Home-buying can be a frustrating experience for buyers. It can be even more discouraging when clients feel like an agent doesn’t understand their needs.
Real estate professionals suggest this may be the case for thousands—even millions—of people looking to enter the buyer’s market with some form of disability.
With 61 million adults—roughly 1 in 4—living with a physical or cognitive disability in the United States, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, real estate professionals indicate this is an underserved demographic in the market.
“The vast majority of real estate agents don’t understand physical or mental and cognitive disability in a way that optimizes the service level to the client,” says California-based agent Stephen Beard of Keller Williams Oakland.
That was a realization he encountered firsthand nearly two decades ago when looking for his first home.
Beard, who has cerebral palsy and uses a cane for balance, remembers advocating for himself because the buyer’s agents weren’t knowledgeable about accessibility needs.
Since launching his real estate career 17 years ago, Beard has leveraged his experience and knowledge of the accessibility issues in real estate to serve disabled clients and their families.
Jackie Roth is an associate broker with Corcoran Real Estate in New York. For the past 16 years, she says she hasn’t let the fact that she is deaf define her in life as well as her real estate profession.
Instead, she uses her background to help others work with and advocate for the deaf.
“Change needs to start within the brokerage community, and oftentimes the change comes with being human,” Roth says. “The real estate community as a whole needs to be willing to put in the work to create a pathway for communication so people of all backgrounds can work together seamlessly.”
While she suggests that formal courses focused on serving people with disabilities would be helpful, Roth says more education is needed across the industry to provide better service.
She also notes that sensitivity and patience are essential.
“The best thing a broker can do for their client if they are disabled is to allow them the extra time to communicate,” Roth says. “The relationship between broker and client succeeds when a level of comfort is established, and the client feels comfortable communicating their needs. Especially when a big decision such as buying a home is at stake.”
Beard echoes similar sentiments, adding that he tries to make himself available to help colleagues and inquiring agents better understand the demographic of buyers. He also hosts a new weekly podcast, Accessible Housing Matters, where he speaks with experts in accessible architecture and development and disability advocacy.
Jeff Shelton, broker and co-founder of Florida-based Hughes Shelton Group with Compass, says there needs to be a larger conversation around raising awareness and advocating for people with disabilities, especially when it comes to housing.
“Sometimes I just don’t think people think about others who aren’t like themselves,” says Shelton.
He is also the former chairman of the advisory board of Best Buddies, a volunteer movement dedicated to creating opportunities for integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Shelton points to his autistic nephew as the inspiration for his interest and involvement in Best Buddies. In his experience, Shelton suggests that people with disabilities aren’t “given a lot of respect or a lot of consideration” in the general purview of the real estate industry.
“I definitely think it’s underserved because the products are just not there,” he says. “If you are someone in a wheelchair, you are limited in the number of homes that you are going to look at.”
He attributes that partially to home building standards not requiring construction/development of homes to consider accessibility needs from the beginning.
In a past transaction, Shelton explains that he had a client who used a wheelchair that needed to compromise their expectations for a home location because of Florida building regulations regarding Floodplains.
“This client wanted to look at new construction and to be in a particular area of town,” Shelton says. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for them because there were no ramps for them to get into the house, and that is not a code requirement that builders must do,”
Understanding Accessibility Needs
Pushing the needle forward between real estate professionals and their ability to offer quality service to disabled buyers will take a concerted effort to change the perceptions associated with the demographic.
“We need to stop treating people as if because they are disabled that they are medically deficient or less than,” Beard says, adding that there also should be more significant efforts to understand the nuances to accessibility needs.
Beard notes that he and his team conduct a detailed needs assessment of all their new clients dealing with a disability to help determine what they’ll need out of a home.
Another impediment to improving service for people with disabilities has been a disparity in data entry services for information about properties to help people find homes that meet their needs.
That’s a challenge that Washington-based broker Barry Long says he and his partner Tom Minty have been tackling.
As a real estate broker for Marketplace Sotheby’s International Realty and a former Accessibility Specialist, and a voting member of the Washington Building Code Council, Long says he has leveraged his expertise to change the paradigm of buying or selling a home for people with disabilities.
“All real estate is a series of data points,” says Long.
When he started his real estate career six years ago, he noticed that multiple listing services were missing a standardized set of data points with accessibility in mind to help brokers list properties appropriately.
That was the impetus of Long launching Able Environments in 2017 with Minty, a broker with John L. Scott Real Estate. The real estate business created the language and search criteria local REALTORS® use to buy and sell accessible homes.
“One of the things it’s doing is it’s allowing a buyer to weed out a bunch of the houses that just couldn’t work for them,” Long says.
Long also admits that eliminating stigmas attached to accessibility features and their impact on a listing presents another challenge in real estate.
Contrary to perceptions, Long asserts that accessibility doesn’t have to be a detriment to a home.
“It can be cool and super luxurious if you do it right,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be this stale, ugly devaluation of the home because it was an afterthought. We’re now finding that people are coming in with remodeled homes, and they are stunning, and they are totally accessible.”
Long says sellers can list that accessibility as a value-add component versus a devaluation of the home with the data points.
Since developing the accessibility language and having it integrated into its local MLS—the Northwest MLS—Long indicates that adoption has been ticking up in the past three years.
“What that means is that REALTORS® have used our form or checked the accessibility boxes saying that a home has some accessibility features,” says Long. “There are now close to 10,000 homes with accessibility features that are out there that if they go back on the market, somebody looking for them will be able to find them.”
Long notes he also submitted that same taxonomy and accessibility language to the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO), which was approved for use in MLSs nationwide.
Jordan Grice is RISMedia’s associate online editor. Email him your real estate news to firstname.lastname@example.org.