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Tips when searching for a house to accommodate disabilities, special needs

Smooth surfaces, such as hardwood floors, is one design feature to keep in mind when searching for a house to accommodate a disability or special need. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — When Molli Bishop began house hunting in 2017, her search was narrowed by a few specifics.

She needed a home that had a bedroom on the main level. Some sort of covered parking was also at the top of her wishlist, as was a bathroom that could be modified to meet the needs of her young daughter, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

In addition to the structural elements of the home, Bishop also had to weigh school systems and special education programs. For months, she looked at several homes in Maryland and Virginia that were “OK, but not ideal.”

Then, her real estate agent brought a new option to the table: a house that was off the market. A few weeks later, Bishop and her family moved in.

“It made the process so much easier, because it was such a competitive market at the time,” said Bishop, who added that searching for a home to accommodate a disability or a special need limits options from the get-go, before budget and other buyers even enter the picture.

“It’s such a stressful process that you kind of have to keep your eye on the prize.”

Working to meet the needs of Bishop and her family was not a new experience for real estate agent John Young. Over the course of his 14-year career, Young has worked with a number of families in the D.C. area whose housing searches often center around accessibility and other considerations.

Young said having a 9-year-old daughter, who has autism and doesn’t speak, makes him sensitive to the needs of other families with special needs. His personal experience has also made him more knowledgeable of schools, services and programs that new-to-town families might otherwise miss.

If you or someone you know is looking for a home to meet a physical or developmental need, Young shared some tips to consider before you start the process:


Think about the design and layout of the home: “In many cases, ramblers are a great option for families with special needs — and there are a lot of them in the area,” Young said.

Smooth surfaces: For those with mobility issues, a home with smooth surfaces, such as hardwood floors, is important.

“The smooth surfaces help people with wheelchairs, for instance, get in and out of a bathroom easier and into a shower — things like that,” Young said.

Mixed-use might work: If accessibility and proximity to conveniences is high on your priority list, consider a mixed-use development that includes public transportation, shopping, dining and entertainment.

Location, location, location: In addition to ease of access to amenities, think about proximity to hospitals, specialists, schools and after-school programs.

“You want to do research on area schools and the programs that they offer,” Young said.

“One thing that’s very important is many schools have special programs for children with autism and disabilities that are offered outside of the standard school zoning for a particular neighborhood.”

Talk to others: If you are considering different neighborhoods in the D.C. area and you have a child with a disability or special need, Young suggests engaging with other parents to learn more about the services, programs and parks they utilize.

“You want to go online to sites like D.C. Urban Moms and Dads. They have a message board for parents with special-needs children, and you can hear firsthand experiences from other parents,” he said.

Budget for modifications: “If you have a special-needs child, especially one with a mobility issue, finding a home that has grab bars, for instance, in the shower, or an easily accessible shower is something that is important. And many homes are not outfitted with those amenities,” Young said.

Don’t forget to do your research: Some states, cities and counties will help fund the adjustments.

Work with an understanding lender: “There are some clients that, because of their disability, have a lot of debt. They have a lot of high bills and other things that make it a challenge to get a loan, and you have to work with a lender that is very [understanding] and that is able to maneuver through the marketplace of getting them approved for a loan,” Young said.

Think beyond active listings: A house that is off-the-market, or one that is “coming soon,” could give you an edge.

“A lot of times in the area, you’re at the mercy of the market, and it is very robust right now; there are a lot off buyers in the marketplace, and sometimes if you have a special-needs child, not only do you have that challenge of trying to find a home, but you’re also competing with other people that could knock you out of an offer for a place,” Young said.

Find the right agent: Enlist the help of a real estate agent who understands your needs and is willing to invest the time into your home search.

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