"Realtors are usually the first stop for consumers' housing needs," Sara Wiskerchen of the National Association of Realtors told the Chicago Tribune. "So they are in a unique position to be strong advocates for greater accessibility for today's (disabled) buyers."
True in theory, but not necessarily in practice for today's homebuyer with a disability.
Take, for example, Palmer Harston Williams.
Palmer started using a wheelchair after a childhood car accident. Now, in her late 20s, she and her husband began hunting for a new home after learning they were expecting their first child. They focused their search on an attractive older Nashville neighborhood where the houses have the charm and character Palmer and her husband love. It had the added benefit of being close to Palmer's mother, who would be able to help with the new baby.
But they soon discovered that many of the houses had narrow doorways and other problems for someone who uses a wheelchair. Palmer found she had to bring a companion to every viewing in case she had to be carried up unexpected stairs. She and her husband also had to figure out how to adjust their budget to account for any modifications they might need to make after their purchase.
"I didn't know of any realtor who specialized in accessible housing," says Palmer, "so we decided on our must-haves and what we could adapt ourselves."
As it turns out, the couple's experience was not unusual.
In a recent survey conducted by franchise leader CENTURY 21 Real Estate in conjunction with Harris Poll, more than half of the respondents graded the average real estate professional's knowledge of accessible housing as a "C" or below.
The survey canvassed 503 U.S. adults having, or living with someone who has, a disability, who are planning to buy a home within the next three years.
One in five respondents reported that not having access to adequately trained real estate professionals posed a challenge in their housing search. And approximately half of those polled reported experiencing a difficult time finding a home that fits their family's unique needs. Eight-three percent stated that having a real estate professional familiar with accessible housing would be beneficial to them.
The results are troubling and highlight a need that is in all likelihood far greater than many of us realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53 million Americans, or one in five adults, are now living with a disability. Of those adults, the most commonly reported disability is a problem with mobility such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Homebuyers with these challenges may need assistance in finding single-floor living or houses that can be modified with ramps or other accommodations.
Mobility is just one form of disability that might make home buying a challenge. Parents with a disabled child may be in search of a community with schools that can serve their child; sight-challenged adults may need public transportation on their doorstep if they are to remain independent.
CENTURY 21 commissioned the survey for the purpose of exploring the needs of this important segment of homebuyers. But the company interprets the findings as a call to action.
"This survey shows that there is a critical need for real estate professionals to understand the particular needs and unique challenges faced by homebuyers who have disabilities or live with someone who does," said Rick Davidson, CENTURY 21's president and chief executive officer.
In response to these needs, the company is partnering with Easter Seals to develop and implement a Special Agent Learning Program. In this unique training, sales associates will be given the tools and resources they need to better serve the special needs of these home buyers such as accessible housing and universal design. The program is expected to launch in October.
"Collectively, the CENTURY 21 System has raised more than $111 million since 1979 to support Easter Seals in our communities," said Davidson. "Now, we are putting the mission of Easter Seals at the heart of what we do."
The training program is a groundbreaking initiative for an underserved community in need of an essential service. This is especially true given that many states make home loans available to qualifying disabled people at competitive rates, and some even provide help with closing costs.
"There is no place more delightful than one's own fireplace," said Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman.
Easter Seals and CENTURY 21 are working to ensure home ownership and hearth for millions of disabled Americans.