Home Upgrades With Appeal For Retirees

If you plan to live out your retirement years in your own home, adding universal design features will make aging in place safer and more comfortable. And if you should later sell the house, you'll find that buyers appreciate how these upgrades anticipate their future needs.

Unlike home improvements designed to make an immediate impression, universal design additions with the most sales appeal are those that go unnoticed until you point them out."The beauty of universal design is when you're able to incorporate something that looks great and doesn't jump out at you," says Paul Sullivan, a remodeling contractor in Newton, Mass.In other words, says Armand Christopher, a Realtor who is designated a Seniors Real Estate Specialist: "You don't put in hospital-grade grab bars in a bathroom when you are remodeling."Fortunately, you don't have to settle for the institutional look. From ergonomically designed faucet handles to skid-free flooring, today's universal design products are stylish and subtle. Financing options include home equity loans and reverse mortgages.

The best time to add aging-in-place upgrades to your home is before you need them, says Pat Rowen, an interior designer and Certified Aging in Place Specialist in Hillsdale, Mich. Rowen had to tackle a rush job when a client in his 80s fell and broke his hip just before Christmas, and she scrambled to track down materials and workers to do the needed remodel. She says the experience underscored the importance of planning ahead.

"If you have to do it under the gun at Christmastime, and you know that your husband is coming home in two weeks and you have a bathtub that he can't get into -- that's not the time to do the remodeling," Rowen says.

Here are nine ideas that can boost the value of your home and the quality of life you enjoy while you're living in it.

Make it Easier to Get Around

Create zero-step entries. If your home has a basement, Rowen suggests grading the landscape to create a new entry at the lower level. If you're thinking of building a ramp to an existing entry, consider placing it inside your garage instead of at the front door.

Make your doors easier to open. Sullivan recently installed several doors with levers instead of knobs for one of his clients. "It's for a young, single woman, but she loves it because if she's coming in with groceries in her arms, she can elbow the door handle and get through the door," he says.

Create clear 3-foot passageways to make it easier to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. This might mean widening your interior doorways as well as rearranging and de-cluttering rooms. "As people get older, they have a lot of stuff," Rowen says. "They need to think in terms of 'How can I get to and from everything I do without any furniture or clutter?'"

Improve Safety and Comfort

Swap out your old stove and faucet to reduce the risk of burns. An accidental scalding is less likely with a single-lever faucet than with one that has separate handles for hot and cold, Sullivan says. Therese Crahan, executive director of NAHB Remodelers, a division of the National Association of Home Builders, recommends buying a stove that has the controls in the front, so you won't have to reach over the heating elements.

Fall-proof your floors. Look for products such as nonslip vinyl and nonglossy tile in small patterns (the extra grout lines provide more slip resistance), Rowen says. It's also a good idea to eliminate variances in floor height from room to room, she says.

Add features that lessen the need for reaching up and bending over. Christopher suggests shopping for items such as kitchen cabinets with pull-down shelves, refrigerators with middle drawers and washers and dryers with raised platforms.

Upgrade the Bathroom

Prep your bathroom for grab bars, even if you're not ready to install them yet. "You can either put plywood on the wall before you put the drywall up or put blocking between the studs," Rowen says. Without that preparation, you are limited to installing the grab bars at the location of existing studs, or tearing out drywall to fit them in.

Put in an easy-to-use shower. Rowen likes the ones from Best Bath Systems, which offers a model with grab bars, a folding seat and hand-held sprayer for about $3,100. Curbless showers are another option. They are wheelchair-accessible and eliminate the need to step over a threshold. "The bathroom floor just rolls seamlessly into the shower," Sullivan says.

Sullivan adds that for experienced contractors, installing a curbless shower costs no more than doing a conventional one. "The one thing we have to do is waterproof the floor underneath," he says. "You're talking maybe 15 (additional) minutes of labor and $50 worth of materials. And you're not building and tiling the curb, so it's pretty much a wash."

Get a comfort-height toilet, which will raise you up about 17 inches off the floor and set you back $200 to $300, Rowen says. Those seat booster rings aren't nearly as efficient, according to Rowen, because they slip easily and are difficult to clean.