When Stairs Are Stumbling Blocks

By Eric Christensen

November 12, 2013 5 min read

Many retiring baby boomers are looking for homes that are better suited for their golden years, which means downsizing. And as mobility increasingly becomes an issue, retirees are choosing single-story homes and installing safety bars in their bathrooms and pull-out cabinet shelves in the kitchen. But doors are often raised off of the ground by a few inches or even feet, and homeowners are considering ramps to address this issue. Ramps come in many sizes and in a variety of materials, and depending on how they are installed and where the house is located, these ramps may even boost the home's resale value.

Threshold ramps are perfect for doors that require only a small step of a few inches or less. Although that distance may seem slight, for people with mobility issues, even a small step down could cause an injury. Small and wedge-shaped threshold ramps typically are made of aluminum or rubber, but they are strong enough to support even wheelchairs. Compact and easy to install, threshold ramps are also easy to remove when it comes time to sell the home.

If you are uncertain about installing a ramp, Warren Moe of the Minneapolis-based Metropolitan Center for Independent Living says modified stairs might be an option. Typically, stairs have a rise of 6 to 7 inches and a run (or depth) of 11 inches per step. Modified stairs are gentler, employing a rise of 3.5 to 5 inches and a run of 2 feet. Modified stairs are unlikely to have a marked impact on resale value.

However, if mobility issues are more severe, a ramp might be the only option. Homeowners can tailor ramps to their needs, budget and personal aesthetic preferences. A small, portable option is a briefcase ramp. So named because they fold up and have carrying handles, briefcase ramps are made of slip-resistant aluminum and come in a variety of sizes. These ramps can be either left out all the time or used when needed. However, these ramps are unsecured, so they may be stolen, and they require someone who can lift and carry 10 to 40 pounds, depending on the ramp.

A larger, more permanent and more secure option is to build a ramp. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that a ramp have a rise of 1 inch and a run of 1 foot. Moe says the MCIL builds its ramps according to that metric out of pressure-treated lumber, although other companies build their ramps out of steel, aluminum or concrete. MCIL's design can support up to 60 pounds per square foot, "which is more than enough to support anyone on any power chair." He says, "Our modular design makes the ramp adaptable to almost any yard." These designs can survive the worst of Minnesota's weather, but "they are also removable and reusable because they do not require posts buried below the frost line."

Local volunteers build MCIL's ramps, but if you live outside of the Twin Cities area, MCIL sells a "How To Build Ramps for Home Accessibility" guide and DVD for $20. Alternatively, a quick Internet search for local groups that provide senior or elderly assistance will put you in touch with social networking sites and local volunteer and nonprofit groups that might be able to help with ramp construction. For example, Richard Nix, executive vice president of AgingCare.com, says more than 6 million caregivers visit his site's forums across the nation and trade information on topics including reliable builders and preferred models of ramps.

Predicting how ramps will affect resale value is a difficult prospect. However, if the home is located in a community that caters to older residents, a house with ramps and other accessories already installed might see an increase in value. If resale is a concern, plan for future removal when installing a ramp. Additionally, ramp location might affect resale value. A large ramp leading up to the front door might detract potential buyers, while a ramp leading up to a side entrance might not. As boomers enter retirement, ramp models and materials will continue to evolve. But above all, the important thing is to find a model that is strong, sturdy and safe.

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