If you have a physical disability, finding a place to live can be very challenging. Whether you’re looking for an affordable apartment or want to buy a home, this guide will help you find wheelchair accessible housing.
As a power wheelchair user who has moved several times and rented and purchased homes, I have a lot of experience navigating the odyssey that is finding housing with a disability. I have compiled this guide with a significant amount of information as well as links to helpful resources. I hope it helps you find a secure and comfortable place to call home.
Understanding Your Rights Under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act
If you rent, under the Fair Housing Act you have the right to make reasonable modifications to a rental property for accessibility. You generally have to pay for these modifications yourself, AND pay to remove them when you move out. However, if the housing is federally funded, the landlord is required to pay for the modifications, unless the cost would be an “undue burden.” Needless to say, paying for modifications can be expensive, so it’s best to find an apartment that is already as accessible as possible for your needs.
The Fair Housing Act protects renters and home buyers from discrimination based on many protected categories, including disability. With a few exceptions, landlords cannot deny you housing because of your disability or because of a service dog or emotional support animal. However, discrimination is still common and often difficult to prove. To learn more about fair housing and discrimination based on disability, check out these resources:
- The National Fair Housing Alliance has a directory of Fair Housing Centers so you can get help in your area and file a complaint if you’ve experienced discrimination.
- HUD’s Fair Housing Accessibility First program offers free training on accessible building requirements for new apartment buildings.
Finding Wheelchair Accessible Housing — Location, Location, Location
There is a reason real estate agents use that phrase all the time. The location of your home is key, and it’s especially important for people with disabilities. These tips can help you find the right neighborhood for your needs.
1. Identify neighborhoods with the services and amenities you need.
Before you start your wheelchair accessible housing search, you should figure out which areas will be best for you to live. If you rely on public transportation, choose a neighborhood with accessible train stations and/or lots of bus stops. Consider proximity to family, friends, and support services. Since accessible housing can be very difficult to find, you’ll probably need to be open to at least three areas or neighborhoods, unless you have many months or years to search.
2. Assess the safety of the neighborhood.
If you live on disability benefits or a fixed income, you may not have much choice about where you live. However, some apartment complexes for disabled and elderly people are located in nicer neighborhoods. Try to get into one of those if you can. You don’t want to be stuck at home because it’s unsafe to roll around in your neighborhood.
3. Check street accessibility in the areas around the apartment buildings and/or homes you’re considering.
Again, you want the ability to roll around your neighborhood safely, even if you have a car. You can check for good sidewalks and curb cuts by “walking“ around an area using Google Street View. Sometimes the images are a bit out of date, but if anything, that means things might be better now. Always confirm in person before you commit to living in a neighborhood.
How to Find Affordable Wheelchair Accessible Housing
Many people with disabilities rely on federal benefits such as Social Security Disability (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because they cannot work or have a limited ability to work, or they need services such as in-home care through Medicaid. Finding low-income housing that is also accessible can be even more complicated than finding market-rate housing. These tips and resources will help you get the funding you need and find places to live.
1. Search for HUD apartments designated for elderly and/or disabled people.
Designated housing for seniors and/or people with disabilities can be a great option if you’re living on a fixed income. These buildings are typically much nicer than other public housing. It’s important to call every building and/or Housing Authority to see if you meet the requirements. Sometimes, buildings that say they are for seniors only will accept younger people with disabilities. You usually do not need a Section 8 voucher to get into this type of housing. Most buildings will have waiting lists, but they will generally be shorter than the waiting list for Section 8, especially in larger cities. You can find a comprehensive guide to finding HUD apartments for elderly and disabled people on the website How to Get On, which does such a great job talking about these programs that there’s no need to repeat it all here.
2. Apply for Section 8 in your area AND other areas if you’re willing to move for at least a year.
If you have been searching for affordable housing, chances are you’ve already heard about housing choice vouchers, aka Section 8. You may have already tried to apply only to discover that the waiting list in your city is years long or isn’t even accepting new applicants. However, there are some secrets to Section 8 that you should know that may help you get a voucher faster.
First of all, Section 8 uses a priority system to determine your place on the waiting list. Having a disability automatically bumps you much higher on the list, so you may not have to wait as long as you think. Be sure to check the other prioritization criteria for your area. If you’re applying in the county where you currently live, that will move you up the list. So will being a survivor of domestic violence or stalking, issues that unfortunately affect many people with disabilities.
Second, you can apply for Section 8 in other counties and/or states. You won’t get the prioritization that comes from living in that area, but you’ll still get priority based on your disability. This means if you’re willing to move, you could potentially get a voucher much faster. Look for municipalities that have short waiting lists in places where you could live. Note that if you are utilizing state-specific benefits such as a Medicaid waiver or home care program, those will not transfer and you’ll have to apply for everything from scratch in a new state. So unless you really want to move to a different state and it has better services, your best bet is to look for counties with short waiting lists within your current state.
But how does that help if you like where you live or you want to be close to family, you may ask? Well, after you get a voucher, you have to live in the county the voucher covers for a year. But after that year, you can transfer the voucher anywhere in the country. That means you can bypass a decade-long waiting list in a big city if you’re willing to live in the middle of nowhere for a year. For some people, this is worth it. You also might find that you like the area where you got your voucher and decide to stay. You can find out a lot more about vouchers and transfers at How to Get On.
3. If you have a Section 8 housing voucher, these resources can help you find an accessible apartment or house.
If you have a Section 8 voucher, AffordableHousing.com (formerly known as Go Section 8) has listings of apartments that accept vouchers. It includes a filter for wheelchair accessible properties, although as usual, you will need to check specific units to see whether they will work for your needs.
4. Find market-rate accessible units and call to ask if they will accept your Section 8 housing voucher.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with the Section 8 program is that many landlords don’t want to accept it. Some of this is due to classism and bias against people who receive housing assistance, but the program itself can also be a real hassle for landlords. For example, a nitpicky yearly inspection is required, and Section 8 won’t reimburse landlords if the tenant damages the property. Since voucher tenants are low-income, landlords are unlikely to successfully collect damages from them in court.
Some states have passed laws prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on source of income, which means they cannot technically legally deny someone with a Section 8 voucher. However, it is extremely easy to get around these laws, and discrimination is hard to prove.
All this means you may face an uphill battle when trying to find a market-rate apartment that will take your voucher. However, it’s still worth it to reach out, especially to small landlords who may be more open-minded. If you’re polite, quiet, and clean, they may give you a chance.
5. Consider homeownership — it may be possible!
Many people on disability benefits assume that they will never be able to own a home. That’s not necessarily the case. There are options for affordable home ownership. If you have Section 8, the Housing Choice Voucher Homeownership Program will allow you to use it for a mortgage payment instead.
If you have always dreamed of owning a custom-built accessible house, the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity specializes in building affordable homes for low-income families. I know several people with physical disabilities who have purchased houses through Habitat and it has been life-changing for them.
6. Contact your local Center for Independent Living for additional resources and support.
Centers for Independent Living are nonprofit organizations that specialize in helping people with disabilities thrive in their communities. Your local CIL will have lots of information on programs available in your area that this nationally focused guide could not possibly cover. To find a center near you, visit the National Council on Independent Living website.
How to Find a Wheelchair Accessible Apartment
Apartment hunting isn’t fun for anybody, but it’s especially difficult for people with disabilities that limit their mobility. If you are a wheelchair user or use a cane, walker, or other device and can’t navigate stairs, here are some tips to help you in your wheelchair accessible apartment search.
1. Determine the degree of accessibility you require in your apartment.
People with physical disabilities have a wide range of needs in terms of accessibility. The ADA has broad and extensive requirements because it is supposed to make things accessible for everyone. You may not need an apartment that meets all those requirements. For example, if you’re partially ambulatory and walk around your home, you may need a ramp and elevator, a wide entrance door, and some safety rails in the bathroom, but you don’t necessarily need an adapted kitchen or roll-in shower.
Fully accessible apartments have trade-offs that make them not right for everyone. For example, a kitchen with lower countertops may be less functional for non-disabled family members. Roll-in showers that are not properly installed (aka most of them) tend to leak, and aren’t helpful for someone with partial mobility who benefits from soaking in a tub to relieve chronic pain.
Apartments with lowered counters and roll-in showers are rare, so it’s best to leave those units open for someone who needs them if you can. But if you do need one, don’t settle for less. Keep searching until you find the amenities you need to have full use of your apartment.
2. Use the accessibility filter and keyword searches on apartment listing websites.
Most large apartment-finding websites include a filter for wheelchair accessibility. This will narrow your search down to a list of apartments that claim to be accessible. However, keep in mind that most websites do not have standards for what makes a unit accessible, and many property managers have no idea what accessibility really means. These searches may also miss accessible units that were not labeled as such by the landlord, and units that might meet your needs if you don’t require a roll-in shower or other extensive interior accessibility features.
Try searching by keywords too, such as “wheelchair,” “ramp,” “elevator,” and outdated, offensive terms some people still use such as “special needs housing” and “handicap accessible apartment.” (It is 2023, please STOP using “handicap” already, people!)
3. Look for apartments in newer buildings.
Apartment complexes built after 1991 are covered by the Fair Housing Act’s new construction requirements and must have accessible entrances, facilities, and some accessibility within units. Unfortunately, this also means that wheelchair accessible apartments tend to be more expensive. if you’re not finding units labeled as accessible, start looking at newer buildings to see if they have anything that might work.
4. Contact the leasing office to get specific details about wheelchair accessibility.
You should never rent a wheelchair accessible apartment sight unseen. Many landlords claim (or truly believe) that a unit is accessible when it actually is not. Before touring, let alone renting, contact the leasing office or property manager to find out what specific features are available in the complex and the unit. Is there an accessible parking space? Is there a step-free pathway from that parking space to the unit? Are there steps into the unit or to access essential amenities such as laundry?
5. Tour the property before committing to a rental.
After you’ve received promising information regarding an apartment, you should always take a tour to confirm the details for yourself before renting. Management companies won’t deceive you on purpose, but they often don’t understand what accessibility means. For example, they might think that one step is not a big deal.
If you are unable to tour a wheelchair accessible housing unit in person because you’re moving from far away, have someone give you a personalized tour on FaceTime or Zoom. Don’t rely on pre-recorded video tours, as they often don’t show areas of the home that are important for disabled renters, such as the bathroom. While you’re in the video call, ask to see all the important areas of the apartment and amenities. You can even have the person giving you the tour take measurements to make sure that doors and hallways are wide enough for your wheelchair.
6. Have all your disability documentation ready when you sign your lease.
Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords can request documentation from a medical professional that you need to make modifications to the property and/or rental policies due to your disability. However, the documentation does not need to include your diagnosis, just a statement explaining why you need these accommodations. If you know you will be moving or looking for a rental soon, it’s a good idea to approach your doctors in advance so you can have everything ready. This is especially important if you require a service dog or emotional support animal, as some landlords can be difficult about accommodating them, even though they are legally required to do so.
How to Find and Buy a Wheelchair Accessible House
Homeownership can grant tremendous security to people with physical disabilities. Owning your own home gives you total freedom to have any accessibility features you need. However, finding a home that is already accessible or that can easily be made accessible can be a considerable challenge. These tips can help you buy a wheelchair accessible home.
Wheelchair Accessible Home Options
There are many options for buying a wheelchair accessible house, including some you may not have thought about or heard of before. Here are some examples along with the pros and cons of each.
Many wheelchair users choose condominium living due to its simplicity compared to other types of home ownership. Here are some points in favor of choosing a condo:
Easy Maintenance: Lawn care and trash pickup are covered by your HOA fees. It’s one less thing to worry about if you’re physically disabled and can’t do those things yourself.
Remodel Your Interior: Unlike renting, you have the freedom to remodel the interior of your condo as needed, and you don’t have to undo it all if you decide to sell.
Social Opportunities: Many condominium complexes and developments have amenities and activities.
With that said, there are also several disadvantages to choosing a condo:
Potential HOA Issues: HOAs must follow the Americans with Disabilities Act and cannot legally prevent you from installing a wheelchair ramp, having an assigned accessible parking space, or making other necessary changes to the exterior of the building or your unit. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to stop you or make your life miserable in the process. They can also be difficult to deal with if you have a service dog, even though that is your legal right.
Lack of Privacy: Condos have the same privacy issues as apartments, and your noise or a neighbor’s noise could become an issue. However, some condo developments have duplexes and standalone cottages that provide all the advantages of a condo in terms of maintenance but with more privacy.
Condominiums are an excellent housing choice for seniors and quiet adults with disabilities. They might not be good for service dog owners and people who prefer a diverse and creative living environment. Always review the HOA rules before you buy and ask potential neighbors about the HOA’s reputation.
Manufactured or Mobile Homes and Tiny Houses
Aside from Habitat for Humanity, mobile homes and tiny houses are the most affordable way to have your own custom accessible home. Here are some advantages to consider:
Affordable Customization: Several companies make wheelchair accessible mobile homes, “park model” RVs, and tiny houses. They already have ADA features such as roll-in showers, but the companies can also customize your home for the fraction of the cost of a custom standard-built home.
Low Cost: Mobile homes are the least expensive way to own your own home. If you are able to buy properly zoned property, you can place the home there and have total freedom to live as you choose.
With that said, there are some significant drawbacks of wheelchair accessible mobile homes:
Zoning Barriers: Many neighborhoods won’t allow you to place a mobile home or park a tiny house, even on your own property. If you run into this issue, consider a modular home instead (described in the next section).
Lower Resale Value: Unlike standard or modular homes, mobile homes can depreciate in value. They are almost always worth less than a standard home of the same size would be when you resell.
Quality Issues: Some mobile home companies make substandard products that don’t last. The materials are lower quality and you may end up with maintenance issues sooner than you would with a new standard home. Mobile homes are highly vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and tornados.
Mobile Home Park Problems: Mobile homes are viewed negatively in some parts of the United States, and unfortunately, that reputation can be deserved. Some mobile home parks do not do a good job of maintaining public areas or screening who is allowed to live there. They can become havens for sex offenders and other violent criminals. In some parts of the country, large investors are buying up mobile home parks and exponentially raising the cost of lot rent, making it unaffordable. Mobile homes are not as easy to move as the name suggests, so leaving is often not an option.
Mobile homes are an excellent affordable wheelchair accessible housing solution if you can purchase the property on which they will be placed. However, approach living in a mobile home park with caution, and research the park’s history and reputation before committing to live there. If you plan on moving, consider a tiny house on wheels instead of a mobile home.
Companies That Make Wheelchair Accessible Mobile/Manufactured Homes and Tiny Houses
- Meridian Homes
- Reliable Home Solutions
- Tiny Idahomes
- Little House on the Trailer
- Athens Park Models
Many people have not heard of modular homes because they are somewhat new, but the concept is simple. Modular homes are constructed in sections in a warehouse and then transported to the building site and assembled. Unlike a mobile home, most modular homes have several sections, and an unlimited number of sections can be connected, so they don’t resemble trailers. Modular homes are built with the same materials as standard homes and permanently installed onto a foundation. Let’s look at the advantages of modular homes for wheelchair accessibility:
Fast Construction: Since modular homes are constructed indoors before being moved, they can be built much faster. Winter weather and rain do not delay the process as much as if everything was built on-site.
Easy Customization: Although modular homes have pre-designed layouts available, they are generally easy to modify. There are modular home companies that already make accessible houses, and if you need interior modifications, they can be done during the construction process for minimal extra cost as long as they don’t affect exterior walls.
Lower Cost: Modular homes cost more than mobile homes, but less than site-built homes. In many cases, building a modular home is cheaper than buying a home and remodeling it for accessibility.
Resale Value: Modular homes hold resale value as well as site-built homes, since once they are put together, there’s no real difference in construction.
No Zoning Issues: Modular homes can be built anywhere site-built homes are allowed, as they follow all state and federal building codes.
Modular homes don’t have many disadvantages, but here are a few to consider:
Less Customization: Although modular homes are customizable, they don’t offer quite as much flexibility as a home you build on-site from scratch. However, for the vast majority of home buyers with disabilities, this won’t be an issue.
Property Location: It can be difficult to find a lot for building in urban areas. The modular home company will need to make sure they can get the pieces of the house to your building site. Extra costs could be incurred if there are power lines, trees, or other barriers in the way.
Can’t Supervise Construction: Since modular homes are constructed offsite, you may not spot accessibility issues until the home has arrived at your property.
Modular homes are the best affordable housing solution for people with disabilities because they combine lower cost with quality and freedom of choice. If you’ve always wanted to build your own custom home but the cost was out of reach, a modular home could make it possible.
Companies That Make Wheelchair Accessible Modular Homes
Site Built Custom Wheelchair Accessible Home
If you have the money and the time, a fully custom home will always be your best option for wheelchair accessible housing. Here are some advantages of this choice:
Total Flexibility: If you can dream it, you can build it, as long as you’re willing to hire an architect. But you don’t need to go that far. You can choose from hundreds of wheelchair accessible house plans available online, or find a house plan that is mostly-accessible and hire an architect to modify the bathroom or other areas that need changes.
Supervise Construction: You can watch your house being built and quickly catch any accessibility issues that pop up, preventing expensive remodels later.
Building your own custom home has some disadvantages too, of course:
Cost: Building your own custom home is expensive. However, it may be cheaper to build new than remodel if your current home has major accessibility issues.
Construction Time: It can take at least a year to build a new home, or even longer if you run into difficulties with permits or need to have plans modified by an architect. If you need accessible housing now, it’s not the best option.
Location and Construction Limitations: It can be difficult to find a lot for building in more urban areas. If you build your home in a new development, you may have to adhere to certain requirements such as a minimum square footage that could add to costs.
A home you build yourself will always be the most accessible because you can customize it to your needs. If you are fortunate enough to be able to build your own home, you should absolutely do so. My parents built an accessible home when I was a teenager and it was amazing. I wish I could live in such a house today.
Wheelchair Accessible House Plans for Sale
- The House Designers — they have my dream house
- Drummond House Plans
- Living Concepts
- One-Bedroom Accessible Cottage Plan
Buying a Home That Is Already Wheelchair Accessible
Finding a home for sale that is already accessible and meets your specific needs is like finding the Holy Grail. I won’t bother listing the advantages and disadvantages, because if you can find one, you are lucky indeed.
Try these tools to aid you in your quest:
1. Use filters on real estate websites to find homes labeled as accessible for people with disabilities.
Some real estate agents will label accessible homes so they show up under filters. Unfortunately, some will not if they mistakenly believe that wheelchair accessibility harms resale value. Since these websites don’t provide a definition of accessible, homes labeled as such can range tremendously from having a rotting wooden ramp to the front door to gorgeous custom homes with lowered kitchen counters and an elevator. Still, this is a good place to start. You can also search for keywords like ramp, wheelchair, and handicap (yuck, but some people still use it).
2. Post about your search in local Facebook groups, subReddits, and disability groups.
As someone who has sold multiple accessible properties, I have always wanted to sell to someone with a disability, but so far it hasn’t happened, and that makes me sad. Posting online if you’re buying or selling can help connect these homes to people who need them.
3. Check sites that specialize in disability-friendly home listings.
There aren’t many wheelchair accessible housing sales listings on these sites, but they’re worth checking anyway,
- Barrier-Free Homes
- Accessible Housing Services — consulting firm that will help you find or remodel a house
- Accessible Homes for Sale Facebook Group
- Accessible Property UK — for our friends in the UK
Buying and Then Remodeling a Home for Wheelchair Accessibility
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the wheelchair accessible housing stock in the USA is incredibly low. If they can’t afford to build a new house, most people with disabilities buy a home and then remodel it for wheelchair accessibility. Here are some advantages of this option:
Choice: If you can afford it and remodeling is feasible, you can live anywhere.
Avoid Moving: If you own a home you love and don’t want to sell it, but you’ve become disabled or you’re aging, remodeling may be the right choice for you.
Spread Renovation Costs Over Time: You can get a loan to help with the cost of remodeling, or make improvements incrementally as your budget allows. For example, I cannot live in a home without an accessible bathroom, so I had that work done, but am saving up to redo my kitchen.
Remodeling also has major disadvantages to consider:
Cost: Remodeling can range from affordable to prohibitively expensive, and a lot depends on the house you’re starting with. Remodeling a home with many barriers may not be worth the cost and time compared to buying or building a house that is accessible. If your home is older, you may discover problems that lead to unexpected additional costs during the renovation process.
Imperfect Results: Unless you spend a fortune, a remodeled home probably won’t be as seamlessly accessible as one built to be so from scratch.
If you already have a home that lends itself to accessibility, remodeling is worthwhile. If you can find a house that can be remodeled without excessive cost, by all means, go for it. I’ve done this twice and although the accessibility level isn’t quite that of a custom-built home, it cost much less.
Choosing the Right House to Remodel
You may not be able to find fully wheelchair accessible housing in the real estate listings, but you can still save a lot of money and trouble by choosing the right almost-accessible house to remodel. If you are buying a home, be sure to consider these factors to minimize your renovation costs.
1. Search for homes labeled as having accessible features.
As mentioned above, these homes may not be fully wheelchair accessible, but they can be a good place to start. Try limiting your search to single-story houses. This will filter out many houses that could not possibly meet your needs.
2. Choose a house with “good bones” for accessibility.
People always talk about finding a house with good bones, which generally means that it’s well-constructed and has the basic layout and features you need. In the case of accessibility, that means features like having only one story, or at least having all the major rooms of the home on one level.
Look for an open floor plan, wide doorways, and at least one large bathroom. Avoid steep driveways and hilly areas if you can. Houses with 1-2 steps are much easier to ramp; if there are more than 3 steps, you’re looking at substantial costs to build a long ramp or install a platform lift.
3. Learn about architectural styles — it’s interesting, but more importantly, it will aid your search.
Familiarize yourself with the popular architectural styles in your area and whether they lend themselves to easy remodeling. Once you get the hang of this, you can tell just by a picture of the exterior whether it’s worth clicking on the listing. For example, split-level homes are probably the worst option for wheelchair accessibility. If you can tell in the photo that a house is a split level (or it’s labeled as such) you can skip it.
In general, ranch homes are a great choice for wheelchair accessibility as the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms are all on one level. Some ranch houses have a basement, but it’s not essential to access it to use the home.
Single-story bungalows are another great choice for easy remodeling as they tend to have an open floor plan and no more than two steps. Some older bungalows only have one small bathroom, but you may be able to add a second, accessible bathroom off the master bedroom and simultaneously increase the value of the home.
4. Don’t buy a house that would need an elevator.
Unless you have some ability to walk and can use a chair lift, I recommend not buying a home with multiple floors, as elevators are extremely expensive. They also break down, so you’re putting yourself at risk of being trapped if there’s no way out from an upper floor or basement. If you do have a basement you can’t access, you could turn it into an apartment for a live-in caregiver, or just use it for storage.
Learn More About Wheelchair Accessible Housing
This guide is part of a series on wheelchair accessibility. Check out our other articles for further resources.
Do you have additional resources we should add to this wheelchair accessible housing guide?
Please leave a comment below or contact us with your tips and ideas to make this guide more helpful to everyone.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Ability Toolbox. I received my BA in English from Stanford University and MA in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles, and have worked in entertainment and health media for over 20 years. As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, I am deeply committed to amplifying the voices of the disability community through writing and advocacy.
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