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What to look for in the last house you’ll ever buy

People can help their future selves by choosing

People can help their future selves by choosing a home with a bathroom, like this one at an East Meadow home  seen in 2009, with safety bars that is spacious enough to maneuver a walker or wheelchair. Credit: Pablo Corradi

My husband and I bought what we thought was a starter home 20 years ago. Now we think of it as our “forever” home, where we plan to retire and live out the rest of our days.

We got lucky, because most of the features that make our place good for “aging in place” — the single-story layout, open design, wide doorways — weren’t on our must-have list when we were newlyweds.

We’re not the only people who didn’t think far enough into our future. The vast majority of home buyers and remodelers don’t consider what it might be like to grow old in their homes, says Richard Duncan, executive director of the Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute, a nonprofit in Asheville, North Carolina, that promotes accessible design for housing, public buildings and parks.

“We think aging is what happens to other people,” Duncan says. “Nobody puts away money to save for that good-looking ramp they’ve always wanted.”

  • What to seek in your last home

Since truly accessible dwellings are rare, people can focus instead of finding one that can be easily adapted to their needs as they age, Duncan says, such as a home with at least one bedroom on the same level as the kitchen, a full bathroom and the laundry room.

Duncan and his wife are currently renovating a home to make it more accessible after moving from Chapel Hill to Asheville, North Carolina, to be closer to their daughter. The couple found a first-floor condo and are remodeling it to widen the master bedroom doorway, replace the thick carpeting with solid-surface floors and add a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat that is easier to adjust. Future projects will include making the front entrance and back porch “step-free” (they now have 2-inch and 3-inch rises, respectively) and creating a “curbless” or step-free shower.

Other important features to look for include:

— Open floor plans that minimize the number of hallways and doorways older people have to navigate.

— Hallways in main living areas that are at least 42 inches wide and bedroom and bathroom doors that are 32 inches wide for wheelchair access.

— Baths and kitchens that can be made more accessible.

“You don’t need to create an institutional-looking home,”, says Rodney Harrell, director of livability thought leadership at AARP Public Policy Institute. “You just need to think about your future needs.”

Standard wheelchairs require a 5-foot turning radius and showers without steps. People can help their future selves by choosing a home with a bathroom that’s spacious enough to maneuver a walker (or a person plus a caregiver) and a shower that’s large enough to include a chair or seat.

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