Sunday, June 3, 2001
By KIM MULFORD
For 45-year-old Karen Massaro, living in her former multi-level house was "hell."
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, the Voorhees resident was forced to go house shopping in 1999 when she grew tired of fighting the barriers in her house. The stairs and steps made things like getting the mail nearly impossible for Massaro, who uses a wheelchair to get around.
"You become a prisoner in your own home," Massaro said. " I shopped online because I couldn't get out."
With an aging population and an increase in awareness, demand for single-family homes that are handicapped-accessible is growing fast. In 1997, about one in 10 Americans had a severe disability that affected their mobility or interfered with basic activities, according to the Census Bureau. The government estimates about half of people age 65 and older have a disability, although that number also includes disabilities that don't affect mobility.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, there's a growing market niche prompting builders to offer " universal homes" featuring ramps, at least one bedroom on the first floor and wider doors and hallways. Such homes are expected to be more marketable because they are more adaptable to people's needs.
Locally, at least one developer is offering a handicapped-accessible rancher, complete with roll-in shower, lowered counters, roll-under sinks, levered doors and no steps. Group Ten Builders of Marlton, part of a consortium of builders called Homes on Parade, recently completed a model of its accessible "Franklin" house, which is in a model park on Radix Road in Williamstown.
Priced at about $180,000, the home can be built in a number of communities throughout South Jersey. The rancher is also offered without the accessible features and with a full basement instead.
While building an age-restricted development in Delran, Mitchell Zbik, vice president of operations for Group Ten Builders, discovered there was a market for single-family, handicapped-accessible housing. Several clients asked for modifications in their homes to accommodate their disabilities.
The developer decided to redesign his most popular rancher for people with accessibility issues. The three- bedroom, two-bath home is comparable in price to other ranchers the builder offers.
"When you walk into the house, it's a nice-looking home," Zbik said.
Rick Van Osten, executive vice president of The Builders League of South Jersey, doesn't know of any other builders who have built an accessible model home.
"This could be a good option," Van Osten said. "It's a good way to stay in your existing house longer."
After four months of searching, Massaro, the multiple sclerosis victim, bought a ranch home in Voorhees about a year ago, after making some minor modifications to the house. But not everyone can find what they need so easily.
"I think every builder should do something like this," Massaro said. "There's a demand for it, not just for handicapped people, but for people who are getting older."
"I think it's a wonderful idea," agreed Norman Reim, spokesman for the New Jersey Developmental Disabilities Council. "I think it serves to take one more step toward desegregating people with disabilities from other homeowners."
Many people are renovating their homes to accommodate physical disabilities, said Jim Tarzy of Tri-County Development Group in Marlton, who has seen an increase in such business. The company often widens doorways, installs ramps and lifts and modifies bathrooms.
"I never realized how many people are handicapped until we started getting into it," Tarzy said. "There's a steady flow of jobs coming in every week, every month."
Christopher Lynch, president of Alternatives to Barriers Inc., designs homes and home modifications for people with disabilities throughout the country. Most modifications for people in wheelchairs range between $60,000 and $80,000. Much of that cost cannot be recouped in the home's resale value.
Most of the Hewitt, Passaic County-based company's clients are covered by insurance or have money from lawsuits stemming from disabling injuries. For other homeowners, however, it's not cheap to renovate.
"It's a problem," said Linda Smith, spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of America in Philadelphia. The nonprofit group recently surveyed its clients about housing issues and found many wanted new, accessible housing, particularly for people with middle- class incomes. That's because the government funds low- income housing for disabled people, and high-income people can afford to have a specially designed home.
"The fact is that people are very much looking for that kind of thing," Smith said. Accessible homes "are not there in the mid-pricing range."
"There's a huge need," said Garth Heid, who works for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of New Jersey. " People with disabilities are not being institutionalized to the extent that they once were. The community needs to be more accessible. It's much easier to build accessibility in rather than retrofit."