Finding an affordable, livable apartment can take some effort. And it can seem even more difficult when you’re searching for handicap-accessible apartments. But there’s good news.
If you know a few things going in — which features you’re looking for, where and how to look, which questions to ask and what to expect from the application process, plus what rights you have and restrictions you might encounter — the process of finding handicap-accessible apartments gets easier.
1. Prepare your list of “must-have” accessibility features
Before you start looking, make a checklist of accessibility features that are essential to you, plus others that would be simply “nice to have.” These features usually fall into a few categories:
- External accommodations: Accessible parking spaces, ramps, handrails, enhanced lighting, etc.
- Common area access: Widened entryways and hallways, automatic doors, ADA-compliant elevators, etc.
- Floorplan accommodations: Wider doorjambs and hallways, flat or low-rise thresholds, roll-in sinks and showers, etc.
- Control adjustments: Location of electrical switches and outlets to be within reach, lever-style door handles, Braille or tactile panels near controls, etc.
- Amenities: Pools, fitness centers, lounge areas, etc.
From low counters and hardwood floors to automatic doors and multiple elevators, not every place will offer every accessible feature. You might be able to make some small modifications yourself — like swapping out doorknobs for lever-style handles or adding grab bars in the bathroom. However, other items might be dealbreakers.
So start with a list of what matters most to you. There are elements that most accessible apartments share. We’ll walk you through the details and more features to look for in the search steps below.
2. Search online for handicap-accessible apartments
Whether you want a one-bedroom in an apartment building or a townhome with an elevator, online is the easiest place to start searching.
Nonprofits and government agencies offer help in finding, applying for and paying for ADA-compliant housing. However, they might not have the most updated information on apartments, as real estate markets change quickly and constantly. To see listings for helpful nonprofit and government agencies, go to the More Resources section at the end.
Apartment search sites often yield more options and provide greater specificity about available features. Specialized searches can save time by letting you filter through the features you want. A typical search results screen might look like the one below.
Most searches begin with inputting your desired city, type of property, number of bedrooms and rent prices. But that could give you hundreds of results. To narrow the list, look for additional filtering options.
3. Narrow search results with filters
Filtering screens look different, depending on the site you’re on. But once you’ve got the basics in place, look for ways to filter your results. You can start with terms like “disability access,” then get more specific.
Use more filtering options to find your preferred amenities. Each filter will reduce the number of results and offer you a clearer picture of what’s available for your criteria. Below, several elements of a filter results page are highlighted.
Filtering options can include features such as hardwood floors, front-loading washer and dryer in the apartment, etc. If you have a service animal, it should be allowed in any public or commercial building — but life may be easier for you and your companion animal in a building that already allows pets and has amenities like dog waste stations and fenced runs.
If public transit is important or you’d like to be in a certain neighborhood, you might use a location tool to narrow the range to a more specific location.
4. Use listing page options to focus your search
In addition to search filters, real estate listing sites offer many other ways to access information about properties, such as highlights, amenities listings, descriptions, photos, floorplans and virtual tours. Each of these can be useful to learn about different amenities and accessibility features that might be available.
Read the property’s description
The property description is meant to give you a feel for what you could expect while living there, both in terms of amenities on-site and in the surrounding area. These are highlighted in the example below.
Read the description thoroughly, watching for mentions of designated parking spaces, access to public transportation and proximity to local businesses. You can also find information on alarm systems in apartments for contacting emergency services and other disability-friendly features.
Look at photos, videos and virtual tours
You can learn a lot from photos of an apartment, and even more from videos or virtual tours that are available for many properties. Spend some time looking through these options to see if you can spot accessibility features like:
- Ramps and accessible walkways with handrails
- Adequate lighting for both indoor and outdoor spaces
- Low-rise flooring with low thresholds to minimize obstacles or tripping hazards
- Grab bars in bathrooms
- Doors and hallways wide enough to allow easy access for a wheelchair
Not every apartment community offers a virtual tour or video tour as depicted below. But nearly every facility provides photos to give you an idea of what an apartment looks like.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Many aspects of the living space that aren’t listed in the description or amenities can become apparent in the photos, videos and virtual tour options.
Examine the floorplan
Not every property offers information on individual apartment floorplans via an apartment search site, but if a floorplan is available online, you can scrutinize it to find:
- Entryways and hallways wide enough to accommodate wheelchair access
- Kitchen modifications like a roll-in sink and countertops with space underneath, lowered cabinets, appliances with front controls
- Bathroom modifications like grab bars, roll-in shower and sink, shower bench, single-control faucets
Floorplans can provide a view of a property that you can’t get from any other source. If you have access to one, take advantage of the extra safety and mobility information it can provide.
Expect more accessibility options from newer buildings
Since federal regulations governing accessibility features in housing were established fairly recently, newer apartment communities are more likely to offer accessible accommodations than older buildings. The Fair Housing Act offers detailed wording about these accessibility requirements. (See more about the Fair Housing Act in the Know your rights section below.)
Apartment buildings constructed before 1991 were not required to build accessibility features into their design. It’s a good idea to know the age of any apartment communities you consider. So when you meet with a leasing agent or property manager, ask the building’s age.
5. Arrange a visit in person or via video — and ask questions
Once you’ve identified the most promising options from your online apartment search, you’ll want to see the spaces for yourself. But if you don’t feel comfortable going in person, most places now are offering live video tours. Once you’re there (whether in person or on screen), ask the host all the questions you can.
Ask the leasing agent about accessibility and/or modifications
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the apartment community; that’s what the leasing agent or property manager is there for. Ask about the facility’s spaces, daily operations, safety practices, plans for the future and anything else that might affect your experience there. Here are some suggestions:
- What types of accessible apartments are available?
- Are there renovations planned that would make the building more or less accessible?
- What year was this apartment community built?
- Are animals allowed? (This is applicable if you have a service animal.)
- Who handles maintenance, and how quickly can you expect it to be done?
- Will maintenance personnel place a priority on modifications or repairs designed to assist with my disability?
- Do you know about my right to make reasonable modifications to my space?
- If I need to make modifications, do you require an additional deposit to cover the cost of returning my unit to its original condition when I move out?
- What is the best way to communicate with you?
Check the apartment community’s amenities and common areas
Be sure to notice the public spaces, both indoor and outdoor, when you arrive for the tour. If a fitness center is important to you for physical therapy, check the hours, equipment and visitor policies. Take note of features or ask your tour guide these questions as you move through the different areas:
- Do you enter the building through automated doors?
- Are there any wheelchair ramps, and if so, where are they located?
- Does the building have at least one accessible elevator wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair?
- Is there an accessible laundry room — or an option to have laundry appliances inside the apartment?
- How wide are entryways and hallways in public areas?
- What is the lighting like in both the indoor and outdoor common spaces?
- Are there specially designated handicapped parking spaces?
When asking about parking, be specific. Are spaces wide enough to allow easy entry and exit from your vehicle? Are they close enough to the building for quick access? And are there sidewalk ramps leading from the parking lot?
It’s also important to be sure you can have constant access to these spaces. General handicap parking spaces may not be available at a given time if anyone — tenants or guests — can use them. Find out if you can get a dedicated handicap space. If so, make sure it’s suitable for your needs.
View the apartment with an eye for disability-friendly features
When you’re able to tour the apartment you’d had in mind (or one very much like it), bring a tape measure and your checklist of essential accessibility features. Go down the list as you move through the living space and see how many of your preferred features the place offers.
It’s important to keep in mind that apartments tend to be more compact than homes, so there may be issues in navigating the floorplan. Corridors should be wide enough, both in the “straightaway” sections and around corners, for you to turn or pass without difficulty if you are using a wheelchair or handrails.
You may not have to deal with a kitchen island, but if you do, make sure you can maneuver around it easily and also reach its entire counter surface.
You may want to note the answers to these questions as you go along:
- Do you open the apartment doors with lever handles or round knobs?
- Is flooring level, smooth and easy enough to walk or roll across?
- Are the apartment doors at least 32 inches wide? (This is where the tape measure comes in handy.)
- Are there rocker-style light switches, digital thermostats, electrical outlets or other household controls placed within reach of wheelchair height?
- What height are the kitchen and bathroom counters in the apartment?
- Can you easily reach sinks and faucets?
- Are the faucet controls easy to manipulate?
- Are the bathtub and shower big enough to be accessible to anyone?
- Do the tub, shower and toilets have grab bars? (If not, discuss installation options.)
- If the apartment is furnished, are the furnishings suitable for your needs?
- Is lighting sufficient to see clearly in all interior locations?
- Are smoke detectors accessible?
Tour the neighborhood to look for local amenities
When you’re visiting a potential property, take a look at the neighborhood and decide if it offers the amenities you need, such as:
- A location that offers easy walking or other access to amenities in the area
- Sidewalks that are wide, well-lit and clean enough to navigate safely
- Ramped curbs, adequate lights and crossing signals at intersections
- Bus stops or other public transportation access for commuting to work and recreation
- A grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants and/or food delivery options nearby
You can gain another perspective by touring the community and talking to people who live there. If you can find tenants with disabilities living in the apartment community, arrange to speak with them. Don’t be intrusive, but don’t be afraid to ask. Many people are willing to share their experiences, both positive and negative.
Check out the crime reports for the neighborhood using online crime maps. They also provide information on what type of criminal activity is involved, and how close it is to your prospective residence.
6. Prepare to apply for a handicap-accessible apartment
Once you’ve decided on a place you think you’d like to rent, you’ll need to know what to expect from the application process. This can be intricate and costly in the best of circumstances, so it’s a good idea to go in knowledgeable and prepared.
Assemble your important documents and proof of income
- Contact info, driver’s license or ID, Social Security number
- Vehicle documentation
- Current and previous employment records
- Current and previous rental info
- Personal references and emergency contact information
Cost is a prominent aspect of finding a livable apartment. Leasing agents and renters alike consider finances to be one of the most important elements of the application process. Make sure you can provide:
- Pay stubs
- Tax returns
- Records of any housing or disability benefits
- Any other documentation of your income
If you need help paying for an accessible apartment, see the More Resources section at the bottom of this page for nonprofit and government agencies that can offer aid.
7. Know your rights before signing a contract
Federal regulations are designed to help potential renters in housing facilities avoid encountering discrimination and also access and navigate all areas safely. Before you sign a contract, know your rights as a tenant, especially as one who requires handicap-accessible accommodations.
On the basis of your ability status, a leasing agent or property manager cannot do any of the following:
- Refuse to negotiate with you
- Refuse to rent to you an apartment
- Tell you an available unit is not available
- Set very different terms for you than for other tenants
- Charge you more for an accessible apartment than a non-accessible one
If you encounter problems in renting an apartment, try to solve them via good-faith discussion. If that’s impossible, you may wish to contact an attorney who’s experienced with housing law and renters’ rights. They should be well-versed in the federal laws that specifically protect the rights of renters with disabilities, like the federal acts described below.
Nondiscrimination in housing
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing policy and practice. The FHA also stipulates design and construction recommendations for newly built handicap-accessible apartments.
Under the accessibility requirements of the FHA, apartment facilities with more than four units built after 1991 must offer accessible routes into and around housing units. They also must provide accessible parking spots and public areas, as well as kitchen and bathroom designs that are usable by people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires handicap accessibility accommodations in public places to allow people with disabilities to navigate safely. However, ADA rules do not apply to private residences.
Apartment communities must make public spaces accessible — such as the leasing office, lobby, clubhouse, picnic area, pool, other common areas. But they are not required to do so for individual apartment homes. (However, tenants have the right to request modifications to these spaces, as described below.)
If your chosen property doesn’t offer the accessibility modifications you need, then you have the right to negotiate with the property manager to make the necessary changes. You can legally request accessibility modifications for your apartment and also common areas like the parking lot, clubhouse or laundry room.
The Reasonable Accommodations section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 says that in federally assisted accessible housing, accessibility modifications are made and paid for by the landlord (unless they cause undue financial hardship).
In other housing besides that which is federally funded, tenants have the right to request accessibility modifications — but usually pay the costs themselves.
8. Choose your new place and move in
By the time you’ve gone through all these steps, you’ll probably see that, like many things, searching for an apartment can be more involved for people who need accessibility accommodations.
But safe, comfortable, and accessible apartments do exist — more are being built each year, in fact. There are resources available that can help you move into an apartment with the modifications you need and want.
More resources for finding handicap-accessible apartments
Many nonprofit agencies and government programs are designed to help people find housing that meets their accessibility needs. Some of these organizations not only help you locate and apply for a handicap-accessible apartment but also access funds to finance your move-in, as well.
Nonprofit organizations for accessible housing
Federal benefits programs for accessible housing
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.