Aging in Place: How to Design a House That Will Fit Your Needs in the Future

An elderly couple looking to purchase a new home sit down with their agent, discussing the business deal.

By planning for your future needs, you can design a home where you can live for many years to come.

As the nation’s population ages, accessibility has become an important goal for many new-home buyers seeking to ensure that their homes will continue to fit their needs — or those of aging loved ones — in the future.

Homeowners who plan on aging in place — remain in the home of their choice for as long as they’re able — should incorporate the principles of universal design into the home. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) defines universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or 
specialized design.”

Plan for Future Needs

Karen Smith is an occupational therapist who holds the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the NAHB. When Smith purchased a new home about a year ago, she decided it was time to start to age in place herself. 

Smith purchased a 2,000-square-foot home in Dagsboro, Del., from Ryan Homes. The house
 has two stories, but the 61-year-old Smith uses the upstairs bedroom and bath for her home office, preferring to have her office space separated from the main living quarters of her home. “I thought the upstairs could become a caretaker’s quarters if that possibility happened,” she says. “Or for family members who come to visit who are able-bodied.”

Other than the office, everything else Smith needs is on the first floor, including her master bedroom. “This is my last home,” she says. “First-floor living was really important to me.”

Smith spent about $2,000 on options and upgrades to have the builder add a zero-step entrance from the garage into the house, blocking to reinforce the bathroom walls for grab bars, extra ceiling lights and a double shower rather than a tub/shower combination. “It was important to have a shower rather than a tub to step over,” she says.

The house already had wide hallways, a spacious bathroom and open spaces, all of which would allow for walker or wheelchair access if needed someday. “It’s really a nice way for me to start aging in place,” she says. 

Other principles of universal design that allow for aging in place include:

First-Floor Living

If you purchase a two-story home like Smith, make sure that you have a bedroom, bath, kitchen and living or family room on the first floor. More than 40 percent of new homes have master suites downstairs, a 15-percent increase over a decade ago, according to the NAHB. That allows those with aching backs or knees to avoid the stairs.

To ensure easy access, avoid homes that have steps leading to the front door and see if the builder can provide at least one entrance that is level. 

All of the houses built by Windsong Properties, an active-adult builder in Atlanta, have a step-less entry, usually in the garage, says Mike Shina, the company’s construction manager. “The houses all have open spaces, wider hallways and wider doorways,” he says. “They’re very easy to get around in, whether you’re mobile or not mobile.”

Take in the Topography

When looking at homes in which you plan to age in place, be sure to look outside the four walls of the house itself and check out the topography of the site. Is the development walkable? Can you go visit a neighbor without getting in your car? Are there wide sidewalks that encourage walking and an easy grade throughout the subdivision? Is public transit located nearby in case you are no longer able to drive someday?

“That’s the biggest thing you’ll see people doing in our communities at any given time of day,” says Shina. “Folks just out walking.” 

Don’t Sacrifice Luxury or Lifestyle

Just because you may be purchasing your last home — or including a few modifications that allow you to age in place — don’t deny yourself the opportunity to have the home of your dreams. In other words, a home with universal design can still be aesthetically pleasing.

“People want to live in a place that looks nice, whether they are 55 or 85,” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities for AARP. “It doesn’t matter what your disabilities might be. Nobody wants a stigmatizing home.” 

Even grab bars in the shower have evolved, from the chrome, institutional looking devices found in the handicapped stalls of public bathrooms to fixtures that match the décor of your home. So it’s possible to have a home that is functional and allows for you to age in place, while still being beautiful.

“Our active adults have worked all their lives and they’re retiring now and they feel that what they’re buying is their dream home,” says Theresa Fowler, a vice president of Sunrise, Fla.-based G.L. Homes. “They want the best of the best. They don’t want to sacrifice anything.”

So in addition to raised vanities, anti-skid bathtubs, lever door handles for easy opening, rocker-style electrical switches for ease of operation and electrical outlets that are installed an additional six inches off the floor, buyers at Valencia Cove can also enjoy granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and gourmet kitchens, not to mention a world-class tennis center, four pools and a 39,000-square-foot clubhouse.

“People should consider how they’re progressing with their lives and where they see themselves in years to come and then make accommodations for that,” Fowler says. “And then look for a community that suits their needs and a home that fits their lifestyle.

 Robyn A. Friedman is an award-winning freelance writer and copywriter who has been covering the real estate and housing industries for over two decades. She writes the "Jumbo Jungle" column for The Wall Street Journal, is a real-estate and personal-finance columnist for City & Shore magazine, covers celebrity real estate for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and also contributes regularly to Commercial Property Executive, Multi-Housing News and numerous other publications. 

Related Articles

Sign up for the Home of the Week

New Home 101
New eBook Available

Expert Advice on Buying & Building a New Home

The eBook will be delivered to your inbox. We will not share your email address.