There are few things more terrifying and exciting to a person with a disability than being a first-time home buyer. Many options exist, from building new, buying an already-built home and renovating to your needs, or buying a new or used modular home. The trick is finding a home that works for you at a price you can afford and choosing renovations that won’t break the bank. Figuring out financing is another chore that can leave your head spinning, and it usually depends on the type of home and credit rating you have. There are loans and programs to help a person with a disability purchase a home or install accommodations, but I’ll discuss those later.
Most important in the hunt for a new house for our unique household was finding something with an open floor plan and enough extra space to meet our needs. I have Duchenne muscular dystrophy and use a trach and vent full-time, and I live with Dustin Hankinson who also has DMD and uses a non-invasive vent. Finding space for all of our medical supplies and equipment was another important consideration. We both live with his partner and our live-in caregiver, Theresa Martinosky, along with our gang of seven pugs. There are also several nurses we share our home with during the week, so we needed to figure them into the equation as well.
Our previous home was an older shotgun-style residence located in Missoula, Mont. At around 900 square feet, every inch of space was an extremely valuable commodity. As Hankinson puts it, “We had way too much crap and not nearly enough space.” The small bedrooms, single bathroom and tight floor plan were another problem for us.
“With the addition of the equipment necessary for two people with DMD, it was like living in a slide puzzle,” says Martinosky. Accessibility wasn’t necessarily a problem at our last house, but with limited space, it certainly wasn’t ideal.
The Quest Begins
In the spring of 2014, we decided it was time to begin looking for a new place. The main theme as we looked for a new home was adding storage space and keeping the access features we already had. Adding things like a double garage, laundry room, pantry and second bathroom may seem like extras, but they were essential in making the space more functional. Finding a home with a large deck for spending time outdoors and a fenced yard for our dogs was another goal. We figured that a workable budget for a ranch style home in our area would be around $210,000-225,000. However, finding a home with any disability access wouldn’t be easy. “Finding an accessible house in Missoula has always been difficult,” says Hankinson. “No matter what you find, there will always be work that needs to be done.”
Our strategy for house hunting was simple and straightforward. We looked online at every house that had any possibility and narrowed them down by the list of features we wanted, but unfortunately it was difficult to get a feel for a house without testing out the wheelchair access. “One frustration was the effort it took to transport and set up portable ramps for Mark and Dustin to look at potential houses, only to realize within the first 60 seconds inside the door that the place wouldn’t work at all!” says Martinosky.
The first home we looked at was a beautiful newer ranch, but it had several drawbacks that were deal breakers. There was a wide-open living and dining area but poor access to the kitchen and bedrooms, and the home would need extensive renovation to work.
House number two was a ranch built in the 1950s. It had a wide-open living room, dining room and kitchen area, but access to one of the bedrooms and bathroom would have been extremely difficult. The house had been recently updated, but just didn’t have enough useable space to be considered.
We looked at three other ranches in the Missoula area, and while they each had their definite plusses, the narrow hallways were the killer in all of them. The houses were all built in the past couple decades, but homebuilders didn’t seem to consider that potential residents might someday use a wheelchair. That was pretty frustrating, but soon we would find our gem.
The Search Pays Off
The next listing looked like it had possibilities, but we knew not to get our hopes up too high. As I rolled throughout the space, the potential quickly appeared. It featured a spacious living room, kitchen and dining area, but the hallway would be the big test. My chair sailed down the hall and my excitement rose as I actually could turn the corner into the master bedroom. Everything in the house looked like it could work with some remodeling.
We soon met with Jim Shafer from Straightedge Construction to discuss our plans. The front door wasn’t a good place for a wheelchair entrance because of a tight turn, so we decided to come in the back by way of the deck. Another issue was the deck’s narrow sliding door, but Shafer suggested a French door that was 60 inches wide on one side and 40 inches wide on the other. Lastly, Shafer suggested we put a railing around the deck so we wouldn’t accidentally roll off.
The master bath proved to be the biggest problem. It had a wall separating the toilet and shower from the dual sink area. We would have to remove the wall to put in a tiled roll-in shower and install a pocket door at the bathroom entrance. These ideas were vital to make the house livable but would cost a shade under $40,000. Since Hankinson and I both use personal assistance through our state’s Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services waiver, we approached the program about covering some or all of the remodeling costs. Lucky for us, the modifications were needed to make the house safe and livable, so the costs would be covered.
We now needed to move quickly on buying the house. The actual purchase was a fairly easy part of the process. It didn’t take much negotiating with the sellers, and at $225,000 we were able to stay within our budget.
Hurry Up and Wait
We applied for a traditional mortgage from the bank for the house. The process was a bit time consuming getting the paperwork all together and the inspection and appraisal completed, but before we knew it the closing on the house was scheduled for early August. It was a great feeling to take the keys, but the work was just starting.
Our contractor told us everything wouldn’t be completed until late September. It was hard to be patient, but soon progress started happening. The first completed part of the remodeling project was a sidewalk along the house with a gently sloping ramp that met up with the deck. Next was the French door — they worked with us to make sure the threshold was as gentle as it could be.
The bathroom was a huge undertaking. They installed a special water barrier from floor to ceiling before starting the tile work. We selected large ceramic tiles for the shower with subway style tiles for a border. A nice touch was the mosaic tiling we added in to break up all the white tiles. They tore out the open archway to do the framing for the pocket door, which was a nice alternative to a traditional door. “It gives us added space because we didn’t have to take into account the room needed for the swinging door,” says Martinosky. The last steps in the bathroom were sheet rocking, painting, installing the pocket door and laying down the Congoleum AirStep linoleum.
Settling In Nicely
It didn’t seem like the day would come when everything would be done, but in early October 2014 we were ready to plan our move. We couldn’t have arrived at this point without the help of our realtor, Brint Wahlberg. He didn’t have lots of experience with finding accessible housing, but he listened to our needs and worked tirelessly to find the right home for us.
“A lot of sellers think their houses are neatly put away, and that their big furniture doesn’t bother people,” says Wahlberg. “And they are mistaken because I remember in a lot of showings we were dragging a lot of couches, tables and chairs.” Now that he has experience, Wahlberg says he knows to preview a listing for basic access and openness of the floor plan. “The challenges that Mark and Dustin had are very different than challenges other buyers have because not a lot of buyers are worried about the turn radius in a hallway,” he says.
Moving two vent users, their equipment, supplies and other miscellaneous paraphernalia in one day is no easy feat. We hired a local moving company to help ease the stress a little, but there was still so much for our caregivers to organize — it took over six hours just to get the vital stuff moved in and set up. They were careful with everything and were especially careful with our medical equipment. The movers were great, too, and helped in any way they could with putting boxes where they belonged. It did cost a little bit to hire them, but it was worth having the extra help.
It’s been a year since we moved in, and we’ve settled into our house nicely. “The house we live in now meets the expectations I had in the beginning in that it’s in a picturesque place, a quiet, secure neighborhood, and it’s a newer house with a contemporary look, which I really like,” says Hankinson. “There’s a lot of light. It’s much brighter, which feels good. I’m quite happy here.”
Martinosky likes the location of our home better than she thought she would. “We are in a great neighborhood that feels safe and we have neighbors who look out for one another,” she says. “The space and added privacy, the storage, the laundry room, the large pantry, the beautiful deck and yard and garage make it a home that has exceeded the hopes I had when this adventure began.”
Funding Your Dream
Homeownership Voucher Program: This program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development allows people with disabilities to become homeowners through a monthly voucher program. Once approved, vouchers can be used for the mortgage principal and interest, mortgage insurance, real estate taxes and homeowner insurance, and for allowed utilities, routine maintenance costs, and major repairs and replacements.
Participants must be first-time homeowners and not have owned a residence for three years. The home must pass an inspection by the housing authority and an independent home inspector. Individual public housing authorities may or may not offer the program, but they are required to if it’s a reasonable accommodation for somebody with a disability. The waiting list for this program varies, so expect a wait after you submit your application. Contact your local housing authority for complete eligibility guidelines and income requirements.
Section 203(k) Insurance Program: This program by the Federal Housing Administration allows homebuyers to finance long-term both the purchase of a home and the cost of its rehabilitation through a single mortgage, or to finance the rehabilitation of an existing home. Rehabilitation costs must be over $5,000, but the total value of the property must remain within the FHA mortgage limit for your area. For more information call 800/225-5342.
Fannie Mae’s Community HomeChoice Program: This nation-wide program helps low to moderate income people with disabilities afford homes. Qualified borrowers are offered low down payments, loans with lower debt-to-income requirements and more lenient credit evaluations. For more information visit www.fanniemae.com.
State agencies: Some states offer assistance programs for disabled first-time homebuyers that often feature low-interest loans or below-market interest loans. Searching the Web for your state name plus the term “home buyer assistance” will turn up useful links and contact info.