Disabled-friendly property: 'Estate agents don't get it'

There are almost 8.4 million people registered as disabled in Britain, but very few ways for them to find suitable housing. Now, all that may be changing. Graham Norwood reports
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The Independent Online

Dissatisfaction with estate agents is a national pastime in this country but school administrator Sally Millo has better reason than most to be unhappy with them.

"I've got spinal muscular atrophy type III affecting my nerves and muscles. I walk badly indoors and need a wheelchair outside, and perhaps sometimes inside too," she says. Her current home in Salisbury has been extensively modified over the past 18 years but the difficulty she has is finding a property with appropriate features in Norfolk, where she and her husband Jon wish to live.

Suitable homes undoubtedly exist there, as they do everywhere, but few mainstream estate agents' websites and property portals allow 'searches' to be made on disability features. Instead, searches must be on the numbers of beds or rooms, without giving vital details about wheelchair space, stair-lifts or other features.

"When I telephone agents asking for details about a property, they generally don't have any idea what I require," she says.

"I'm happy to modify a property by fitting ramps at exterior doorways, a walk-in shower and wider doorways but I need to know other elements," explains Sally. Problem features for her include gravel driveways without hard-standing and 90-degree turns between rooms and corridors which may prevent wheelchair access.

So why is it that the needs of Britain's 8.4 million registered disabled – that's one in 14 of the population – appear to be almost ignored by most estate agents?

Conrad Hodgkinson has run the Accessible Property Register on www.accessible-property.org.uk for some 10 years. He began by appealing to developers and estate agents to sign up to publicise adapted properties, and his site currently attracts up to 20,000 visits by would-be purchasers every month. They can see a current list of 500 modified homes – but this is not down to agents or builders.

"Only around 20 estate agents have ever registered with us and most have only posted one or two properties. Only one agent has added an accessible property section to their own website. We have given up waiting for estate agents to provide the information, so we go out and get it," he says.

Mike Reid runs his own mainstream estate agency in Eastbourne and a specialist online service called Mobility Friendly Homes ( www.mobilityfriendlyhomes.co.uk ). He says that reluctance to publicise disabled-friendly properties ends up wasting public money as well as annoying potential buyers.

"In Birmingham we found a local authority fuming that it had just adapted a property only to find that one a few doors away was available which would have suited the occupier perfectly. But there was no information in the sales details. Otherwise, it would have saved the local authority about £25,000," he says.

Where house advertisements do specify 'accessible' features, it is often down to the determination of the seller rather than the advice of the agent.

Dr Dan Twining, a computer scientist, has just sold his late mother's adapted house. He advertised it on a range of private sales and mobility-friendly property sites that published the description in the seller's words without 'massaging' by estate agents.

"It said that the property was suitable for a person in a wheelchair, but also described the house's more ordinary attributes," says Dr Twining.

"I knew that the search criteria for the mainstream websites were very restrictive – price, location, number of bedrooms – and it's impossible to search for features like 'hoist' or 'wheelchair access'. I also knew that an able-bodied buyer would see the adaptations as an expense that needed fixing, whereas a wheelchair user would see them as assets worth paying for," he says.

His father Charles helped with the viewings on the property, including the one by the eventual buyer who found the home on a specialist website. He says: "It was a joy to show him round as it was clear that he had been visiting many properties that would have required major alterations to meet his needs."

There are some improvements on the horizon, however. Globrix, is the first of the 'big' sales websites to allow searches for access features, although this usually depends on the properties' estate agents specifying those features in the first place.

Meanwhile building regulations are changing to insist that by 2013 new homes must be built to 'lifetime standard', appropriate for older and disabled residents. Many private developers are unhappy and a spokesman for the Home Builders' Federation has said: "A turning circle for a wheelchair may be desirable for some but it may lead to redundant space at extra cost."

Social housing has led the way on this issue, and many housing associations which commission or build their own homes are insisting on wider doorways for wheelchair access, charging stations for mobility scooters, raised plugs and fixtures and all controls at height band, and flexible designs so ground floor rooms can be easily converted to bedrooms.

However, the 70 per cent of old UK housing stock that is owner-occupied remains, quite literally, a stumbling block for many. Even if a property is suitable for a disabled person, there is embarrassment surrounding the fact.

An exasperated Conrad Atkinson of the Accessible Property Register puts it this way: "Agents still fear that promoting access will put people off, and of course they are right. Who wants to live in a house once owned by a disabled or older person? We might catch it..."

Mobility: The key points

* Off-street or unrestricted on-street parking within 25 metres

* No steps between the parked car and the property entrance.

* Level access to at least one entrance, with any small threshold or step being easily 'ramped'

* Level access to all main living areas

* A WC on the same level as the entrance (or lift access to a WC on another floor)

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