Stay in your home

Smart adaptations will ensure it ages well as you get older

Consumer Reports Money Adviser: May 2012

Many of us would like to stay in our home as we get older. Our ability to do so could depend on how easy it will be to get around the house if we develop physical limitations. “We’re living longer, but our homes are not aging as well as we are,” says Bill Owens, who runs a construction company in Columbus, Ohio, and has a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the National Association of Home Builders.

There are simple and sometimes inexpensive ways you can tweak renovation projects to make your home more suitable. Home-accessory and appliance manufacturers offer sleek, stylish designs that are functional for the young and old alike. And making just a few of the changes discussed here might increase your home’s resale value.

Following are some ideas to consider when you’re replacing fixtures or appliances or doing home renovations. The prices were supplied by the experts we talked with but could vary depending on the cost of labor and building materials in your area.

Remove entrance barriers

A raised surface at the bottom of a doorway could be a tripping hazard for anyone with limited mobility and especially problematic for people using a walker or a wheelchair. An automatic door bottom will solve the problem. To install one, any surface above the floor level within a doorway is removed, then a spring-loaded device is attached to the bottom of the door. It drops a strip of insulation down to securely fill the extra space below the door as it closes, and automatically lifts it up as the door is opened. The devices cost around $75. Dan Bawden, a builder who helped create the CAPS program and owner of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston, estimates that installation will run an additional $225 to $275.

If you have a choice, install the automatic door bottom in an entrance that offers some protection from the elements, such as a porch or garage, so it will be convenient to use at any time of year in any kind of weather, Owens suggests.

If your entry door is narrower than 36 inches, consider widening it, which will allow someone using a wheelchair or walker easy access. The cost could run from about $500 to as much as $5,000, Owens says. Or you can put swing-clear hinges on the door, which will allow it to open entirely out of the doorframe. Each swing-clear hinge costs about $20 to $100 or more, depending on the finish you choose. You can also install the hinges on interior doors.

Make kitchen more convenient

The sink can be raised or lowered to a comfortable height.

Installing countertop work spaces at different heights (say, at both the typical 36 inches off the floor and 30 inches) will allow someone to work while standing or seated—and make it easier for children to help out at mealtimes, too. The space under a lower countertop should be left open so a chair or wheelchair can slide underneath, or you can fill it with a cabinet on wheels that can be easily rolled out of the way.

If you’re in the market for a new sink, also consider replacing your faucet with one that has lever handles or get a faucet that turns on and off with a light tap. Both are easier to use by someone who has arthritis. And faucets can be installed by the side of the sink rather than the back, making them easier to reach.

Keep ease of use in mind when you need to replace an old appliance. For example, look for a stove with controls in the front of the unit (many come with child lock-out controls). And some wall ovens now come with side-hinge doors, which make it easier to take items out of the oven from a seated position. (A shelf can be installed below the oven as a resting place for hot items.) They tend to be pricey, however, starting at around $1,500.

When floors and countertops need a face-lift, consider finishes or edge treatments with contrasting colors. “That makes it easier to differentiate the edges of the countertop from the floor when you’re working in the kitchen,” says Mike Davis, who runs TMT Home Remodelers in Redmond, Ore., and is a past chairman of the CAPS board of governors.

Smart bathroom remodeling

It's easy to enter the curbless shower in this remodeled bath.

If you’re planning to update your bath, consider installing a curbless shower that is level with your bathroom floor. Eliminating the step will make it easy to enter and exit. Designs typically include a spot to sit while showering. Bawden says the curbless showers he installs cost about $8,000 on average. “If we put one in on a ground floor, we may have to jackhammer the slab to get the necessary drainage slope, so that will run a bit more,” he says.

A hand-held showerhead set on a sliding bar with a 6-foot hose is handy because it can be used standing or seated. Having a plumber install one might run $250 to $300, depending on the finish and style you choose. “Handy homeowners can save by installing their own fixture,” Bawden says. Look for faucets with lifetime warranties that cover leaks and stains. 

Have a strong backing like plywood put behind new walls around showers and sinks so grab bars can be easily installed if you decide to add them later. “Where you install grab bars depends on your range of motion, strength, and size, so we recommend you only put them in when you need them,” Owens says.

Depending on the style you choose, adding a grab bar could cost $70 to $200 on a properly backed wall. But it can cost three to four times more if you have to tear out a wall to install plywood backing.

If you’re replacing a tiled floor, you might want to look for flooring with a slightly textured surface. The Tile Council of North America has recently adopted a new slip-resistance test called the Dynamic Coefficient of Friction (DCOF).  This number is sometimes on tile packaging or information. Ideally you’re looking for 0.42 or higher (the higher the number the better the slip resistance). But too much can be a problem too, so consult your health professional.

Ease outdoor mobility

When it comes time to replace stairs leading to an entry door, you might want to install a ramp instead. The cost to build one depends on how much ground it needs to cover and the materials you use. You might want to hire a pro for this project to make sure the ramp is secure.

Wood is one of the most inexpensive materials to use, but it has to be routinely protected with a sealer or varnish to prevent rotting and warping, and nonslip strips must be added. Concrete is more expensive but requires less maintenance. Before it dries, concrete can be brushed to add antislip properties. If your doorway is, say, 6 inches above ground level, your ramp should be 6-feet long to ensure its slope is not too steep. A ramp of that length with railing in pressure-treated wood might cost around $1,500; in concrete, almost twice as much.

Replace uneven walkways with wide, flat ones. “Aim for pathways that are 4 feet wide so they can be safely used by people with uneven gaits or in wheelchairs, and add a texture to make them nonslip,” Bawden says. He suggests using concrete or wide pavers for pathways. Avoid stone because the surfaces tend to be uneven.

All around the house

Install more lighting. You might want to add additional light fixtures above stairways, as well as in bedrooms, living rooms, family rooms, and anyplace you like to read. Add lights as needed to outdoor pathways. Also consider replacing hard-to-reach fixtures that have single light bulbs (especially if they illuminate staircases) with ones that hold multiple bulbs. That way if a bulb burns out, you’ll still have some illumination until you get around to replacing it. Rocker-style light switches are especially easy to turn on and off.

Davis suggests installing LED light strips under cabinets and in hallways where you walk at night. “LED strips used to be very expensive, but we can now install them for $10 a linear foot. They provide a huge amount of light with low energy use,” he says. Or you can buy motion light sensors that turn on automatically when you enter a room for a cost of around $15 each. 

Replace old doorknobs.
Lever handles are easier to use than doorknobs. You can find lots of styles and finishes at Amazon and big-box stores. Prices start at about $10 each and go up to $100 or more.

Eliminate tripping hazards.
Replace throw rugs with low-pile carpeting or nonslip flooring.

Consider an elevator.
Installing an elevator might run you anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, but having one could allow you to stay in your home. “Mobility issues are generally the first reason people move into assisted-living facilities,” Owens says. The median cost of a one-bedroom unit in an assisted-living facility in 2011 was $39,132, according to an annual survey conducted by Genworth Financial. And Owens says an elevator will add value to your home if you decide to sell. “New owners will likely want to stay in the home as long as possible, too,” he says, “so an elevator will be an attractive feature.”

Where to get advice

Builders who are Certified Aging in Place Specialists can suggest ways to update your home that will fit your needs and budget as you age. To find one, go to the website of the National Association of Home Builders, and type “Hire a certified aging in place specialist” in the search box.

The website of the National Aging in Place Council offers advice on home modifications, along with links to all types of service providers, including remodeling consultants. Click on the pull-down menu “Practical Advice” to find photos and information under “Making Your Home Senior Friendly.”

An occupational therapist can evaluate the way you perform everyday tasks around the house and recommend renovations that will increase your safety, like helping you decide where to install grab bars. Ask your physician for a referral to a therapist in your area.

Your local Area Agency on Aging office can also help you find nearby occupational therapists. And the agency provides information on programs that offer housekeeping, in-home skilled nursing care, and other services you might need. To find the nearest office, go to the Eldercare Locator of the Department of Health and Human Services or call 800-677-1116.


An earlier version of this article said to look for a manufacturer's slip coefficient of 0.06 or higher.

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