Steps to buying an accessible home

By Maggie Pierce

Despite growing demand, it is well known that most people face unique challenges in purchasing an inclusive home. This article will highlight some financial, legal, design, environmental, and real estate market considerations for the successful purchase of an inclusive home.

However, the information provided here is intended as a broad guide, and is in no way meant to take the place of the advice of professionals, including those who are knowledgeable about inclusive homes, the local real estate market, and the buyer’s unique requirements.

Who needs an inclusive home?

Today a broad range of people want to purchase an inclusive home. Many life circumstances may lead to this search: a limitation in physical, mental or sensory abilities may be lifelong; acquired through the onset of injury, illness, or disease; or develop through the natural effects of aging. People may be purchasing a home for themselves or for a family member with limitations. They may wish to welcome dear family and friends as guests. An inclusive home design will allow people to fully access, live in and use their home and environment, to the best of their abilities, throughout all the stages of their lives.

An accessible home

An inclusive home, whether it’s a detached house, townhouse, condo or other multi-family residence, should provide a continuum of access through
its interior design, property and surrounding community. The interior design should provide full access and use of entryways into the home, hallways, doorways, all interior rooms, and kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities. The property should offer seamless, well-lit pathways between home and street and its outdoor amenities. An inclusive neighbourhood will extend this physical network through navigable sidewalks and safe street life, with nearby accessible transit, shopping, community and medical services, parks and recreation, and gathering places to meet old and new friends.

An accessible home can provide a functional environment that will keep residents and visitors alike safe and comfortable, no matter what their current and future physical abilities may be. It can lead to less reliance and expense over time on home and community care services and lighten the work of family caregivers. An inclusive home an also help avoid the disruption and expense of having to purchase another home or move into institutional care.

The Canadian real estate market

As is well-known, where you live in Canada, whether Vancouver, The Pas, Iqaluit, Quebec City or Antigonish, will determine the type, availability and cost of housing. This is also true of housing with the potential to provide an inclusive home. The one constant across Canada is that the search for an inclusive home will typically significantly limit the buyer’s options within a given real estate market. The buyer will also have to consider renovation costs, over and above the purchase costs, for each home.

The development of higher accessibility standards generally, and of designated accessible market housing specifically, has been increasing in recent years, and may offer some viable options for inclusive home buyers. However, accessibility standards are currently set out in generally uncoordinated and inconsistent policy, legislation, and building codes at the national, provincial, territorial and municipal levels. So accessibility in the design, construction and maintenance of Canadian residences is very much a work in progress and varies widely in communities across Canada. Home buyers will need to enlist the services of a realtor to locate residences advertised as accessible, and then evaluate them as they would any other housing for their potential as an inclusive home.

Home buyers can also increase their options through information on developing and renovating inclusive homes provided by governmental and non-governmental organizations. For example, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation website offers ideas on accessible design, adaptations for changing needs, and universal design and adaptable models. The SAFERhome Society is a non-profit organization that has developed a set of universal design standards to adapt and customize a home
to meet current and future needs, and offers a manual and home planning assistance for people throughout Canada.

An accessible home design will allow people to fully access, live in and use their home and environment, to the best of their abilities, throughout all the stages of their lives.

Types of ownership

Canadians rely on different types of home ownership to have housing, each of which provides the owner with certain rights and responsibilities related to the residence. Most people will purchase a property that is either freehold non-strata (typically a single family home) or freehold strata (typically a condominium). Other types of home ownership, such as co-operative, co-housing, co-ownership, and life leaseholds, offer the owner an alternative set of rights and responsibilities. They may also provide more affordable housing options, related to purchase price and/or ongoing expenses, and more opportunities for shared common areas, resources and community.

Purchase and ownership costs

As with any property purchase, everyone should consider both the immediate costs of purchasing the home, and the long terms costs of owning and maintaining it. All buyers should first consult with a financial planner, and where necessary with a lending institution or mortgage broker, to obtain pre-approval for mortgage financing. People buying into a strata, co-operative, co-housing, co-ownership, or life leasehold, should also thoroughly review any related by-laws, rules or agreements, for costs arising from financial and legal responsibilities.

Families considering property ownership on behalf of their family member with a limitation, should take the additional step of consulting with a wills, trusts and estates lawyer who is experienced in creating legal models of ownership that reflect the interests of both the family and the loved one. For example, the family can select the ownership model that best addresses how certain assets may affect access to government income and programs. Throughout this early planning phase, families will also want to consult with their realtor about the potential real estate implications of these preliminary financial and legal decisions.

Renovation costs

The feasibility and costs of renovating to an inclusive home standard will vary broadly, according to the person’s specific design requirements, the current condition of the home, and the type of housing. For example, installation of adaptations for visual and hearing limitations are generally minimally invasive to the interior unit infrastructure, so can be relatively cost effective for the buyer, and when necessary are more likely to be approved by the council, board or members of a multi-family residence. However, the feasibility and costs of installing remote, fob-powered access to building doors can vary widely, depending on the number and condition of the current doors, and are more likely to be questioned by other owners if they have to share the costs.

All buyers should obtain a professional evaluation of the feasibility and estimated costs of the proposed renovations, and make their offer to purchase subject to their being satisfied with that advice. A buyer considering purchasing a home in a strata, co-operative, co-housing, co-ownership or life leasehold, should review any by-laws, rules or agreements, and also try to obtain an informal preliminary opinion from the council, board, or members, as to whether they would approve the required renovations of the unit and/or common building.

Buyers must still consider the feasibility and costs of renovations for homes that are designated or promoted as offering inclusive home design. For example, for a person using a mobility device, it may be more cost effective to renovate a less expensive, mature home with larger rooms, hallways and entryways, than a more expensive newer “accessible” home with the smaller, more restrictive proportions more common today. Similarly, a home or development promoted as offering senior living may in fact not meet basic inclusive home standards.

Conclusion

Most people will face challenges in seeking an inclusive home. However, careful planning that addresses the relevant financial, legal, design, environmental, and real estate market issues, and assistance from knowledgeable professionals, can lead to the success- ful purchase and creation of an inclusive home. Such a home will provide the foundation for a good, full and inclusive life.

 

Maggie Pierce is a REALTOR® practicing in British Columbia.

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