Specialty builders look to the future when designing homes

Aging-in-place specialists can help homeowners make adjustments

As nearly 77 million baby boomers settle into retirement, many are concerned with more than just their bank accounts.

Almost 70 percent of homeowners nationwide have made adjustments to their homes so they can live there longer, according to an AARP study called “Fixing to Stay.”

It’s one of the reasons why Jennifer Kelly, co-owner of J&J Kelly Construction of Pasco, went through the certified aging-in-place specialist, or CAPS, program five years ago. The National Association of Home Builders offers the certification.

“A lot of clients who come to me are older,” she said. “We have the baby boomer generation, and they’re going into retirement. Tens of millions of people need homes they can stay in safely.”

Kelly co-owns the business with her husband, Jeff, who handles land purchases and development while she manages residential custom homes. Not including the land, the company’s homes range from $360,000 to $800,000, said Kelly. The average customer is more than 55 years old. However, she does build for people in their late 30s and 40s.

“It does cost more to build a custom home, but it’s a lot less than what some think,” she said. “The trade-off is when you find out how much it would cost you to be in a nursing home.”

And while her CAPS credentials have taught her to think outside the box so that people can live more independently, Kelly said she doesn’t actively promote it to clients.

“I almost never have someone come to me and say, ‘We want to build this home and want to stay in it until we’re boots out the door.’ People come to me and say they’re retirees and want to build something for needs down the road,” Kelly said. “So for me, I can say, ‘Maybe we can make the hallways a little wider for comfortable space to move around in the future.’ There’s not one person who says, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ It’s designing for universal expansibility.”

Brett Lott, who owns Brett Lott Homes  of Pasco with his wife, Sandra, earned his CAPS credentials in 2015.

“There’s always opportunity for improvement,” he said. “The average age of homeowners seems to keep going up. We’ve seen a lot more interest in people saying, ‘This is going to be the final home I’m going to buy.’ And even if they’re physically fine, they’re concerned about what it might be like in the future.”

It may be that a client has a family member who might one day live with them, and they are in a wheelchair or use a walker. Designing the home so it doesn’t have steps from the outside into the house is a simple way to prepare.

“As they get older, they might not be able to raise their arms,” Lott said. “So it’s not a good idea to have a microwave over the range. Even a built-in oven that’s a little lower,” said Lott, who said he focuses on aging-in-place design elements where the client would need them most: the kitchen, master bathroom and sleeping area.

Wider doorways and no-curb showers are easy ways to prepare for the future when custom designing a home, and from a construction standpoint, they often don’t cost any more than traditional design elements if you’re doing them at the time the home is being built, he said.

Kelly starts the process by asking her clients how long they plan to be in their home.

“Then you start walking them through different design ideas — really simple things that if we do them right now, you can stay in your home as long as you want,” she said. “A lot is having the power of choices where you don’t have to move. If you move (out), you’re moving because you want to.”

Lighting is another element that Kelly takes into consideration when designing a home. As we age, our eyes take in less light. She’ll suggest adding under cabinet lighting in the kitchen and more lighting in areas without access to natural sunlight, such as pantries and closets.

“Give them options. Dimmer switches. Really simple things. Background lighting for safety,” she said.

And, just because a home is designed with future needs in mind it doesn’t mean your eyes will pick them up when you walk into a room.

“We’ve done a few houses where we built the cabinet so it looks normal, and then later, they can slide the cabinet out, so that down the road, they can move their wheelchair under the cabinet so they can get close to the sink,” Lott said.

If a person is having mobility issues, or perhaps balance or muscle impairment, a grab bar is an easy solution. But it may be decades before a client has the need to install one. Kelly makes sure her clients are prepared nonetheless.

“I take pictures of the bones of the house and give them (to the client) on a thumb drive. It tells them where they can install a grab bar and where the studs are. Come off the floor this many inches and over this many inches, so down the road, you can look at those pictures and know where to add grab bars,” Kelly said.

Lott is preparing to build his own future-ready home this summer with wider doors and hallways. He’s moved more times than he can count on two hands, and hopes this will be his forever home where he can live independently and safely for decades to come.

“I’d rather have my fingers smashed in a car door than move. Moving is painful for days and days,” he said with a laugh.

And he’s not alone in his thinking.

“Baby Boomers are home buyers, and they’re thinking ahead,” he said. “Even if they’re physically fine now, they’re concerned about what it might be like in the future.”

To search for local aging-in-place specialists, visit http://bit.ly/AginginPlaceTC.

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