“Well that’s a first,” I said as I hung up the phone after talking to Nancy, 81, of Kansas City, Kan.
Nancy had just rattled off a list of complaints about her newly constructed home. Among them was that the builder had put the master-suite’s walk-in closet in the bathroom, near the toilet.
Nancy refused to put her clothes in the closet because she was worried they’d smell like … well … use your imagination.
A few days later, I found myself taking a tour of Nancy’s home, which she shares with her husband, Lee. It’s in an age-restricted community for people 55 and older.
When they put in a bid to buy the lot, the developer told them he’d only sell it to them if they hired him to build their house. So they agreed, assuming they’d get a home that would allow them to age in place.
On the tour, the couple pointed out things they didn’t like: The sink is not next to the stove. The kitchen island is too tall and wide. Light switches in the kitchen are too high for Nancy, who is barely over 5 feet tall. A shelf near the ceiling in the foyer is too high to clean. The open stairs to the basement are a fall hazard at night. Lee can barely fit his new pick-up truck inside the shallow garage.
Let me stop here and explain something about Nancy and Lee. First, those are not their real names. They don’t want to publicly shame their contractor. Second, they are not jerks. They’re very warm, charming people.
Yes, they admit, they were in on the design and building process from the beginning. But they had no idea how to read blueprints. Yes, they were regularly on site during construction and asked the builder to change things as soon as they saw something they didn’t like. Sometimes he changed it. Sometimes he didn’t.
And while Nancy and Lee might seem a tad nitpicky, there are some features missing from a home in an age-restricted community.
For instance, the entrance to their walk-in shower has a thick threshold, making it impossible for a wheelchair to access.
“I’ve had two back surgeries and was in a wheelchair both times,” Nancy said, adding that she expects to be in one again some day.
There’s also no bench or handrail in the shower. A second bathroom in the home has a tub with a wall so high that someone a lot younger would struggle to step over.
The builder promised a back deck but poured a patio instead. Getting to it requires going down several steps, which means it’s also not wheelchair accessible.
There’s also a pocket of space just outside the master bedroom that would require a wheelchair to make an awkward multipoint turn to get into the living room.
And to top it off, the builder wasn’t going to put a door on the extra-wide entrance to the master bathroom, offering a clear view of the toilet from the master bedroom. Nancy and Lee won that argument; there’s a door.
“Why am I (telling you) this? Not for me. There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Nancy said. “I love this neighborhood, the people are great. But I want to tell other people to get their own architect. They might have to pay more for it, but it’s well worth it. Bring the guy in and explain what you want.”
If you’re not sure what you might need, go to the National Association of Home Builders website and search for “aging in place remodeling checklist.” Following are tips from that list:
▪ The main living areas, including one full bath and one bedroom, should be on a single story.
▪ No steps between rooms or areas on the same level.
▪ A 5-by-5-foot turn space for a wheelchair in the living area, kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom.
▪ All doors and hallways should be at least 36 inches wide and well lit.
▪ There should be at least one no-step entrance to the home with a cover and sensor light focused on the door lock and a 36-inch-wide door.
▪ Bracing in walls around tub, shower, shower seat and toilet for installation of grab bars to support 250-300 pounds.
▪ If a stand-up shower is in the main bath, it should be curbless and at least 36 inches wide; bathtubs should be lower for easy access.
▪ Slip-resistant flooring in bathroom, shower and foyer.
▪ An exterior threshold that’s either flush or a half-inch high and beveled; interior thresholds should be no more than one-quarter inch.
▪ Hand rails at least 1 1/4 inch in diameter on both sides of stairways that are well lit and have contrast strips on top and bottom stairs and contrasting colors on treads and risers.