accessibility, says Sally Haile, with the Center for Universal Design, Raleigh, N.C.

Concrete Change, a visitable-housing group in Decatur, Ga., has helped spur interest in local building code changes in several localities, including Decatur, Irvine, Calif. and Austin, Texas.

In Illinois the big questions are, How will these accessible houses do in the general market? Will they be attractive to non-disabled buyers? Will their higher cost relative to non-accessible houses be a deterrent?

To be sure, even though the houses will be built on speculation, there’ll be close cooperation between homebuilders and disability advocates in matching buyers to houses, says Julie Ward, IAR’s assistant director of government affairs.

Even so, the program could unleash a large number of accessible homes on the market, and lawmakers have expressed concern about their acceptability to the general buying public. In fact, they included a provision in the law requesting that a task force overseeing the program recommend ways to build the houses so that their value is preserved.

One factor in the homes’ favor is the large baby boomer population, says Eve Lee, broker-owner of Eve B. Lee & Associates, Grayslake, Ill., who has experience in the accessible new-home market. Accessible features may appeal to buyers in the 40–45 age range, because they’re starting to think about caring for aging parents.

The cost of accessibility features could impact the homes’ salability. As long as the accessible features are modest—extra-wide exterior and interior doors, bathroom rails—the additional cost shouldn’t go beyond $1,500 a unit.

It’s when the accessible features are both expensive and aesthetically overbearing, as big wheelchair ramps can be, that marketability becomes an issue.

“If by accessible features you mean a big ramp, roll-in shower, extra-low bathroom sink with no cabinets underneath, and extra-low light switches, you’re looking at $10,000–$15,000 a unit,” says Lee.

Not only may buyers balk at the additional cost—even after the $5,000 developer subsidy is factored in—but the accessible features may be a turnoff to the nondisabled.

Ward believes that the Illinois program addresses most concerns. First, the accessible features prescribed by the law are quite modest. They include extra-wide entryways and reinforced bathroom walls that will allow for future installation of handrails.

Second, the law requires a no-step exterior entrance. That should be cheaper and generally more aesthetically acceptable than a ramp.

“One of the beauties of the program is that it applies to new homes, so developers can incorporate those features in a way that works well,” says Ward.

On balance, the positive aspects of modest accessible features should outweigh the negatives, says Lee.

Furthermore, it’s positive that the real estate industry is addressing the issue of accessibility, which will become increasingly relevant as the population ages, says Lee.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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