Better Service for Clients With Disabilities

On the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, it’s time to evaluate your understanding of the needs of home buyers and sellers who have disabilities.

If you aren’t thinking about ways to make the real estate experience work better for those with disabilities, you could be excluding 53 million clients from your business. That’s according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which estimated that nearly 22 percent of U.S. adults have some sort of disability. This includes people who have issues with mobility, cognition, independent living, vision, and self-care. Notably absent is those with hearing issues, meaning the pool of potential clients who may need special consideration is even larger. You can also glean local data from the CDC report, which includes a table of state-by-state percentages and types of disabilities.

Many industries are grappling with how to better serve those with disabilities and real estate professionals should be examining their business practices as well. With the baby boomer generation aging and modern medicine allowing us all to live longer than we’d imagined a century ago, the percentage of people in the housing market with disabilities will likely grow in the coming years. Are you ready to serve them?

Combatting Discrimination, Improving Empathy

While changes to the Americans With Disabilities Act moving through Congress are grabbing headlines, the more important law to heed is the federal Fair Housing Act, which turns 50 this year and prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of disability. “While many tend to associate the fair housing law with race, it's important for real estate professionals to understand it covers much more than that,” says Fred Underwood, director of diversity and inclusion at the National Association of REALTORS®. “As NAR commemorates the 50th anniversary of this important sea change in housing discrimination, I hope to see brokers and agents reevaluating how to best serve many diverse groups, including those who have disabilities.”

Such issues are on the radar of certain agents and brokers across the country. Sandra A. Butler, AHWD, vice president of sales at Sibcy Cline, REALTORS®, in Cincinnati, teaches classes to fellow real estate professionals in diversity and inclusion and has been involved in various committees to make housing more equitable. Butler says one of the most important things real estate professionals can do to combat discrimination is to look inward: “Having professionals examine their implicit biases is great step on the way to becoming a better agent who can expand their service base.”

Many clients with disabilities don’t want to be treated as different, so it’s important to understand their preferences at the beginning of the business relationship. “Cease worrying about the idea that you’ll say or do the wrong thing. If someone’s legs, eyes, ears, or speech doesn’t function perfectly, it doesn’t mean that they live in another space-time universe,” says Robbie Schaecken, a disabled person living in San Diego who has bought and sold several properties in the past few years. For example, even though she contends with both mobility and visual issues due to diabetes, she says that she isn’t offended when an agent describes a home as “within walking distance” of certain amenities. Underwood confirms that “walking distance” is not a violation of the Fair Housing Act in general, though he cautions agents against using statements like “walk to” a destination because they connote a preferred type of mobility (in this case, walking) rather than referring to a common way of measuring a distance.

But it’s not just about being on the right side of the law. Jackie Simon, AHWD, GRI, broker-owner of Jackie Simon Homes LLC in Montgomery Village, Md., has been in the business over 40 years and received a variety of awards for her work helping people with disabilities. She says putting in the extra effort to help home buyers and sellers with disabilities is well worth it: “Once you learn something about their needs and how to meet them with some out-of-the-box resources, it’s tremendously satisfying.”

Working With Buyers

If you’re working with buyer clients who have disabilities, Schaecken says one important task is conducting a thorough exploration of housing priorities before you show them anything. “For instance, for many disabled people, access to public transport is essential,” Schaecken says. “Have full discussions about specific needs that would make a comfortable living situation for the client. An agent who becomes aware of restrictions the client faces helps that person find their dream home.”

Simon suggests specific questions in the initial client interview to help find out how to serve buyers best. “Finding out what is the hardest part of your client’s day is an exercise that’ll give you immediate direction,” she says. “If kitchen chores are tough, show properties accordingly. Deaf individuals may not mind that listing under the airport. Most of all, realize that almost everyone is depending on others for basics like getting to a grocery store, so properties with close shopping are usually popular.”

Simon also reminds real estate professionals that some special needs home shoppers need more time as they may move slower or require rest during a day. Blind clients may want you to describe home features in great detail, need to explore walls and openings using a tactile approach, or stand in the center of a room clapping or making a clicking sound to hear the contours of the space. A hearing-impaired client may bring along a friend who can help interpret for them, while a person with speech impairments may bring a tablet or phone that talks for them.

Working With Sellers

When acquiring a listing owned by a disabled individual, your plan should include marketing the property to others in the disabled community. Usually the property will have met certain lending requirements and generally be attractive in terms of transportation, shopping, and livability perspectives. Look for websites, local social media groups, and events attended by disabled people or their caretakers for marketing opportunities.

If your listing already has modifications made for those with disabilities, many of these items can be replaced, but that might not always be the best course of action. Modifications such as grab bars and corner seats in the shower have become much less institutional in recent years. Such assistive items are now being marketed as “jewelry for the bathroom” and come as a set in multiple finishes so everything matches beautifully. When done right, they can give the bathroom a luxury, high-end look.

Kitchen counters that have been lowered specifically for those who use wheelchairs can be expensive to redo entirely. However, since cabinet units are often mounted on four legs with a baseboard covering them, it’s fairly simple to remove the countertops, replace the cupboard legs with taller ones, and reapply the same countertops. This process costs homeowners much less than a total replacement job.

If buyers are interested in removing a permanent ramp that’s been installed to access a home, they may be happy to know it’s really just a matter of cement removal and replacing of the flooring in the doorway section. It’s not a large job, but it can be messy and varies depending on the location and length. However, having ramp access to one’s home not only makes it more accessible to visitors with mobility issues, it can also make it easier for everything from furniture dollies to strollers, so removal might not even be necessary.

Showing homes may be a different exercise as well. Sellers who can’t leave home due to mobility restrictions may need strict appointment timelines from potential buyers. What times of day work best for them? How long can they be away from their home at one stretch? Take time to understand what a successful home showing or open house might look like for your seller client and do your best to prepare buyers agents and home shoppers for a smooth experience.

When serving buyers and sellers with disabilities, don’t be afraid to adjust your thinking and do some research. It could make for some fulfilling additions to your business contacts and enrich the lives of people who are often ignored.

Financing Help

A wide variety of organizations and institutions offers disabled people help in assembling the funds needed to buy or remodel a home. Here are some resources that may be helpful, depending upon the circumstances of your individual client.

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a list of HUD-approved counselors who can provide advice specifically for those with disabilities or who want to learn more about help available through their local public housing authority.
  • Disabled veterans have additional options, including the Veterans Affairs’ Special Housing Adaptation grant, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities adapt or purchase a home to accommodate the disability. 
  • Some states offer assistance to homeowners with disabilities or those who are looking to buy. Check out independent health and disability news source’s state-by-state rundown of programs and services. 

Take some time to find lending professionals who work with people who have disabilities. Also, once your client has settled on a grant or loan type, make sure you know about any requirements of the property (such as number of exits or other safety features) so that you can ensure the listings you show them qualify for the financing.

Working With Renters

While many people with disabilities might prefer to own their own home so that they can make permanent modifications, some may prefer to rent. As a real estate professional, you can help advocate for these clients by fully understanding their rights under the Fair Housing Act. Tenants must be allowed to modify a housing unit to make it accessible according to their disability-related needs. Some common modifications include a ramp, grab bars, reinforcements for grab bars, and other devices. Property owners and landlords cannot deny any reasonable changes, but permission to make modifications may be granted on the condition that the unit be returned to its original condition and configuration, particularly if the changes might limit the ability of a person without those disability-related issues to use the unit. There are other considerations having nothing to do with modifying the actual unit, that property owners, condo and homeowners associations, local governments, and others should keep in mind when serving the housing needs of people with disabilities. Some examples include admitting assistance animals, assigning accessible parking spaces, allowing live-in caregivers, and more. And finally, it is illegal to charge an additional security deposit or other fees for any of these accommodations.