TheYellow Brick Road to Home Accessibility: What Are the Costs of Important Modifications?

From the MM 2006 Consumer Edition

There's no place like home — Dorothy Gale's famous line spoken to the clap of ruby slippers in "The Wizard of Oz" — rings true for many seniors and people with disabilities today. Fortunately, the 1988 Fair Housing Amendment Act mandates, as of March 13, 1991, certain adaptable design requirements for new multifamily housing to make the possibility for aging in place a reality. But what if your home was built before 1991?

"A household changeover doesn't need to happen at once and should begin before there is an actual need," says Doug Brownfield, Lowe's Co. and National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) member. "I suggest picking high priority projects and establishing a budget over a period of time. Start with projects that have the highest impact to help keep you safe."

Front Exterior

The yellow brick road of accessibility begins with a path. Getting safely from your car to your front door should be the priority for the front exterior of your home, says Bill Morrell, president of Adaptive Installations, Seattle, and Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designee. An automatic door opener can help. "We should be seeing more of it (installing automatic door openers) because otherwise individuals such as [those] in a power wheelchair ? [are] without any emergency egress from their home," says Morrell.

The AARP advises that the path leading to the front door be at least 36" wide and incorporate a gradual incline for wheelchair access.

Choose a ramp, either permanent or portable, to help navigate the path. A ramp without handrails will require a curb to prevent the wheelchair from going over the edge. Generally wood or concrete cost about the same, unless the concrete structure is built higher. If the ramp is built to code, says Morrell, it will accommodate the weight of someone in a power wheelchair easily. Therefore, bulking up the structure for additional weight capacity should not be necessary.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the slope of the ramp should not be greater than one foot of ramp for every inch of rise (1:12). Morrell says a lot of people don't realize that amount of ramp is necessary. "If somebody has five steps, for example, at an average of 7.5-8" per step, then you're looking at 30' of ramp," he says. If space is an issue, a vertical porch lift will do the trick at about the same cost as building a ramp.

According to the Independent Living Resource Center, San Francisco, proper outdoor lighting increases visibility for those maneuvering walkways, pathways and ramps.

Automatic Door Opener: $900-$2,500
Sidewalk: $21-$80 per foot for a 36" sidewalk
Ramps with a Railing: $90-$120 per linear foot
Adding an Additional Handrail: $25-$85
Portable Ramp: $300
Outdoor Lights: $200-1,000 depending on quantity and selection


If you're like many people in a wheelchair, getting into your home might leave you feeling a bit like a giant in Munchkinland. Don't be denied access into your home with an entryway that is too narrow or flooring that doesn't meet your needs.

One of the easiest ways to improve access is to replace doorknobs. "Standard lever hardware is much easier for children and for the elderly to use," says Nathan Colburn, VP of Accessible Systems, Inc., Littleton, Colo. Consider lowering vision or peep holes to accommodate the height of a wheelchair.

Doorways require at least 32" of clear width, though 36" is best, and a maximum half inch high threshold to be wide enough to for a wheelchair to pass. The cheapest and easiest way to increase doorway width is to install swing-away hinges that enable the door to open in the opposite direction. (This technique can be applied to all doors throughout the home.) Colburn says door widening is one of the most common and necessary home modifications.

Consider removing carpet and area rugs to increase maneuverability. Opt for hardwood or laminate flooring. Colburn prefers impregnated, prefinished wood to laminate because it's harder, more durable and more maintenance-free. If carpet is a must, the best choice is low-pile (less than a half inch) with very dense, 3/8-inch padding. Colburn cautions people to avoid putting carpet in high traffic areas, especially places that require turning circles like hallways, kitchens and bathrooms. For seniors, taping area rugs to the floor will prevent tripping.

Lever Door Handles: $20-40 for interior hardware; $60-$150 for exterior hardware; $40-150 for complete installation per door
Vision or Peep Holes: $10-$30 for materials, $30-$50 for installation
Off-set Hinges: $20-$35 for hinges; $30-$100 for installation per door
Door Widening: $300-$1,000 excluding the price of the door (Price varies according to wiring and plumbing relocation.)
Laminate or Carpet: $45 per yard installed
Materials Only: Laminate: $2.50-$4 square foot; Wood: $5 square foot
Restoring Hard Wood: $25-28 per square yard; $2 per foot to refinish
Removing Carpet: $1 per foot
Impregnated, prefinished wood: $5-7 per square foot
Tape: $3 per roll


Somewhere over the rainbow is where a costly kitchen renovation will put you financially. But a few cost-saving adjustments could make the change a lot easier for your wallet. First, install easy-to-grip knobs on cabinets and drawers. A thick D-shaped handle works best, says Colburn. Next, replace faucets with single-control, lever-style extended faucets. Consider faucets with sensors and scald control as well. Colburn says several motion-controlled sensors easily attach to existing faucets.

The most common kitchen upgrade is an accessible sink and pullout drawers, Morrell says. Pull-out trays and storage systems retrofit easily into existing cabinets and drawers. For upper cabinet accessibility, Colburn recommends a counterweighted shelf that fits into a standard cabinet. The shelf brings the upper cabinets down about 2' to line up just above the countertop. Modifying just a couple of these shelves is more economical than a complete cabinet renovation.

Lowering countertops, existing cabinets and the sink to a workable 34" can be costly. Incorporating freestanding storage cabinets or rolling carts are great alternatives.

According to MONTech, a technology assistance program for people with disabilities at the University of Montana Rural Institute, Missoula, Mont., placing a mirror over the kitchen stove allows people in wheelchairs to see what's cooking in the pots on the burners. Morrell says a small double mirror can be picked up from Home Depot and installed at a downward tilt for very little money.

Appliances require front controls and should be accessible from a seated position. A lowered wall oven (30-42"), a countertop range and a side-by-side, frost-free, dispenser-type refrigerator are essential upgrades. The dishwasher should also be front loading, as should washers and dryers.

Knobs: $2-$12 each, $10-$20 for installation; $300-$400 for loop handles throughout
Single-Lever Faucet: $90-$600 for hardware; $80-$100 for installation
Sensor Faucet on Existing Faucet: $50-$60
Scald Control Faucet: $300-$400
Scald and Sensor Faucet: $500-$600
Pull-Out Shelves/Drawers: $50 for shelf or drawer; $50-$105 for installation
Counterweighted Shelf: $150
Lowered Counters: $400-$2,600
Appliance with Front Controls: $400-$4,000; $2,000-2,200 mid range with delivery and installation
Price Tag for Complete Kitchen Remodel: $1,000-$30,000


Much like the wizard behind the curtain, a bedroom could require a lot of power and a lot of string — aka track. As the number of medically necessary electrical devices increases, appropriate wiring to accommodate that equipment may need to increase as well, says Morrell. Morrell advises completing all upgrades to the electrical panel — for the bedroom or bathroom — at the same time to save money. Colburn suggests moving equipment to various locations in the home. For example, oxygen concentrators may go on one end of the house and scooter charging might take place on the other end, he says. Colburn asserts that a lot of electrical issues in the bedroom can be resolved by simply adding more outlets.

An overhead track system that transports a person from the bedroom to the bathroom and back is the preferred option in the bedroom. Since the track moves from room to room, it could require additional modifications, such as reinforcing the ceiling, says Colburn. Morrell says that fortunately, most lift systems used solely for the bedroom do not require reinforcing the ceiling.

For closet shelving, think adjustability. Colburn says off-the-rack options for accessible shelving are scarce which means customized shelving may be necessary. Consider sliding baskets, bins and boxes as a low cost option.

Upgraded Power: $500-$1,000 per dedicated line
Extra Outlet: $150
Upgrading Circuit: $100
Reinforced Ceiling: $2,000-3,000
Overhead Track System: $4,000-11,000; $7,000-11,000 average range for a multi-room system
Shelves: $4-$200


If you're feeling like a cowardly lion when thinking about remodeling your bathroom, you're not alone. Morrell says that installing a roll-in shower is one of the most expensive remodeling projects. Yet remodeling the bathroom is one of the most important projects to facilitate proper hygiene and ensure safety. An alternative to installing a roll-in shower, says Morrell, is putting a fiberglass basin into the subfloor to make it flush with the floor.

A less costly venture in the bathroom is installing grab bars. For simple grab bars, reinforcing the wall backing is usually not necessary, but more elaborate grab bars might require extra work, especially if they're installed in condos or apartments, says Morrell. Consider a lower-cost clip-on grab bar for the tub sides or toilet, and opt for basic rather than designer hardware to save money.

Much like the kitchen, a lever-handle faucet with scald control fosters safety and ease of operation. But lowering the sink and cabinets is trickier. To accommodate wheelchairs, the sink height must be no higher than 34" with a minimum of 27" knee clearance. Mirrors and medicine cabinets should be no more than 40" above the floor. Morrell recommends covering the medicine cabinet with a low-hung mirror and installing over-the-toilet storage. To allow more knee access under the sink, Colburn suggest an off-set drain that relocates the trap closer to the wall.

Though toilets are available to raise the seat from the standard 16" to 17", Morrell says a new toilet may not solve the issue of level transferring. He recommends a toilet riser that raises the toilet height up to 21". Raised toilet seats are also an option.

Adding more space in the bathroom increases accessibility. A 32" clear door opening and a 5'x5' clear floor space are essential to accommodate a wheelchair. Pocket doors, which slide into the wall, allow more room for wheelchairs and make accessing the room easier if someone falls. But "pocket doors are a lot more expensive than what people think," cautions Morrell. Often plumbing and lighting get in the way of installation. Mounting track above the door and outside the wall is a trick that saves a lot of money, Morrell suggests. Colburn, however, warns that an externally mounted pocket door is "not a reliable or long-term solution." People with limited dexterity may have trouble opening pocket doors.

Barrier-Free Roll-in Shower: $5,000-$6,500 for shower and installation
Fiberglass Basin: $3,500-$4,000
Grab Bar: $20-$100 for grab bar; $20-$600 for installation
Clip-On Grab Bar: $35
Faucets: $60-$150
Wall-hung countertop with dropped sink: $400-$600
Modified Cabinets and New Fixtures: $500-$700
Lowered sink: $100-$300
Off-set Drain: $40-$50
Over-the-Toilet Cabinet: $120-$140 installed
Toilet Riser: $200 for installation
Toilet Elevator: $200
New Toilet: $300-$400
External Pocket Door: $750-$4,000
Internal Pocket Door: $750-$14,000
Price Tag of a Complete Bathroom Remodel: $2,500-$24,000

Modifications that you can do for free Home Modification Resources

Modifications that you can do for free

  • Keep outdoor pathways clear. Sweep sidewalks and patios to remove debris from surrounding trees and shrubs.
  • Clear clutter from the floor indoors, including magazines racks, plants, electrical cords and area rugs.
  • Rearrange furniture to create a clear pathway. For example, a U- or L-shaped floor plan in the kitchen is preferred.
  • Remove doors in areas that do not require privacy, such as the kitchen and living room.
  • Rearrange existing storage to make it more accessible.
  • Put medical equipment in separate rooms to avoid the cost of electrical updating.

Home Modification Resources

Accessible Systems, Inc.
(303) 693-7787

Adaptive Installations
(800) 765-1969

Adapt My Home, LLC

Lowe's Co.
How to: Universal Design

Mary Jo Peterson, Inc.
(203) 775-4763

School of Allied Medical Professions
The Ohio State University

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

In Support of Upper-Extremity Positioning