A Guide to Wheelchair Accessible and Adapted Property

By FrankiChaffin

January 16, 2020

This is one of our most essential blog posts to read if you're just getting started with your accessible property journey. Before we can jump into the details of how to find an accessible home or how to sell one - we need to understand what an accessible home actually is!

In this guide we explain the essential basics of accessible housing, including the difference between adapted and accessible property, the policies affecting accessible housing, what features make a home accessible, and much more.

So sit back, grab a coffee, and read on to learn more about accessible housing and how the system works.

What is an accessible property?

First thing’s first, before we can start looking at how to find wheelchair accessible housing options, we need to understand what an ‘accessible property’ actually is.

Part of the problem with finding wheelchair friendly homes is that the definition of what qualifies as an accessible property is hugely varied and there isn’t a single, commonly-agreed definition for the term. However, broadly speaking, it’s safe to say that “accessible housing”:

“Refers to the construction or modification of housing to enable independent living for persons with disabilities”

This definition is often used in housing policy or other official documents, but it isn’t particularly useful in helping us to understand what an accessible home actually looks like, who they are designed for, what features they contain, or how they differ from any other property.

In reality, the range of potential limitations or disabilities that a person may have are incredibly large. And therefore the potential features, improvements or adaptations that they would require in a property are also incredibly varied. 

Some disabled people may find that the only accessible feature they require to live independently is a flat or apartment located in a building with a lift, so that there is step-free access into and within their home. However, other wheelchair users with more severely limited mobility would require a fully wheelchair-accessible home with tracked ceiling hoists, stair lifts, low-level kitchen countertops, low-level environmental and electrical controls, grab rails throughout, a wet room etc. etc.

This is one of the reasons why it’s important to understand the difference between fully accessible and adapted properties, as we explain below.

What’s the difference between wheelchair accessible and adapted properties?

Fully Wheelchair Accessible Properties

When we talk about wheelchair accessible properties, we usually mean homes that have been specifically designed to be lived in by a wheelchair user. Because the needs of a wheelchair user are significantly different when it comes to space and mobility, properties really need to be designed with accessibility in mind from the very start to ensure they are truly suitable. 

There are a number of forward-thinking architects and designers who have started to build accessible features into all their homes as standard - regardless of whether they are being created for a wheelchair user or not. But in most cases, wheelchair accessible homes are designed specifically for wheelchair users, and are meant to be lived in by wheelchair users and no one else.

Wheelchair accessible properties contain the most sophisticated and comprehensive range of adaptations and improvements. From basic spatial standards like the width of hallways and doorways allowing for a wheelchair to pass through with plenty of room to account for turning circle, to sophisticated electronic tracked ceiling hoists that can help a disabled person get into and out of their wheelchair without additional help. Fully wheelchair accessible properties are often the ultimate dream home for a wheelchair user.

Common Features in Fully Wheelchair Accessible Properties:

  • Wide hallways
  • Wide doorways
  • Spatial standards allowing for wheelchair turning circle
  • Level access
  • Wet rooms
  • Ceiling hoists
  • Grab rails
  • Lowered counter tops
  • Lowered environmental/electrical controls (e.g. light switches, thermostats etc.)
  • Reinforced ceilings to support hoists
  • Intercom/entry phone
  • Wheelchair lift between floors
  • Adapted kitchens/bathrooms

However, there a shockingly small number of fully wheelchair accessible flats, houses or bungalows in the UK, and demand far outweighs supply.

This is partly because there isn’t much visibility around the demand for these types of properties, so housebuilders and developers don’t think there is a big enough market to buy them. Property developers believe that an able-bodied person wouldn’t want to live in a fully wheelchair accessible home (perhaps rightly so), and it’s much easier and cheaper to build general needs housing, so fully wheelchair accessible units are few and far between.

Adapted Properties

When compared to specifically designed wheelchair accessible homes, adapted properties tend to offer less comprehensive levels of accessibility. Broadly speaking, and adapted property usually refers to a general needs house or apartment that has been adapted with accessible improvements to make it more suitable for people with limited mobility.

Accessible adaptations can be as simple as adding grab rails next to the bath/shower, or lowering light switches and other controls. It’s important to remember that not all persons with limited mobility require full time use of a wheelchair, and may only need relatively minor adaptations to live independently.

While structural changes can be both costly and disruptive, there are a number of smaller adaptations that can be incredibly cost-effective and increase the potential audience of buyers/renters for a property. So it’s well worth seriously considering making these kinds of improvements if you are a landlord or homeowners looking to buy or sell your property.

What features make a property accessible?

As we have mentioned in many of our blog posts, there are a huge variety of possible features, adaptations and improvements that can make a property more accessible for disabled people or people with limited mobility. 

One of the most obvious features that can make a home accessible is level or step-free access into the property. Many homeowners and landlords own properties that offer level-access by design, but adding a ramp alongside stairs leading up to a property, or even replacing stairs with ramped access can make a huge difference.

In fact, there are a huge number of landlords and homeowners in the UK who own accessible properties and don’t even realise it! Own a single floor apartment or bungalow? Own a new build property with naturally better design standards when it comes to spatial standards?

Your home could be incredibly attractive to 10% of the UK population who identify themselves as disabled. Let alone the UK’s rapidly growing elderly population.

While the potential list of features that can make a home accessible is incredibly broad, below we have summarised the key list of features that corresponds broadly with M4(2) Category 2 in Part M of Building Regulations (adopted in October 2015).

List of Accessible Housing Features:

  • Step-free access (external)
  • Ramped access (external)
  • Support rails on approach to property (external)
  • Level-access throughout
  • Wide doorways
  • Wide hallways
  • Increased spatial standards (allowing for wheelchair turning circle)
  • Increased structural integrity (especially strong cielings to support hoists)
  • Tracked or fixed ceiling hoists
  • Grab rails
  • Wet rooms or walk-in bath
  • Lowered countertops
  • Lowered environmental/electrical controls (e.g. light switches, thermostats etc.)
  • Stair lift or wheelchair lift between floors
  • Intercom or entry phone

Technical Standards for Accessible Housing

Over the past decade the Government have been working to improve the way we design and build housing with regards to accessibility. Since October 2015, national Building Regulations have included optional technical standards Category 2 and Category 3 in Part M of the document.

These two categories refer to two different levels of accessibility - with Category 2 usually referring to adapted properties which offer more basic accessible improvements, and Category 3 referring to more comprehensive accessible features that could make the property suitable for a wheelchair user. 

Currently, only 7% of homes in the UK meet even the most basic accessibility standards, with a huge number of homes not even deemed “visitable” by a person with disabilities.

With a few exceptions, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of period properties - e.g. homes built during the Victorian era - are not accessible in any way shape or form. However, new build properties offer much better accessibility and the Government has been pushing property developers, house builders and Local Authorities to use Category 2 standards as the baseline for all new build homes.

Many local authorities will require large new build developments to contain a fixed minimum number of adaptable and wheelchair accessible homes. In many cases, new build homes are already built to the minimum design standards that include wide doorways and hallways - making it easier to adapt them to become fully wheelchair accessible if needed.

Generally speaking, you are far more likely to find properties that meet the lower requirements of Category 2 design standards, than you are to find the more comprehensive Category 3 standards that are required for a wheelchair user.

Part of the problem with finding and advertising accessible properties is that there isn’t a commonly agreed set of ratings that can help people easily work out whether a property will meet their needs. Up until 2018, you could rely on the “Lifetime Homes Standard’ to let you know that a property would be easily adaptable to meet the needs of someone with limited mobility. But unfortunately this term was dropped in favour of the far more technical and less friendly Category M4(2) and Category M4(3).

What are the regulations around accessibility in housing?

With a rapidly ageing population and roughly 10% of the population who identify themselves as disabled, the Government are starting to pay more attention to the need for accessible and adaptable housing. While the national Government have yet to implement any nationwide policies to enforce a strong supply of accessible housing, there have been several attempts at a local level.

National Accessible Housing Regulations

Despite what I’ve said above, there is in fact a nationwide policy regarding accessible housing - but, it’s put forward within “optional technical standards”, which means it cannot be enforced.

Since October 2015, Part M (4), Volume I, of Building Regulations has included optional technical standards for ‘accessible and adaptable housing’. Part M lays out two categories for accessible housing: Category 2, M4(2) and Category 3, M4(3). These two categories contain a set of design standards that should be followed by architects, planners and developers when building new homes. Category 2 standards offer lower levels of accessibility, but still better than general needs housing, while Category 3 standards offer full wheelchair access.

Many campaigners have lobbied the Government to make Category 2 standards the base level that all homes are designed to due to the increasing need for accessible and adapted housing. But as of right now, these standards are not mandatory and it is up to Local Authorities to decide how and where they implement them.

Accessible Housing Policy in London - The London Plan

London is by far the most forward-thinking Local Authority when it comes to accessible housing. In fact, many people have claimed that London could be held up as blueprint for how to deliver truly accessible homes throughout the UK.

This is because the Mayor of London took the bold step of including mandatory minimum requirements for the delivery of accessible new build homes. Thanks to the London Plan, all property developers trying to build housing in the capital have to make sure that at least 10% of all units are offered as wheelchair accessible homes.

This provides a real lifeline for disabled home-hunters in the capital and is a strong step in the right direction.

Accessible Housing Regulations in Local Plans

You probably won’t be aware of this unless you work in the property or planning industries, but each borough and council in the UK has a special policy document called a ‘Local Plan’. A Local Plan will outline the housing needs of the area, what the local authorities goals are regarding house building, what type of homes they are looking for, and how they plan to address the lack of suitable homes.

Some Local Authorities have realised the importance of building more accessible homes after seeing how many wheelchair users and disabled people were stuck on waiting lists. In fact, one Local Authority admitted that at the current rate, it would take 13 years to clear their accessible housing waiting list. And that was on the basis that no new people were added to the list!

It’s definitely worth visiting your Local Authorities website and trying to find their Local Plan. Each authority does things differently, so it’s important to check what the regulations are in your local area.