The 9-Step Process

There are, obviously, hundreds of steps necessary to complete a large renovation project. The following nine steps are just one way to break down the process into manageable pieces. Like all work there is a planning stage followed by the beginning, middle and end of the work. For the purpose of this process, we are assuming a large renovation project. A simpler process can be used for smaller house modifications. Adapt this process to meet your own needs.

The process puts a lot of emphasis on the planning stages as this is where most of the cost savings can be made and where a lot of the frustrations of renovating can be minimized.

The 9-step process is:


1. What you need and would like to have done


2. Getting several quotes of the costs

3. Choosing and working with a contractor

4. The Asking Role and how someone can fulfill it


5. Work site safety

6. Ordering and delivery of materials

7. Working with volunteers on site


8. Ending the project

9. Regular maintenance

1. What You Need and Would Like to Have Done

The beginning of the planning starts with looking at what you need done to accommodate any disabilities or long-term care needs. You need to make a careful assessment, perhaps with the help of others who have gone through this process before, to decide whether you need to widen doorways, move electrical switches, or build a wheelchair ramp to the front or side door. A physiotherapist and occupational therapist may be helpful professionals to bring in to do an assessment for you.

You might also consider a home inspector to look at all aspects of your home so that some of the other needed repairs can be done at the same time. For example, when you take down old drywall to insulate a wall might also be the time to upgrade wiring or protect the exterior wall from leaks. A home inspector can help you identify these areas of concern before you plan too far ahead. A home inspector or government energy savings consultant will also be able to advise you on how to include energy savings in your home renovation plans that go beyond typical building code requirements. For example, R2000 home standards may be possible in your renovation to cut energy costs in the coming years.

To get a sense of what you need done you begin by writing down:

(1) what is the goal you want to accomplish? For example:

(a) I want Grandpa to live with us in such a way that he has his own space (for home care people to come and help him, to make his own cup of tea, and to enjoy his own television) and we have our own space.

(b) We want a space within our home that feels like a full, separate home for Julie – one where she can have her own visitors, cook her own meals, and have enough room for an overnight support person.

(2) what is preventing this from happening now? For example:

(a) Grandpa uses a wheelchair, therefore, needs an elevator to access the house from outside and go between the basement and main floor; bathroom and bedroom renovations; wider doors; lower light switches and higher electrical plugs.

(b) The basement has no kitchen for Julie and she has mobility problems moving her arms above her shoulders. Therefore she needs a kitchen, lower cupboards and closet shelving, a separate bedroom for a support worker and bathroom renovations to accommodate Julie (lower shower head) and a supporter to help with bathing.

List only those conditions that require modifications and/or renovations to their home. These conditions do not define the person – they only identify what needs must be accommodated. For example, the fact that Julie may not be able to speak well or that Grandpa has continence problems is not related to home renovations.

Once you have a list of the conditions that home modifications and/or renovations may help accommodate, you have two choices:

1. call in at least three contractors who can suggest ways to modify and/or renovate your home to meet your specific needs and get quotes from them about the estimated costs, or

2. review the information in the rest of this chapter to have a better sense, yourself, of what you need and then call in the contractors for their ideas and quote. If possible, visit accessible homes to see how the bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms and other rooms are designed. Adapt those designs to your needs. Read books about home renovation floor plans and design options to get a broader sense of what is possible.

This method provides you with more knowledge going into negotiations with a contractor but also takes more time.

The rest of this chapter looks at different needs and different types of projects and what you might consider in planning for any one of these. These projects are the ones we have been most involved in during our pilot project. They do not represent all the types of modifications and renovations that are possible but they do represent the more common ones.

NOTE: After a careful review of your needs and information from contractors and others with some expertise in this field, you may decide to research whether it is better to move to a new home rather than do a major renovation. Sometimes, people spend a great deal of money, time and resources to make changes to their homes when a different home may be better. There is the emotional cost of leaving the home they are used to but the emotional costs of renovating can also be very high. Compare the list of what is needed with other types of homes that might meet the needs better than the present home ever could. It may help to look at the last section of this chapter to see if modifying floor plans of a new home or designing your own new home is a better option.

Re-Sale Value of Your Home

A significant consideration when looking at any renovation to your home is the re-sale value of the home and whether the renovation increases its value. Since a family home is often the family’s largest financial asset, it is important not to diminish the value and, if possible, increase its value.

Whether you ever sell your home or not, the equity you own in your home appreciates as the home’s value appreciates giving you more financial options in the future (e.g., re-mortgaging your home in 10 years time to get extra cash when needed). Free advice about these aspects of your home renovations can come from your local Realtor. Their advice benefits them because they are building a pool of prospects (yourself and any of your family or friends who you might refer them to). They know more than most people what the average value of homes in your area are worth and what prospective buyers are looking for. They usually recommend that improvements to bathrooms and kitchens contribute most to the resale value of a home. However, significant modifications for accessibility tend not to increase the resale value except to buyers with similar needs (a much smaller market). It’s like having a swimming pool which is an asset but limits the market to only those who want a pool.

Spending a few extra dollars to do a project “right” from the beginning can also significantly affect the value of the home down the road. Three examples:

If, in putting on a main floor addition, you include a walk-out from the bedroom to the outside you benefit the person using the room now, but in future, that bedroom could become a home office with a separate entrance and separate bathroom for clients.

Enlarging the size of the addition slightly, for example a bedroom from 10 x 12 to 12 x 14 would allow the bedroom, in future, to become a family room. You are adding only 48 square feet but the overall size now becomes the more popular size for a family room.

Enlarging the size could also lead to the room and bathroom becoming an “in-law” suite or rental unit with only the need for a kitchenette to be added later on. Planning for a kitchenette means you back it onto the bathroom wall where the plumbing already exists. If a stove is necessary you will also need to add a wire from the electrical box specific for the stove.

Although functionality is important (e.g., use of grab bars, toilet adaptations, bathtub seats, etc.), it is also important to think of aesthetics for the person using the room or home now but also for future users. Try to minimize the “institutional” look of the bathroom (and other rooms for that matter). The easiest way to do this is to use ‘portable’ fixtures that can be taken with the person if they should move. It is then a small matter to fill some holes in the wall and repaint the room. If you install permanent fixtures, it will be more costly to return the bathroom to a non-institutional look if you decide to move.

The following is a list of typical renovations that can have a positive impact on the value of your home. According to the findings of the Appraisal Institute of Canada in its national 1999 Renovations and Home Value Survey, some renovations will result in a higher average pay-back (or dollars returned) at the time of sale. For example, when you spend $10,000 on a new kitchen, you will get about $7,200 back as part of the sale price of your home.

Interior painting and decor (73%)

Kitchen (72%)

Bathroom (68%)

Exterior painting (65%)

Flooring upgrades (62%)

Window/door replacement (57%)

Main floor family room addition (51%)

Fireplace addition (50%)

Basement renovation(49%)

New furnace or heating system (48%)

Different Types of Projects and What You Need to Know

Mobility is one of the greatest needs that can be met through modifications and renovations. If a person uses a wheelchair, the inside and outside doors must be wider. There has to be a safe way into and out of the home (i.e., chair lift, wheelchair ramp, internal elevator with a direct door opening to the outside).

If a person uses a wheelchair and is unable to move about on their own or unable to use their arms, then you will not have to make as many modifications. For example, you will not have to modify the kitchen or move light switches and electrical plugs. On the other hand, any elevator or porch lift will have to carry two people plus the wheelchair to be safest.

Aside from major renovations, there are also technological advances you may want to research that can make the home more accessible, safe and comfortable. Technological advances include such things as voice-activated doors and appliances, and more interactive computers. Some of these exist already and an assistive devices store or agency can help you determine what is possible now and in the near future.

The following are specific projects and some considerations for each. Choose those that meet your specific needs. Check the References for books or resources that may provide greater detail.

To Widen Doorways and Improve Doors

Most standard doors are 30 inches. If possible, they should be widened to 36 inches which is the maximum standard door size (i.e., not a customized door and therefore less expensive) to reduce door-frame damage by a wheelchair.

Consider the doorknobs – instead of typical circular door knobs you can replace them with lever handles that are easier to use.

You can get remote door openers. Ask your local assistive devices retailers for information and costs (about $1,800 installed). To reduce costs, try to buy directly from the manufacturer.

Keep in mind that door frames have two studs on either side of the door to support the door and keep the door opening square (so door swings open and closed easily). To widen the door opening, you cannot take out one stud on either side. You must move the studs to the right width so that there are still two studs on either side). A double stud on each side prevents warping and maintains the rigidity needed for the door jam.

When installing new doors, consider the optimum direction of swing. Doors most often open into a room but do not have to. The key to the swing is to use up as little space as possible in the swing. If swinging the door out into a hallway does not block anything in the hallway, you may have extra space in the room to accommodate your furniture. For example, if the door swings out into the hall against a wall or closest, then it is not in anyone’s way or likely to hit anyone.

In some cases when a person is likely to accidentally block their door with furniture and, therefore, block their exit in an emergency, it is helpful to have two doors to that room with one opening into the room and the other opening out. If you only have one door into the room, install it opening out.

One other door option is to install a pocket door that slides into a cavity in the wall. Pocket doors are particularly helpful for people using wheelchairs. They come in a variety of sizes (up to 36 inches wide) and are easier to open and close without moving the chair. These doors take up no space in the room and you cannot block them. However, they are more costly. NOTE: these doors are only possible if there are no electrical wires in the “pocket” of the wall.

Heights of Switches and Electrical Plugs

If the person can reach standard height switches and plugs, keep them at that standard height for resale purposes (and to save the effort). If you need to move them lower or higher, stay as close to the standard height as you can.

You may also consider putting in remote switches. Standard toggle switches are replaced by button switches that anyone can use but also includes a sensor so that one or more remotes can be placed anywhere else in the room including on a wall, on a wheelchair, or on the bed’s night stand. All building supply stores carry these remote switches.


If dexterity is an issue, consider ‘touch’ lamps which turn on and off by touching the lamp anywhere. Every lighting store now carries these. They come as standard lamps or with dimmers.

Some General Considerations about Flooring

Hard flooring options (from most expensive to least expensive generally) include: hardwood, ceramics, laminate flooring, sheet vinyl, and vinyl tiles .

Laminate flooring wears better than hardwood. Scuff marks from walkers, canes, and wheelchairs are harder to remove from hardwood. They are equally warm to the touch. Laminate flooring has the advantage of “floating” on a foam underlay which makes it easier for seniors and those with leg joint problems to walk. Laminate floors have become less expensive over the years so that they are often less than half the cost of hardwood. Glued together laminate provides a completely sealed floor so spills and accidents do not harm the floor or sub-floor (i.e., best in kitchens, bathrooms, or a porch) and, therefore, may be more practical than hardwood. Clipped together laminate is not appropriate for these rooms and should never be used in areas where moisture is present (kitchen, baths or mud rooms). Hardwood has the advantage that it can be refinished and some people prefer its appearance to laminate floors. Therefore, if you have hardwood, it is not financially beneficial to take it out to replace it with laminate. You may need to add more coats of varathane especially in heavy traffic areas for someone using a walker or wheelchair.

Ceramics are often the most appropriate in bathrooms for appearance sake, resale value and moisture resistance. They are, however, also more painful should a person fall (e.g., because of seizures). Keep in mind that whatever flooring is used in the bathroom, the perimeter should be completely sealed using caulking. A person who requires help with bathing is likely to get more water on the floor, so you want the floor completely sealed to prevent water damage to the sub-floor. The bathroom floor should be as tolerant to water as the shower floor, therefore ceramic is probably the best choice. If the bathroom has a roll-in shower, the entire bathroom floor should have a vinyl floor liner under the ceramic tiles because a fair amount of water will likely get onto the bathroom floor from the roll-in shower.

A second option for bathroom floors is sheet vinyl (up to 12 feet wide). You want to use the correct width of vinyl sheet so there are no seams. This flooring must also be sealed along the perimeter. This choice is less expensive than ceramics but does not offer the same value for resale nor is it as attractive. It is just as good at protecting the sub-floor.

The key to a good installation of vinyl flooring is the condition of the underlay. This underlay surface must be completely smooth including seams, nail or screw holes to ensure that these are not visible through the vinyl.

Vinyl tiles are the easiest for “do-it-yourselfers’. In areas where there is not an excessive amount of water getting on the floor and where the floor needs to be easy to clean, vinyl tiles are the least expensive. If the area is going to be used by wheelchairs, good quality, commercial vinyl tiles will be necessary. Less expensive, residential tiles tend to be too soft and easily marked by a wheelchair or the feet of walkers.


Carpeting is not ideal for most renovation situations for people with mobility concerns. If warmth is a big factor, however, carpeting is best. The lower the pile, the less risk of tripping. You can use walkers on a low pile but not on higher pile. If the person uses a wheelchair and wants the warmth of carpet, a commercial grade carpet glued down is the best option. There is no foam under pad or foam backing to the carpet and the jute backing is glued directly to the hard sub-floor surface. You will still have the warmth factor and the carpet will not ‘pucker’ when the person turns the chair. The wheels do not sink in as much because there is no foam so it will be easier to roll the chair.

Area rugs, throw rugs, and bath mats can present significant hazards to individuals with mobility challenges. People can easily slip or trip on these floor coverings. There are ones that you can glue down but the corners and edges still present a tripping hazard.

If the flooring is for a new house or addition, and the floor’s warmth is important to you, you can use radiant, in-floor heating. The heating system is actually part of the floor. This is also an excellent alternative to increasing the size of your furnace if you are adding on an addition.

Converting a Standard 4-piece Bathroom to Make it Wheelchair Accessible

The following are suggestions for converting a standard bathroom into a more accessible and safe bathroom.

Probably the least expensive conversion includes: adding some grab bars around the tub, toilet and sink; a tub bench; a roll-under sink; space between the toilet and tub to allow wheelchair access to the tub bench for easier transfer on their own or with help; and widening the bathroom door. Most standard bathroom doors are 24-26 inches wide. Wheelchairs usually need at least 32 inches.

If a person cannot transfer on their own from a wheelchair into the tub, and vice versa, then adding a ceiling track is very helpful. Overhead/ceiling tracking is a system that lifts a person from their bed to a chair or commode or helps them into a bathtub or onto a toilet. A ceiling track is easily installed and removed and, therefore, will have less effect on the resale value of the home.

A roll-in shower is very convenient for people with a high degree of independence as they can transfer from their wheelchair to a commode or shower chair easily. A roll-in shower is also an excellent option for people who need assistance with bathing. The person helping does not have to lean over the tub or do any heavy lifting.

Always use temperature-balanced shower heads (i.e., the water temperature does not change when someone turns on water somewhere else in the house). They are about twice the cost of an unbalanced shower head but the importance of having a predictable temperature is critical to a disabled person’s comfort. If you change your mind after installing an unbalanced unit, it will cost a day’s labor plus the new shower head (about $500) to convert.

Use slap handles (flat handles) or motion sensor taps rather than circular knobs.

Oblong toilets are better than conventional round toilet bowls. The oblong toilet is also necessary for a bidet seat. Keep in mind the extra room required in the bathroom for the larger toilet.

If you wish a bidet seat, make sure to have a GFI (ground fault interrupter – like the one used for shavers and hair dryers) installed near the toilet.

To Renovate an Existing Kitchen to Make it Wheelchair Accessible

The biggest change for the kitchen is to create a lower roll-under work surface, because a standard counter is too high to work on comfortably from a wheelchair. The counter needs to be lowered with some of the cupboards underneath removed to allow the wheelchair to roll at least part way under the counter.

The sink needs to be lowered and opened underneath for wheelchair access. Ensure the pipes are insulated to prevent leg burns.

Arrangements of cabinets, cupboards and appliances need to be adjusted to allow space for the wheelchair. A separate stovetop can be lowered with the oven and microwave moved to suitable levels. A fridge with the freezer on the bottom or a side-by-side fridge-freezer is best. Since upper cupboards are not functional for someone in a wheelchair, replace lower cupboards with large drawers for easier access at the front and back. If the person is sharing the kitchen with someone able to reach the higher cupboards, then put less-used dishes, pots, etc. in those.

For the stovetop, ensure knobs are at the front.

A remote operated exhaust fan and light are necessary.

Any electrical device can be made into a remote controlled device through the simple installation of a switch available through most building supply stores.

To renovate a basement into a self-contained apartment

1.  The most important aspect of renovating the basement is the height of the ceiling. If it is not possible to walk through the entire living space without ducking your head, it is probably not a practical renovation. The ideal is at least 6 feet, 6 inches (78 inches) for a finished height but 6 feet also works. This includes under the duct work for heating and air conditioning and supporting beams. Therefore, there should be 72 - 78 inches of space from the basement flooring to the bottom of any beams and duct work. In newer homes, the standard is now 84-inches of clearance.

Construction methods used to finish the basement ceiling should always maximize height. Plumbing and electrical can probably be easily moved to fit within the floor joists. Duct work can often be modified so that all but the main duct can also fit within the floor joists. Lighting can all fit within the joists whether they are pot lights or fluorescent box lighting.

2.  Windows and fire safety awareness are your number two consideration in a basement renovation. There must be smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and suitable escape routes for anyone living in a basement with special consideration required for people who have mobility difficulties. Windows are not only to allow in natural light, they also allow for an escape in case of an emergency. Most municipalities require an opening window large enough to allow for an emergency escape in all bedrooms. The minimum is usually 2 x 2 feet or 4 square feet. If at all possible, windows should be enlarged to the maximum possible size.

Many basement windows sit a foot or more above the surrounding ground. There is no reason why these windows cannot be enlarged right to the level of the ground with the provision of a small well to catch the water. This larger window will often double the size of basement windows to let in more light as well. If the width of the window is not being changed there is no need for any structural change. Above the window is usually a continuous steel lintel (wide, thin sheet of steel) which supports the structure of the house above the window while taking all of the pressure and weight of the house off the window. The window, itself, can offer no structural support, otherwise it would not open. If you change the width of the window you will have to change the lintel to a longer one as well. This requires a fairly high level of expertise to ensure structural integrity.

If you only change the height of the window, you take out the old window, cut the hole in the concrete below the old window and install the larger window. A contractor can complete the enlarging of a window height and install the window in about 2-3 hours.

To help a person escape their bedroom, you might place a 4-step stool covered with easily removed items so they can climb up the steps and out through the window. You might also have a double step beside a dresser which is under the window. Again a quick sweep of the dresser allows for easy exit. You can also buy rope ladders to help someone climb out of a basement window.

3.  The third consideration is lighting. Basements are often seen as “dark” places. For lighting, pot lights are the nicest esthetically. They are warm, have no overhead obstruction and create no glare. Recessed fluorescent lighting which is available in 1 x 4 foot fixtures will also fit between the floor joists. Again they cause no overhead obstruction, no glare and provide a greater quantity of light at a substantially reduced cost. Two 1 x 4 foot fluorescent light fixtures equals up to 8 pot lights (equals about half the price for the fixtures and about half the cost of electricity and the bulbs themselves). There are also 2 foot and 8 foot fluorescent bulbs but always use 4 footers as they are the least expensive and more readily available. The four-foot bulbs are also easier to transport home from the store than 8 footers, and extra bulbs are easier to store.

By choosing the appropriate bulb for your fluorescent fixtures you can change the color of the light. For example, fluorescent bulbs come in various styles including daylight, cool white and warm white. With daylight bulbs and the natural sunlight coming through smaller basement windows, you still get the “feel” of a room lit by natural sunlight. You can use table lamps and wall lamps with incandescent bulbs to offer a different ‘mood’ to the room’s lighting.

Other ceiling and wall fixtures can also be used where overhead obstruction is not a concern.

When in doubt, more lighting is always better than less. Lights in the basement are going to be on more often and longer than on a main floor, so energy efficiency is a bigger issue to consider.

4.  The fourth major consideration is the basement’s dampness and the resulting musty smells.

If the basement walls leak, the repairs have to made from the outside. This can be caused by:

damaged foundations walls


walls not properly waterproofed

blocked or damaged weeping tiles

blocked or damaged down spouts

Any cracks or damage to foundation walls should also be repaired and sealed from the inside.

There are compounds available for sealing the inside of basement walls to further reduce any risk of moisture penetration.

When framing the exterior walls of the basement, tar paper should be applied between the concrete wall and studs. This will reduce the risk of any moisture damaging the insulation.

The bottom plate of all basement walls must be placed on 6 millimeter super poly (plastic sheet). For larger projects, you can buy this poly  in 12- inch wide rolls and should be under all wood that comes into contact with the concrete to prevent any transfer of moisture. Smaller applications can use 6 mil super poly vapor barrier that has been cut into 12-inch strips.

Once the exterior walls are framed and insulated, a 6 millimeter poly vapor barrier is stapled to the studs from top to bottom to enclose the insulation and prevent any transfer of vapor moisture to inside the basement.

Another form of moisture coming into the basement is a backup in the floor drains. To fix the backup in the floor drains – before the renovations are done to the basement, the floor drains should have one-way valves installed which will allow water to run down the drain but not back up.

Basements tend to hold moisture, therefore, a high-volume exhaust fan in any bathroom or kitchen is vital. This will remove most of the humidity from showers, baths, and boiling pots on the stove. These fans are quieter than typical fans. If there is already a noisy fan there, it is easy to replace with a better quality fan that is quieter. An exhaust fan is mandatory in a bathroom or kitchen without a window. However, the exhaust fan should be included in all bathroom and kitchen renovations.

Another method of improving air quality and temperature balance in a basement is to locate a cold air return vent near the floor in the main area of the basement, in a central hallway or near the center of the basement in as open an area as possible. This vent draws in the cold air from throughout the basement into the furnace to be heated and sent out again.

Lowering your basement heating vents from the ceilings to the bottom of the walls in each room will keep the floor of your basement much warmer (heat rises).

Wooden paneling (or similar products) are not recommended for basement walls because they tend to be dark and every effort should be made to brighten the basement. Existing paneling can be painted by applying a good quality primer first and then one or two coats of a light colored paint.

Basement floors are an excellent place for laminate flooring because it is installed on a foam underlay which offers insulation and there is a low transfer of moisture and cold from the concrete floor. Laminate flooring also transforms the appearance of the basement so it looks more like a main floor.

Main floor addition including wheelchair accessible bedroom and bathroom

The first consideration in adding onto your existing home is where the addition is going to be. The addition is going to change the footprint of the house (i.e., it will be outside the present foundation). Therefore, you may need a variance from your municipality to increase the size of your house relative to the size of your property. Each municipality has regulations about the set back from the street, the set back from side lot lines as well as the percentage of your lot that may be covered by all buildings. There are further regulations about the percentage of window space you can have relative to wall space (e.g., 15%). This rule may affect the size of windows you want to have in your addition.

You will have to decide whether to include a full basement under the addition or a crawl space or perimeter foundation (only gravel or dirt under addition). NOTE: building a full basement under your addition is the least expensive way to increase the future living space in a home (per square foot). The cost of digging and building a foundation are quite high so you will want to consider whether adding a storey to your home might be better. (See next section.)

Changing the square footage of the house may also require a change to the heating and cooling systems (furnace, air conditioner). Check with your heating and cooling manufacturer to see if the present furnace and air conditioner can meet the needs of a larger home.

Running electrical wire is much less expensive than running plumbing. Therefore, when planning the renovation, try to locate the new bathroom as close to existing plumbing as possible. This is also important if you want to include a kitchen now, or in the future.

If the addition is for someone who uses a wheelchair, you must take extra care in the planning to ensure that the turning radius in each room and from one room to another is sufficient for the chair, that doors are wide enough, etc. The position of doorways and the direction they swing must be considered. Having the person review the plan or someone else who uses a chair will be helpful. Different wheelchairs require different space depending on the size and particular features of the chair (e.g., a 16-inch wide manual wheelchair versus a 20-inch wide power wheelchair with extended leg rests).

Keep in mind that the bedroom will have to accommodate the normal bedroom furniture plus the wheelchair and probably a commode/shower chair. Each takes up about 12 square feet. You may also need transfer poles near the bed to help get in and out and/or grab bars on the wall (this limits where dressers and other furniture can go).

If ceiling tracking is going to be used to facilitate transfers, special consideration needs to be given to the configuration of roof trusses and ceiling joists. The direction of the trusses can affect how a ceiling track will be installed. Having the ceiling track running perpendicular to the roof trusses or joists will allow more weight to be carried on the track. You could also add extra joists or cross bracing to add strength. All of these considerations are relatively inexpensive and can save lots of effort later on when the track is installed. The advantage of building an addition rather than converting existing space is that you can make some of these decisions, with the help of a knowledgeable contractor, in advance and save money down the road.

If you are going to use ceiling tracking from one room to the other, you should not have a ‘header’ at the top of door ways. This ensures that the track can run smoothly from one room to the next. There should be no additional cost for doing this. It is necessary to plan for this to avoid having to take out the standard header above doorways.

For someone using a wheelchair, consider an accessible exit door from the bedroom. This has obvious uses on a daily basis but is also helpful during an emergency for easy exit (i.e., do not have to go through the main part of the house). This exit door is also a resale feature, in the future, if someone wants a home office or rental apartment. For this door consider having the lowest threshold possible (for easy access for wheelchairs and walkers). There must be a threshold, however, because exterior doors must have a frame around all four sides to allow a weather tight seal. The threshold will have to accommodate a wedge (sloped door tread) or small ramp for easy entry and exit.

If you are going to have an exterior door, check the minimum thermal requirements for the door to ensure that drafts (which are particularly uncomfortable in a bedroom) are reduced to the minimum and that the door does not lose the bedroom heat.

Consider how high the windows will be in your additional rooms. For example, most living room windows are lower to give a better view outside rather than bedroom windows which are higher to give more light and privacy to the room. For someone in a bedroom for many hours of the day and night, however, a lower window might be better as it gives them a better view of the outside world.

For your bedroom window, the building department will tell you how large the opening needs to be for an emergency exit. There will be minimum requirements. You may want a larger opening given your circumstances especially if you do not have an exit door.

If a person is likely to spend most of their time in this additional bedroom, consider having an outside garden, tree, and bird feeder to add a view and some natural activity.

The choice of flooring depends on the individual. If a person uses a walker or wheelchair, then carpeting is not as good an option as hard-surface flooring. If they have allergies or respiratory problems, carpets should also be avoided.

If the flooring is for an addition (or for a new house), and the floor’s warmth is important to you, you can install radiant, in-floor heating. This is also an alternative to increasing the size of your furnace if you are adding on an addition. You might need a window air conditioner to supplement central air, if you have it.

In the case where someone uses an electric wheelchair or scooter, ensure a plug is accessible in the areas where these items are placed overnight so they can be easily recharged.

To add a second story or partial second story

The concerns about adding a second story to your house for added bedrooms, an extra bathroom, or a self-contained apartment are similar to an addition to the main floor. Some extra considerations, include:

Check with the Municipal By-law Department to ensure you can add onto your house. You will not have to change or add to the foundation but there may be height restrictions in your neighourhood.

Have an experienced contractor look at the house and its foundation to see if a second story can be built. The Municipal Permits Department will likely require you to get engineered floor joists and roof trusses to ensure the stability of the home.

Plan for the best location for a stair lift or internal elevator if mobility is a concern now or in the future.

The considerations for window size, bathroom size are similar for the second floor addition. Remember the By-law Department has restrictions on window sizes which must be checked.

Extra consideration must be given for an emergency exit. Ideally, if a person uses a wheelchair, their bedroom would be on the main floor for easy exit. If that is not possible, then put in extra smoke and carbon dioxide detectors to increase the early warning of either danger. It may be possible to add on a bedroom balcony or, on a partial second story, a ‘walk out’ onto a part of the roof where the person could get help from firefighters outside the house.


When looking to buy any type of elevator or lift (porch lift or stair lifts) check to see if a used model is available in your area first. Check with the staff at regional rehabilitation centers or hospitals, centers providing services to people with disabilities, and centers for seniors. These places may also have bulletin boards with “Wanted/For Sale” signs or you could put up your own ad requesting a used elevator or lift.

You may even be able to get an elevator or lift for free if the person selling the unit is willing to accept a charitable tax receipt from an organization you are affiliated with (including faith communities). This is a win-win situation for everyone. For example, your local church may be able to give a charity tax receipt to someone for donating an elevator to you. The church gets credit for helping you, the seller has a receipt to compensate them for the unit, and you get the unit you need.

Internal Elevator

When choosing where you will put your elevator consider the following:

Starting at the main floor, try to locate the elevator close to the entry door so that you do not have to go through other rooms with dirty wheels before accessing the elevator. Then check the other floors to see how placing the elevator there will affect those floors. If the entry door area is difficult to maneuver a wheelchair within or has too much traffic and is cluttered with shoes, sports equipment and coats, consider another more convenient entry area. For example, rather than the front door area, you may use the side door area or create an new entrance through a room that will allow easier access for an elevator shaft.

You do not want to have to move the following on any floor: main supporting beams in the basement, the main hydro panel, the main drain and venting stacks and your main heating and cooling ducts and furnace. Basically everything else can be modified although you want to try to avoid moving bathrooms and kitchens where all the electrical and plumbing would have to be moved.

If at all possible, have the entry for the elevator open outside, level with the ground or in the garage. Since most elevators are specifically designed to your needs anyway and only one of the sides (the supporting side) has to have a closed solid wall, you can have up to three doors in the elevator. This means that you can have an elevator door in your garage to allow the person in the chair to go directly from a dry garage (in all kinds of bad weather) directly into the house without an outside porch lift. Also, by having an elevator with more than one door, the person does not have to back into or out of the elevator but can wheel directly in through one door and exit through another. The only disadvantage is that two or three sides of the elevator are open to the walls within the shaft as it moves.

The most difficult part of installing an internal, residential elevator usually involves creating the pit in the lowest floor so that the elevator floor can come down flush with the level of the lowest floor. This pit is usually 10 to 16 inches deep.

Reinforcing the support wall is crucial in order to support the weight of the elevator. The elevator manufacturer can provide all the information you need.

The installation of the elevator itself, once the pit and support wall are prepared, requires a qualified elevator mechanic but is relatively straight forward. Normal installation times for an internal elevator are: about 2-4 days to prepare the pit and supporting wall and about 4-10 working days to install the elevator and have it safety inspected.

Porch Lift

You might choose a porch lift if you only need access to one floor in the house. If you are going to install an internal elevator, try to buy one that will allow for a direct exit outside (see above). If you need to go to two or three floors in your home, it is less expensive to install an internal elevator than to have a porch lift plus a platform stair lift inside the house. Obviously the elevator takes up less room, is easier to use in inclement weather than a porch lift and provides greater mobility.

Porch lifts come in straight roll-on and roll-off or 90-degree turn styles. The roll-on and roll-off lift does not require the wheelchair to turn on the lift. The person simply rolls onto the lift and rolls off when it reaches its new height. A 90-degree turn lift requires the person to turn the chair on the lift before exiting.

Does the porch need to be extended to accommodate a lift? It may be cheaper to extend the porch to accommodate a straight on, straight off lift than to buy and install a 90 degree turn lift.

Remember, when looking to buy a lift, check around first to see if a used one is available.

Porch lifts are relatively easy to install. A person with some mechanical skill can install a porch lift. For the most part the lifts come in a few sections and putting them together requires some physical labor but not a high degree of technical skill. You will need an external electrical outlet (preferably a GFI plug). It is better if the plug is controlled by a switch inside the house so that power to the lift can be switched off from inside for added safety (e.g., so that neighborhood children cannot play with it).

The porch lift must be placed on a concrete slab and this should be one continuous concrete pad, not patio stones. Making the pad is a simple, do-it-yourself job with materials available at your local home renovation supplier (they will even tell you how to do it!).

Follow the installation instructions of the porch lift manufacturer. You might also have a professional install it for you and do routine maintenance and service for you. There is very little that tends to go wrong with them once they are installed correctly. The backup battery does require regular maintenance as do the moving parts. Maintenance procedures are available from the manufacturer.

If the lift does not make any sound when you push the button to go up or down, the safety plate under the lift may be engaged. This is the plate which stops the lift from going down if there is an obstruction under the lift (e.g., a pet, a foot, a ball or bike). Someone needs to go under the lift and adjust the plate back into place to reset the safety feature. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Wheelchair Ramp

If the person using the ramp uses an electric wheelchair, it can be built steeper than the commercial building code of 12 inches of run to one inch of rise. In our experience, there is no code for residential wheelchair ramps at present so the steepness is determined by available space and the needs of the individual using the ramp. For example, if there are 2 steps up to your entry door, a typical ramp will be about 21 feet long to cover the 21 inch rise from ground level to the floor level of your house.

Where a ramp is used by someone who moves their wheelchair by pushing backwards with their feet, the ramp needs the most gradual slope. If you need a turn because of space restrictions or location, the actual turn must be a flat platform – you should not turn on a slope as it increases the level of difficulty and is riskier in inclement weather.

When deciding on a style of ramp consider the location (front of house, side or back) and the height. For ramps which enter at the front of the house, more care should be given to integrate the ramp with the landscape to reduce any sense of ‘institutionalizing’ your home for yourself and your neighbors. You are not trying to “hide” the ramp but your house frontage should say something positive about the people who live in the home. Rather than the ramp defining the people (“the wheelchair house” down the road) the ramp, well constructed and landscaped just adds a bit of information about someone that uses a wheelchair.

The use of piza stone retaining walls and an interlocking stone ramp surface provides the most appealing look for the front of a home. These can often be built so that the ramp, itself, is invisible and what has been built looks more like landscaping improvements. The higher the rise, the more expensive this style of ramp becomes. A rise of 40 inches can be completed for about $4,000 to $5,000, if you shop around.

Gardens and plants can be incorporated to minimize the visual effect of the ramp. Flower beds or shrubs and trees can be incorporated at turns in the ramp.

Ramps can be built out of various materials. If you want to use concrete, pavement or inter-locking stone, you will need to slope the ground up to the entry level with dirt, sand or gravel. Building permits are usually not required for this kind of ramp.

Elevated ramps are most often made with a framework of pressure-treated pine supported by concrete poured into 10-inch concrete sonatubes that go below the frost line. Many building material suppliers can assist you with a computerized drawing and materials list to meet your requirements (similar to their programs to build decks). Surface materials for elevated ramps include deck boards made of: pressure-treated pine, cedar, recycled materials, and synthetic materials.

A few considerations:

1. Materials

Synthetic material are the most expensive, however, they last longer, do not require any maintenance (including painting or staining), do not splinter, and can be purchased with a non-slip patterned surface. The color is consistent throughout the material, scratches and bumps are less visible.

Recycled materials have the same advantages as synthetic deck boards but do not have non-slip patterned surfaces. They are less expensive. You can buy paints with sand already mixed in or mix a special sand available at building supply stores with the stain or protector yourself to improve traction. You can also add wooden slats (“speed bumps”) to improve traction.

An important and helpful feature of both synthetic and recycled material deck boards is that due to their non-absorbent nature they do not absorb moisture during the warmth of the day and frost over during colder nights.

Cedar, although very attractive, requires a lot of maintenance and does not stand up well to high traffic. You will need to recoat the high traffic areas twice a year to avoid moisture getting into the wood and turning it black. Cedar is slippery when wet.

Pressure treated pine is the least expensive alternative and most readily available. The ramp requires minimal maintenance. It does crack and splinter and has a tendency to frost over due to the absorption of moisture. You can use sand to provide a bit of traction on a slippery ramp or mix special sand in with your paint or stain. Keep in mind that a slippery ramp is more dangerous for someone walking down the ramp than someone using a wheelchair.

Pressure treated and cedar ramps, because they are more economical and almost impossible to blend in naturally with the home or landscaping are more suitable for side or rear entrances. Synthetic or stone ramps can be colored to blend in more naturally.

2. Location

An ideal place for a ramp is in the garage. Given our weather patterns, a ramp in the dry area of a garage can be very wise. You lose a parking spot but you will not need to shovel the ramp clear of snow, put sand on a slippery ramp, or worry about rain. You can wait at the bottom of the ramp until your ride arrives without having to worry about the weather. You can also use a remote garage door opener to provide easy access to the garage.

Where the ramp is elevated off the ground, most municipalities require a permit. This will usually depend on how high the ramp is off the ground.

Ramps should have a minimum width of their rolling surface of 36 inches. Building codes will determine whether rails are required based on the height of the ramp. Even if rails are not required the ramp should have a 4 inch curb on each side of the rolling surface to prevent the chair from slipping off.

Modifying floor plans of a new home to make it wheelchair accessible

When buying a new home and having it modified to meet your specific needs, it helps to have a person along with you during the buying and building process who can ensure that what you want is actually what you get. For example, in the process described below, there is a point where the actual building begins. You want that person to ensure that the elevator pit is made to specifications, that the doorways are as wide as agreed upon, that the bathroom configuration is as you wanted versus their standard model.

Increasingly, home builders with good business sense are realizing the need to accommodate purchasers with varying mobility issues. In fact, your modifications may actually save the builder some costs. If you are in the market for a new home, speak with the builders in your area to determine if any of their existing floor plans can be modified to meet your needs. A compassionate, knowledgeable builder can assist you to modify a home at a nominal cost. The key to minimizing this cost is to find ways to minimize the cost of labor and materials for the builder.

Ultimately, the cost of materials and labor for modifying the original design of the home should not exceed 1 or 2 percent of the purchase price of the home (i.e., not including the cost of additional equipment like an elevator or porch lift). Be prepared to pay for this. Be reasonable. Expect to pay extra and substantially for anything that is not in the initial purchase agreement. For example, the second floor is often carpeting in a new home. If you want a laminate or hardwood, expect to pay the difference. Be careful to have all of your modifications and changes you require incorporated into the purchase agreement. Do not accept a verbal agreement to make changes (“Oh, that won’t be a problem.”) Have it in writing because the sales person you deal with is not likely to be at the building site when you argue with the site supervisor that the builder agreed with something verbally.

Once you have found a builder who will modify a home for you, go through their floor plans thoughtfully. You can get the help of a contractor, architect or knowledgeable friend to help you make a list of all that you would like in your house to compare to the standard floor plans. Choose the plan(s) that requires the least changes. Take several copies of the plan(s) home and spend the time necessary to modify it according to your needs.  Make the changes on the floor plan itself PLUS write out an itemized list of all the changes. Take the modified plan and list back to the builder and negotiate a purchase. Have the modifications attached to the purchase contract. If an elevator is going to be installed, give the builder a complete set of drawings from the manufacturer to ensure the pit and shaft are built according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Make sure the builder, or onsite supervisor, understands how the specifications affect the location of the elevator and the hoist doors.

Once you have submitted your changes and purchased the home, the builder should have their architect redraw the floor plans according to your changes. Ensure that what you requested is actually in the new drawings before construction begins. This will save the onsite supervisor a lot of frustration as he will be working from building plans different from what he is used to for the standard homes being built.

If you are putting an elevator into the new home, introduce the elevator installer to the onsite supervisor, before construction if possible. They can communicate any requirements directly with each other. The elevator is the biggest modification to a standard home. Ensure that the elevator installer visits, inspects and measurers the framed hoistway (elevator shaft) and pit immediately after the foundation walls are complete and again after the framing is done. They should then inspect the rough in of electrical, plumbing, heating installations before the drywall is put up. Any required changes should be made at the earliest possible stage to minimize labor and material costs. Make sure the builder understands what their responsibilities are in preparing the house for the elevator and that the builder must make any corrections to their work if they have not followed directions carefully enough.

Expect to pay for any additional material and items required as a result of your modifications such as mirror sliding doors on closets instead of swing doors, or any additional bathroom fixtures (e.g., bidet). Expect to negotiate with the builder’s representative over the cost of the modifications. Be prepared to show them how little additional material and labor is actually required to complete the modifications. Remember, they are starting the building from a hole in the ground rather than modifying an existing home.

A cautionary note when buying a new home. The actual entry level of your home (the front door) can be quite different from what you expect when you buy. It can be as much as 60 inches higher than you expect! The elevation of your home (the height at which it sits on the lot or the amount of basement wall that is above ground) is determined by a number of factors.

Municipal requirements

Ground water levels

Soil conditions (if sandy, the foundation may have to be lower)

The final elevation cannot usually be determined at the time of sale (i.e., before construction starts) – only when the basement footings go in. If you are not using an elevator with an entry at ground level, you need to word your purchase agreement in such a way that if the elevation of the entry level becomes too high to make a ramp feasible, you will be able to get out of the deal with no penalty or the builder agrees to provide entry level wheelchair access at no additional charge including possibly a different location in the sub-division with a more appropriate elevation.

In the three projects we have done during our pilot project, the additional cost to the home owner for all modifications and changes similar to the ones we describe here, ranged from no charge on a $242,000 house to $5,000 on a $400,000 house (1.25%) which included 48 modifications including a 4-stop elevator shaft and an 8’ x 8’ roll-in shower in the master ensuite.

The types of modifications you will need will depend on the specific mobility and home care needs of the person needing some accommodation, your family situation, and future needs. To widen doors, modify a bathroom, open up rooms, etc. is relatively easy during the construction of a new home. The most difficult accommodation is to have an internal elevator installed. Choose the floor plan that allows for the installation of the elevator in the best location for you (see elevator section).

Some further tips:

Move sink to the open end of vanity so that a person in a wheelchair can lean over comfortably or be assisted more comfortably.

Replace tub with roll-in shower

Closets can be easily moved as there is little additional framing to do (back of closet already exists)

For wheelchair accessibility, the more open the floor plan the better. Rather than many smaller rooms or rooms with doors, open up a wall to open up the floor plan. This saves on labor and materials.

For kitchen modifications, be prepared to ask for what you want. The builder may consider it extra work and, therefore, want to charge you extra but, in fact, some modifications can actually save the builder money (which they should use to help with a modification elsewhere). For example, if you use a wheelchair you may not need all the upper cupboards (reduces costs) and the lower cupboards may become drawers rather than cupboards (increases costs). The actual cubic feet of cupboards will be less. The counter will be the same square feet but, perhaps, lower. The builder is not likely out extra money for these modifications unless they have pre-paid for a bulk order of cupboards before actual construction begins.

Changing the location of tub, shower, toilet or sink in a bathroom before you build is relatively easy. Changing them after the bathroom is built is very costly because you have to change the location of the plumbing including the drains.

The only possible way to save real money is to make the modifications as the house is being built rather than waiting to make the modifications after the home is built. Some builders will try to convince you to let them build you a standard home and then have you modify it after with your own contractor. Do not do this.

For example, most builders have allowances to let you decide if the laundry room is located in the basement, main floor or second floor. By moving it from the main floor to the basement, for example, you may free up space for an elevator shaft. There is also no additional cost to the builder to use a walk-in closet as an elevator shaft on another level.

The difference in cost between a 32-inch wide interior door and frame and a 36-inch wide door and frame is $1. The difference between a standard 30-inch interior door and a 36-inch one is $2 at retail! If you have 10 doors that need to be wider that is a total cost to the builder of $10 - $20 retail (they get the doors for less, obviously). The wider doors may require less framing and drywall overall and therefore reduces their labor and materials cost. Often, home owners with mobility issues will open up rooms with much wider entrance ways, without doors, to add to the open concept feel but also reduces the labor and material costs of walls. Standard bedroom closets are framed to open into the bedroom, but if that room is now used for an elevator the closet can be just as easily framed to open up into the hallway as a linen closet. There is no difference in materials costs or labor time.

In all, the increase in materials is negligible if any, in reconfiguring a floor plan. Labor cost does not change other than the savings in doing less framing and drywalling. There will be increased time on the builder’s and site superviser’s part to ensure the work is done according to your wishes. However, most new home owners ask for changes to the plans without extra costs incurred to them (moving the laundry room, relocating walls for bigger master bedrooms, etc.)> These changes are part of the building process that is already included in the builder’s labor costs.

You have to find a builder who has an onsite manager/superintendent willing to deal with the changes in your floor plan. He is responsible to ensure that your changes are made. He hires sub-contractors to do the work (i.e., many builders do not actually do the building but sub-contract to other companies). Most often, these sub-contractors are expected to cover the small extra costs of wider doors, the concrete for the elevator pit, etc. as part of their contract.

What you are asking the builder for is consideration to make the changes you want. Your job will be to convince the builder that your changes are not a significant labor or material cost to them.

An alternative to buying a pre-planned home and modifying it before it is built is to hire a contractor to build you a customized home that you, or someone you hire, has designed specifically to meet your needs. This may be more costly but you have more control over the end result. Again, there are books and resources with plans specific to people with varying disability needs. Check these out to minimize some of your costs if you choose to custom build your home.

2. Getting Several Quotes of the Costs

Once you have an idea of what you need done, you need to get an estimate of the costs and possible ways to finance the work without having to use all of your own money.

You will need to get an estimate from two or three contractors. Choosing the right contractor is in the next chapter, but keep in mind that the cheapest is not always the right contractor but neither is the most expensive one.

As part of the estimate, you will need to know what the materials will cost and how much the labor will be. Contractors will either provide you with an hourly rate for labor or an estimate for the whole project. [See next chapter for further information on contractors.]

When a contractor gives you an estimate they are giving you a competitive bid to get your work. They assume that parts of the job will change and, therefore, your costs will go up. This is especially true of changes you make as you go along. Contractors expect this to happen. When it does, they may charge you more than the competitive price because they are no longer competing with other contractors. You can still negotiate the price, however, with them to get the best deal for both of you.

Any purchases to meet the mobility needs of someone with disabilities are not charged GST or PST. You would have to check with your accountant and/or Canada Customs and Revenue Agency office, if this applies to your situation. The contractor will charge GST but not PST. Other material costs are charged both GST and PST (i.e., dry wall, light fixtures are not considered mobility equipment and, therefore, charged regular taxes).

The following estimates are based on projects completed in southern-Ontario during our pilot project 1999-2002. These are the full commercial rates. Obviously, our projects are done with donated or discounted materials and labor. Your project could have similar savings.

Large Renovations

To add to your home, a reasonable estimate is about $100 per square foot. For example, if you add a back room to your house that is about 10 feet by 20 feet (200 square feet) times $100 equals about $20,000 basic cost. Add to that flooring, painting, decorating, and any specialized mobility equipment.

To renovate a basement into a self-contained apartment is about $40-$50 per square foot. To renovate an existing bathroom into a wheelchair accessible bathroom is about $200 -$250 per square foot including a roll-in shower, new toilet with bidet seat and pedestal sink, new ceramic tiling and cabinetry. We assume the shower and flooring is ceramic.

To renovate an existing kitchen with all new cupboards, counter, sink, flooring, and dishwasher is about $100- $150 per square foot depending on the quality of materials.

To widen doorways and buy new standard interior doors is about $300 - $500 per door depending if light switches and/or electrical plugs have to be moved.

To insulate an old room by taking down old walls (e.g., wood paneling or old drywall), adding insulation and putting up new dry wall is about $30 - $40 per square foot. Putting in new flooring (laminate flooring or hardwood) add about $7 - $10 per square foot.

Internal Elevators

Internal elevators that stop in the basement, main floor and “at grade” (the level of the ground outside, therefore, avoiding an outside porch lift) cost about $25,000 - $30,000 including labor and materials but not the cost of constructing the elevator shaft or pit. Add about $4,000 - $5,000 per additional floor (i.e., going to a second or third floor). This price is based on working with only one company that will supply and install the elevator.

For the greatest savings on a project like this, it helps to work with several companies. Try to locate a local elevator manufacturer and negotiate a purchase price for an elevator that meets your needs. Hire a separate contractor to construct the hoist way (elevator shaft) according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Lastly, hire an elevator service and installation company to install the elevator. You can get a list of these companies from the manufacturer. By buying the elevator directly from the manufacturer, hiring an experienced contractor to build the hoist way and bringing in a separate elevator service and installation company, you can reduce your costs by about 50%. It is added work for you but a huge cost savings. In such a project, you are acting as the general contractor. You are the one making (keeping) the profit.

Porch Lifts

You can buy a used, installed porch lift for about $2,500. A new one installed is about $4,500 - $6,000. This does not include the cost of a concrete pad (if required for the base of the porch lift) or modifying the existing porch to accommodate the lift.

Wheelchair Ramps

Every inch of rise in the ramp requires 12 inches of ramp. Therefore, if the distance from the ground to the entry level of your home is 20 inches high, you will need a 20-foot ramp. An estimated cost is about $100 per inch of rise for a basic wooden ramp made of pressure treated pine. A 20-inch rise ramp, would cost about $2,000. For synthetic, non-slip decking it is about $150 per inch of rise. For interlocking stone it would be about $200 per inch of rise. If the local building code requires hand railings, that cost would be extra. If you need turns in the ramp (the ramp cannot rise during a turn, so a flat platform must be built to accommodate a turn), that adds cost as well. You would need turns if you could not have a straight ramp of 20 feet because you did not have a long enough space on your property.

Overhead/Ceiling Tracking

Overhead/ceiling tracking is a system that lifts a person from their bed to a chair or commode or helps them into a bathtub or onto a toilet. Tracking can cost $2,000 for an 8-foot track installed. An installed turntable (i.e., to move from one track to another one) cost between $2,500 to $3,000. The lift itself with a sling will cost about $3,500 to $4,000.

Costs can be substantially reduced by buying the equipment directly from the manufacturer and having an experienced contractor do the installation for you.

Electrical Work

You should always hire a licensed electrician to work on your main electrical panel. They charge an average about $40 to $50 per hour. Moving light switches and plugs can be done by anyone with some building experience. Ensure that the power is turned off at your main electrical panel before beginning any electrical work.

Plumbing Work

If work needs to be done on pipes under water pressure (versus pipes used for drains), then an experienced person should be hired. They charge on average about $40 to $50 per hour. This work requires someone with a reasonable level of experience. However, a licensed plumber may not be required depending on someone else’s expertise.

Extra Costs not Directly Related to Renovation

There are mechanical components that should be estimated at the beginning of the project to see if it makes sense to do this work at the same time as your major renovation:

1.electrical service (going from a 60 or 100 amp service to a 200 amp service). This will require the utility to upgrade the wire service to the home and an electrician to put in a new panel to handle the extra amperage. This will result in you being able to use more electrical appliances, additional stoves, refrigerators, computers, lighting, heating, etc. work may involve the following types of changes: upgrading the piping to ensure better water quality (i.e., going from galvanized steel to copper piping); to ensure better water pressure (increasing main pipes from ½ inch to ¾ inch diameters); to ensure better drainage (i.e., ensuring that all drain pipes are vented)

3.heating and air conditioning which will be affected by any addition to the size of the home. If you add a room to your home or a second floor, both the furnace and air conditioning will have to be evaluated to determine if an upgrade is required. To ensure efficiency and longevity of the heating and air conditioning equipment, the size of these units are determined by the size of the home. Too small a unit will mean the house will not be adequately heated or cooled. Too large a unit will shorten its lifetime because of inactivity (i.e., if the furnace is shut down too often, and has to restart too often, it cuts down on its lifetime). In fact, most units too large for the home are not covered under their warranties.

Help with Costs

The following programs may be helpful in covering some of the costs of improving accessibility in your home. Some do not cover any labor costs and all have funding ceilings.

Your local municipality, region, provincial and/or federal government may have an incentive program for renovations at the same time as you are looking at renovating your home. These grants or loans are to encourage homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient while providing new revenues for the building trades. Your contractor or political representatives can let you know what might be available for you.

Easter Seals will provide up to $3,000 of material costs (no labor) per project for children 18 and under for accessibility and mobility equipment that includes wheelchairs, ramps, elevators, ceiling tracks, and porch lifts. They do not cover any modifications or renovations including widening doors. They take approximately 4 weeks for approval and 4 weeks to send a cheque after an invoice has been received. Household income information is not required.

The Easter Seals Society (Ontario)

Suite 706

1185 Eglinton Avenue East

North York, ON   M3C 3C6

(416) 421 8146

(866) 630 3336

Easter Seals Canada

90 Eglinton Avenue East

Toronto, ON

(416) 932 8382

(800) 590 7325

Ontario March of Dimes – Home and Vehicle Modifications Program

Up to $15,000 in financial assistance is available to adults (18 and over) with a physical disability who are in need of accessibility modifications to their home or vehicle in order to allow them to live more independently. The types of home modifications funded by this program include:

Wheelchair Ramps

Porch Lifts


Platform Stair Lifts

Seated Stair Lifts

Ceiling Tracking and Lifts

Automatic Door Openers

Bathroom Modifications including Roll-in Showers and Roll-under Sinks

Widening Doorways, Lowering or Eliminating Entry Door and Patio Door Thresholds

Replacing carpeting with Hard Flooring suitable for Wheelchairs.

Funding is also available under this program to assist with the modification of a vehicle to make it wheelchair accessible.

There are three 45-day application periods per year during which applications will be received and reviewed for completeness.  Applications received during the first 30 days of each application window, which are deemed to be incomplete, will be responded to in writing advising the applicant of all additional information required.  The application windows are January 1st, to February 15th; May 1st, to June 15th; and September 1st, to October 15th.  Each application will be reviewed during the next 45 days following the closing of the application window to determine its eligibility and priority status; and the applicant will be informed in

writing within 60 days following the closing of the application period regarding their eligibility. This notification of eligibility is not a final funding approval, but only to let the applicant know that their application is eligible for assistance.

If an eligible application is deemed to be of high priority based on the physical needs of the applicant and all other funding sources for this project have been exhausted, the applicant will most likely receive a firm commitment in writing within 1 - 3 weeks of the initial notification of eligibility.  This will be in the form of a binding agreement between Ontario March of Dimes, the Applicant and the party who will be doing the work. Applications deemed to be of lower priority could take as long as 4 – 5 months to receive a commitment.

Household income information is required. Only the applicant’s and his/her spouse’s income is considered in determining financial need and eligibility. The value of their home or their family’s home (if they live with a family member) is not a consideration. However, as this program is 100% funded by the provincial government, all other sources of funding (i.e., other charities and granting agencies) must be exhausted prior to a receiving a commitment from Ontario March of Dimes. 

As well, an assessment of need must be conducted by a licensed occupational therapist and this must be submitted along with the application.

Ontario March of Dimes – Assistive Devices Program

Financial assistance is available through this program for adults (18 and over) who due to a physical disability are in need of one or more of the following assistive devices:




Commode/Bath Chairs

Hoyer Lifts

Bath Benches

Grab Bars

(this is only a sample, not a complete list)

Response times for applications to this program is 2 – 6 weeks from the date of receipt of a complete application with all supporting documentation.  Applications may be submitted at any time throughout the year, however, the amount of funding available will depend on funds available for this program in each region.  This program is entirely self-funded through donations.

To contact either of these programs for further information or to receive an application package by mail, you should phone the Ontario March of Dimes office in London, Ontario at 1-866-765-7237.

March of Dimes Ability Fund Canada

90 Eglinton Avenue East

Toronto, ON

(416) 932 8382

March of Dimes (Ontario)

10 Overlea Blvd

Toronto, ON  M4H 1A4

(416) 425 3463

(800) 262 3463

Loblaws Children’s Charities: Kids You Can Count on Us covers equipment and renovations materials and equipment for special needs up to approximately $15,000. Application process is about 6-8 weeks and it takes 4 weeks for a cheque to be issued after the invoice is submitted. Household income information is required.

Provincial Health and Social Services Grants. For example, in Ontario there are grants available through the Health Insurance Program, Ontario Disability Support Program and Assistive Devices Program. These cover only the cost of specific equipment such as mobility devices, oxygen supplies, and communication devices.

Accessibility Services

   Assistive Devices Program

  (866) 765 7237

The Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program for Persons with Disabilities (RRAP-D) is a federal government program through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and offers financial assistance to low income households who own and occupy substandard housing and includes housing that is not accessible. The qualifying criteria is household income and the value of the home. During our pilot project, we found the criteria difficult to meet. For example, in Toronto the home has to be valued at less than $250,000. The maximum household income requirement is lower than would be required to own a home in Toronto. For further information:   1 800 668 2642

Home Adaptations for Seniors’ Independence (HASI) is also a CMHC federal program to help home owners pay for minor home adaptations so low income seniors can live in their homes independently.

Contractors may also be able to help you find material donations through some of their own contacts. If they see and believe in the project, even if you do not hire them, they may be keen to help.

See the chapter on The Asking Role for tips on getting donated materials.

3. Choosing and Working with a Contractor

Whether a project requires an experienced contractor and/or other paid or volunteer workers depends on what you need done and how fast you want it done. If the project has to be completed by a set time, then a contractor should be hired. Their extensive experience is worth the cost as they work faster and more efficiently and will get the job done more quickly and professionally. They can plan ahead and know the steps to get there. They can arrange the permit and work with the building inspectors to make sure the job is done well.

An experienced contractor will not cut corners for safety reasons. They follow the building code because the code is mostly there for safety reasons. Although they may charge more per hour, they often work faster which can save you money.

If you have enough family, friends, neighbors and volunteers with the necessary expertise to complete your project, appoint a construction site coordinator to ensure all the work gets done properly and meets all building code requirements.

If you choose to have a contractor, this chapter will help you to have a more rewarding relationship with a well-chosen contractor.

Just as important as choosing a contractor is to have a contractor choose your project. There is a high demand for their services right across the country. In some areas it will be difficult to find a contractor to work with. It will be important for you to describe your project in ways that sound interesting, unique and profitable for them.

The best way to find a contractor is through personal referral from friends and family. You can place more trust in their referral than from a stranger or an advertisement. When depending on a contractor’s list of references, remember you are only getting those people that the contractor feels will give them a good reference. You may try to see the contractor at work at a friend or family member’s home to better gauge their professionalism.

Another method is to stop at a neighbor’s home where a contractor is working to talk with both the contractor and the neighbor to see if the contractor would be suitable for your project. This method provides some advantages:

a)it is easier to get a contractor to come and see your project on the way to or from the neighbor’s job

b)you get to see, first hand, the quality of their work

c)you can bring along a friend or family member who knows more about renovations to see how the contractor is doing.

Many contractors are very skilled trades people but they may not have the same level of skills in organizing their small businesses. They may have difficulty estimating how long the work will take and may need your help in scheduling the order of the work. As well, since contractors are in such high demand, they may take on too much work now in fear that they will not have work later in the year. Therefore, it is important to get their commitment, up front, to your project while having enough flexibility in your schedule to allow them to take on quick emergency side jobs. Remember that one day you might be the person calling the contractor when you have a plumbing emergency. You would hope that the contractor’s client at that time is as equally understanding as you will have to be now. 

It is important, however, to spend enough time with the contractor telling them about deadlines that must be met for safety reasons for the person with long-term care needs. For example, you want a contractor who understands that having the only bathroom with a suitable tub in the house unavailable for over a week is not an option when the person needs daily bathing to prevent painful skin sores from developing. You can go somewhere else once or twice for bathing but cannot do it for more than a few days.

It is very important to establish a relationship with your contractor. If your project is a major renovation, the contractor will become a member of your family during the time they are working with you. They will be there early in the morning and may leave late at night. They will be there for meals and for breaks. They will see your family over a period of weeks or months as you will also get to know about their family.

You will be in a partnership with the contractor. You provide the general overview of what is needed while the contractor will help you look at alternatives of how to meet your needs. For example, you may need better access to your home but do not know if you need a wheelchair ramp or an elevator with an external exit to the driveway. The contractor can help you decide and then do the work necessary to get the job done. They can help you get the quotes from suppliers so that you are making reasonable choices based on the alternatives available to you.

The contractor can also tell which parts of the job can be done by you or volunteers to save money. For example, many volunteers can install drywall under the supervision of a knowledgeable person. It will get done slower but it will be cheaper. You would, likely, still want the contractor to do the ‘mudding’ and ‘sanding’ of the drywall to ensure a good job. Also volunteers can do a lot of the demolition work, finishing work (painting, baseboard trim, etc.) and they can also do the daily clean-up of the work site.

Many contractors will not want to be on site at the same time as volunteers for liability reasons. Others will work with a home owner or one or two volunteers who are invited guests of the homeowner as long as it is clear they are not assuming any liability for those people.

When meeting a contractor for the first time, give them a brief overview of the problems you have now with your home and what needs you want to meet within your budget. Their ability to give suggestions of how to overcome the problems and meet the needs will give you an idea of how experienced they are and how interested they are in helping you achieve your goals. Unless you have a lot of experience with renovations do not expect to give specific instructions to the contractor about what you want done and how they should do it. This discourages them from using their experience and creativity in coming up with alternative ways of meeting your needs. It also discourages them from ‘buying’ into the project if they feel that you do not need their professional skills and expertise to meet your needs. It may feel to them like you are just hiring a worker rather than a contractor with multiple skills.

If you are going to do a very large renovation, you are well advised to meet with at least 2 or 3 contractors so they can give you an estimate of what the renovation will cost and what they could do for you. You should do this even if you already have a contractor you want to hire. You may well get different ideas of how best to meet your needs and can use all of their experiences even if you want the contractor you already know. That person should also be doing some extra research for you on alternative ways to meet your needs.

Have pen and paper with you as you go through the project with the contractor to make notes of their ideas. You will forget things if you do not take notes as they speak.

When you meet with several contractors you are trying to achieve several things:

1.get ideas of how best to meet your needs

2.find a contractor you feel comfortable with in your home and who understands your needs and is willing and able to meet them and share in your family life during that time

3.find a contractor who is competent and dependable to do the job

4.get an estimate of the cost and length of time to complete the project

Contractors price jobs in one of two ways. They may charge by time and materials in which case they estimate the number of hours it will take, at so much money per hour, and then estimate the material costs. The material costs will be a gross estimate until they take on the job and do a more detailed materials list. The other way contractors estimate the cost is to do it by the project – they estimate their own time, materials and profit margin and give you a total estimate for the project. If they finish more quickly, they earn more profit. If it takes longer, you are not charged extra.

Any purchases to meet the mobility needs of someone with disabilities are not charged GST or PST. You would have to check with your accountant and/or Canada Customs and Revenue Agency office, if this applies to your situation. The contractor will charge GST but not PST. Other material costs are charged both GST and PST (i.e., dry wall, light fixtures are not considered mobility equipment and, therefore, charged regular taxes).

Any change to the original project contracted will add costs. Many contractors understand that the final cost may increase by as much as double as you add work or make changes to what was agreed to. Two examples:

In tearing down some old walls, the contractor finds that your external wall is leaking water from outside. They will tell you about the problem and suggest ways to correct it which will cost you extra money. You will have to decide whether to let the contractor make the repairs or bring in someone else who might do it faster and more economically.

You, the owner, ask the contractor to do something extra “while you’re there anyway.” This could be adding extra cupboards to the kitchen or bedroom or using a more expensive and more time-consuming material to complete the job. For example, you have agreed to put down carpet in the basement but later decide on a laminate floor instead. This will add time and money for more costly materials.

So do not think that once you get a project cost, that will be the end cost. Also keep in mind that as competent as many contractors are, they cannot be expected to know how to estimate all aspects of the work (e.g., electrical, plumbing, heating, air conditioning) just as they cannot predict, in advance, what problems may lie behind any walls and ceilings they will take down during the renovations. They can, however, give you an idea of the types of problems that might come up in a home of your age and location.

The most common extra costs are the home’s “mechanicals”. During a major renovation, after the walls and ceilings have been taken down, the contractor may find that the electrical and/or plumbing are old and in danger of causing problems down the road. You will have to decide to pay for the upgrade now or in a few years.

These kind of changes require permits and inspections from your utility and/or municipality. All new work will be required to meet present building code requirements. The utility and/or municipality may also require you to bring existing wiring up to code.

Choosing the Contractor

With your estimates and your personal evaluation of the various contractors, you make the choice. The contractor must be insured for liability before work can start. If something should go wrong with the renovation during the work or afterwards, you would contact your own insurance company and they would work with the contractor’s insurance to cover the costs.

The contractor’s insurance covers all of the people they bring in to work on the project. This is why some will be hesitant to accept volunteers or even the home owner working with them. Others, however, understand that the homeowner and volunteers are covered under the homeowner’s insurance policy.

The contractor’s insurance will also cover any damage resulting from their actions and any subsequent costs resulting from their actions. Where permits are required for structure and mechanical changes, the follow-up inspections will help ensure that your project is safe and done competently.

Do not work with a contractor who suggests you save money by not getting a building permit for structural or mechanical changes. To ensure quality service, the work should be inspected by an outside person. It is not worth the cost savings to avoid permits. For example, to add a partial second story to a home may cost about $100,000 and the permit about $900. This $900 includes the municipality checking the drawings for the renovation to make sure it was safe before work starts. That is followed by several inspections at various stages to verify that the contractor does the work according to the building code (including fire safety codes).

Once you have selected the contractor you would like to work with, it is time to negotiate an agreement. The written and signed agreement should include:

1.all of the services that the contractor will provide.

2.identify who is responsible for getting permits and inspections

3.any part of the project which is to be completed by the home owner, someone the home owner hires or a volunteer(s) (e.g., getting the roofing or flooring done by another company rather than the contractor or a brother-in-law who is competent at dry wall and will do that for the whole project)

4.all of the materials to be supplied by the contractor

5.any materials to be supplied by the home owner

6.have action steps including starting and completion dates and all interim completion dates for inspections (i.e., framing, plumbing, electrical, insulation inspections)

These action steps and expectations on each side must be clearly spelled out. Most people do not do this step and leave it up to the “expert” to decide as they go. That will cause you a great deal of frustration, unmet expectations and extra costs. For example, if part of the agreement is that you buy the materials (or get them donated) the action steps need to tell you which materials will be needed first and on what day. You do not want the drywall to arrive before the framing wood! If they both arrive at the same time you do not want to store the wood on the floor first and put drywall on top. It will just involve more work to get to the wood for framing and, therefore, cost you several hours of extra labor costs. Make sure you move drywall the least as it is heaviest and most easily damaged.

7.identify the payment schedule including any applicable taxes. The less clear you are in steps 1-6, the more likely the contractor will want to get paid based on “time and materials”.

In the final outcome, it is up to you and your contractor to determine a payment schedule which you can both live with. However, always keep in mind that “the person who holds the money, calls the tune”. Better to pay later rather than earlier to ensure that the work is completed as agreed.

The best payment schedule has you pay for materials as they arrive at the home and pay the contractor on a weekly basis for the work completed that week. If the contractor estimated on hours worked, this will be a simple calculation.

If they gave you a project price, you must agree on a weekly amount which is less than what the project fee is divided by the estimated weeks. The balance is payable at the successful completion of the project. In this way, you the home owner are always paying for work after it has been completed rather than before; and materials, after they have been received, not before. Explain to the contractor that this payment schedule is fair to both as it would be much easier for him to collect from you than vice versa. On your part, ensure that payment at the end of the week is always ready to show your good faith.

A good contractor will have no problem with this. Only ones who are more likely to cheat you would ask for half or a quarter of the project fee up front.

To make this agreement work, both you and the contractor need to communicate regularly to make sure that the project is completed to your expectations and needs in a timely fashion. Any day, the contractor is not there, call to find out why – do not make assumptions. Likewise, a good contractor will communicate daily with you to ensure that you understand what is happening and why.

Keep in mind that a good contractor is in high demand and is probably balancing several projects at one time while you are only concerned with yours. Keep them up-to-date with decisions you are making and ask them to help you understand their scheduling conflicts, if any. It is reasonable for them to be away from your project for several days while they await materials or other services (e.g., roofer) to do their work first.

Assume that once you have an agreement, you will be actively involved, daily, with the project. You must oversee the work and make decisions about what type of materials, fixtures, flooring, paint colors, etc. to use. Your project must be the highest priority for you but remember that it is not the same for the contractor.

View your contractor as an artist. They are not always good at communicating what they are doing or how they will proceed – they just do it. However, they are creating a living environment to suit your needs. View yourself as the manager of the artist – the person who keeps them focused and on track. Artists are not always the best at scheduling their time or seeing the whole “picture” at all times.  Although it is their responsibility to do that well, it is also your responsibility to help them do it well. Consider yourselves as partners in the project rather than as professional contractor working on their own with only occasional contact with you.

Resolving Problems

The two biggest problems in working with a contractor are:


2.changing the work as you go along

People only hear about 20% of what someone says and they forget about 80% within a day unless you review and go over what was said and agreed to during that day. These miscommunications can lead to extra hours of work to make up for any mistakes made by either the contractor or by you. Also, miscommunication is usually followed by work being done that you do not want done.

Anything that you communicate to your contractor verbally should also be provided in writing so that both of you have something to refer back to when a conflict comes up. Encourage your contractor to keep you fully informed and participate by asking questions throughout the project. Most contractors do not like to be interrupted with a lot of questions but the good ones understand that this is how miscommunication problems are minimized or more easily resolved.

The cost of correcting a miscommunication is much less the earlier it is caught. For example, if a framed wall is in the wrong place, it is relatively easy (a 15-minute job) to move it. If you wait until the wall is insulated, wired and drywalled, it is much more expensive.

One of the best ways to keep an eye on your project while saving money at the same time is to offer your services to clean up the site (sweep, put garbage away, etc.) after the work is done for the day. This saves paying a contractor $30-$50 an hour to do clean up and gives you a chance to review the work done that day.

A major source of communication conflicts is based on two assumptions:

1. contractors often assume they can do the work faster than they can (you should double whatever the estimate is – if they finish faster than that, it is a bonus). The price should not change if they take longer and you agreed to a project fee. If you have divided the project work into weekly payments, you will have to pay them less per week with upcoming payments since the work is taking longer. If you are paying them by “time and materials”, your weekly payment will stay the same.

2. home owners assume that the work can be done more cheaply and more quickly.

In a major conflict, if neither side can compromise, then the relationship is finished. What is left to decide is how much the contractor is owed for work done or how much he is liable for if he has not done the work agreed to. In the worst case scenario, this may involve a registered letter to get the contractor’s attention with your concerns. Send your letter to the contractor or to their firm if they work for someone else. Give details about what the problems are and what you would like done to solve them within a reasonable period of time. You might send a copy of your letter to the consumer protection department of your provincial government and your local home builders' association for greater impact, and let the contractor know that you have done that.

If you do not get quick results, you might send a similar letter to the government department responsible for issuing the contractor's license. If you believe the work is below the requirements of the local building code, you might send a complaint letter to the appropriate inspection department which could result in the contractor having to correct the errors at his own expense.

If these measures fail, you or the contractor may decide to go to Small Claims Court to resolve the problem. This can be a relatively quick way to resolve the issues but it does not guarantee that the contractor will pay what is owed (if you should win) as they may claim they cannot afford to.

If you follow the directions for setting up the agreement, laying out a tentative time line and paying as you go rather than up front or in big chunks, going to court should not happen. Remember, you must treat a contractor with respect and he must treat you professionally. If either of you fails in the relationship, end it quickly and move on. Do not allow for a long list of excuses from a contractor for why the work is not going according to plan (and continue to pay him). Neither should he tolerate your constantly revising your expectations and needs as he must plan for work after your job is done and cannot extend his time with you by weeks.

Most experienced contractors are excellent at what they do. The final results, however, depend on you working with the contractor, having your agreement in writing and revising it as necessary. The clearer the communication, the less stress and frustration and the more satisfactory the results.

Working with Sub-Contractors

If your renovation work is large enough you will probably have to bring in sub-contractors. Sometimes the contractors arranges for this and sometimes you will have to do it. These sub-contractors may include electricians, plumbers, ceramic tile layers, roofers, garbage-waste removers, landscapers and others.

This can be a scheduling nightmare! As hard as they try, sub-contractors are often late to start, take longer than planned and are not happy when other sub-contractors get in their way.

Ask your main contractor for help or have the volunteer coordinator or site coordinator (if you have them) help you deal with the scheduling. Your contractor can tell you at what point in the work the others need to come to do their piece. For example, a roofer is obviously necessary before electrical or plumbing work is done in building an addition.

Try to negotiate a firm start date and time by explaining the specific situation in your home. It may help them understand the importance of sticking to a schedule if they know someone with long-term care needs is dependent on them doing their work on schedule.

A further consideration is that sub-contractors may only be in your home for a few hours or days. Therefore their commitment to the work will not be the same as your main contractor. The sub-contractors may be very competent but they also are worrying about the next job and about getting enough work some months down the line. You must be particularly watchful of their work to make sure they do not cut any corners and that the final result is what you wanted. If it is not, make the complaint call to the head office to get satisfaction.

One of our families had a sub-contracting roofing company do their new addition roof. The roofers arrived late without sufficient roofing shingles which caused a one-day job to turn into three. The men were not equally experienced with one dropping 10 bundles of shingles off the roof. Fortunately no one was near the side entrance to the house at the time. The crew also broke some planter boxes and left roof nails and garbage around the property after they left. The work was warrantied by a major renovation firm so the manager came out, assessed the damage, had the area cleaned up, reduced the cost of the work and ensured the family was satisfied with the final results.

4. The Asking Role and How Someone Can Fulfill It

If you are interested in having some of the construction materials donated or purchased at a reduced cost and also want to ask people to volunteer to help with some of the work, we suggest you get an ASKER. The asker is responsible for asking for donations and volunteers. You want someone who can represent your project well and get the results you need.

Who Should the Asker Be?

Look among family and friends for someone who is comfortable with asking for things. It is often better for the asker to be someone other than the homeowner or immediate family. In this way companies and organizations feel that someone else in the community is also interested in this project beyond just the family. If this asker is someone with a sales or marketing background, they will better understand the process of asking the right person for the right things and empathize with the person they are talking to who must receive lots of requests for help.

Who Should You Ask for What?

The key to WHO to ask is finding the person who has the authority to make the final decision. That can be anyone from a manager to a company owner. In the initial contact with a supplier you can ask whoever answers the phone about who might be the right person to speak to about the request. Do as much homework as possible before hand so that you know for certain that the person you are speaking with has what you want.

For example, if you are looking for lumber to frame in a room, a lumber store is your best bet. If you are looking for windows, the same lumber store may sell windows but they are the retailer of windows and you should really be asking the local window supplier or manufacturer. The key is to get as close to the original producer of a product to get the lowest cost for that product. It is much cheaper for a manufacturer to donate a window (e.g., 50% of retail cost) than for a retailer to donate that same window. Often, if there are no local manufacturers, a local retailer can partner with the manufacturer in a donation – sharing the cost 50%-50%.

Do not assume that the person you are asking understands your needs. For example, the asker may have to explain to a lighting manufacturer that the individual they are heling is attracted to the wave movements in florescent lighting and when she grabs them she burns her hands and sometimes breaks the light. Therefore, what is needed is the more expensive recessed lights instead -- $1,200 plus installation versus $400 for florescent lights plus a quarter of the installation costs.

Another example: if you need to build a wheelchair ramp of inter-locking stones, you will need top soil and gravel to grade the ramp. You could approach a local landscaping firm for these items or you could try to get closer to the source of these products such as a gravel company or top soil company. These type of companies can donate materials at a lower cost to them than if a retailer donated the materials. For a retailer, like the landscaping company, the donations would be a much higher percentage of their yearly sales.

What to Ask For and Why

Our goal in these projects is to improve the lives of people with a long-term care need and maximize their independence in the community. Anything that will achieve this goal may be asked for. For example, a family wants to have an emergency wheelchair exit from a back room of the house. Rather than get an exterior door, they could get sliding glass doors instead. This meet both the emergency exit need but also anyone sitting in the room, including the person using the wheelchair, can look out and enjoy that view much better. Asking for the glass doors might not seem a ‘necessity’ for making the home more accessible but it vastly improved the enjoyment of everyone using the room while providing an extra escape route.

Imagine a family living in a small, old farm house. The main floor has the living room, kitchen, and a step-in shower in the bathroom. A mother with a mobility disability cannot get upstairs which means the parents must live in the living room so the mother has easy access to the bathroom. The family would like help to double the size of the home with an 800 square feet addition to the back of the house to add a new living room and new kitchen-dining room. This will allow the mother to have the old living room converted into a master bedroom with real bedroom furniture while the family has a real living room to share again. The family hires a contractor to do the main work (build the shell). Many of the materials can be donated or discounted. Once the shell is up, volunteers can help with the insulating, dry walling, painting, etc. The final result could be a $100,000 renovation for about $50,000. They could expand their house with the help of their community and enhanced their family life. The family could not afford this kind of renovation but together with their community, everyone benefits. This family would be quick to help similar families in their community and the helping circle continues.

Plan long-term rather than getting through a few years. No suppliers, to date, have tried to donate cheaper supplies than we asked for. They accept what it is that is needed and usually met or exceeded our request. If they cannot, they will tell you and may refer you to someone else who can.

Do not be afraid to ask for $800 taps that are motion sensored so they turn on by motion rather than turning or pulling the handle(s). Do not be afraid to ask for a $1,500 toilet seat that converts a standard toilet into a toilet and bidet. This may seem like equipment that is frivolous to able bodied people but it is easy enough to explain why they are essential for a person with a disability.

Therefore, part of these projects is to go beyond the norm so that the renovation is exceptional rather than average. In this way we clearly demonstrate that everyone is deserving of high quality renovations and not just those who can afford them.

Remember the person is likely to live in this home longer than most home owners so the work must be done with a long-term view. Also, people with disabilities are likely to spend more time at home than others. Their environment, therefore, needs to be more appealing, attractive and comfortable for their own sake but also to encourage more visitors and guests.

Sample “Ask

In making telephone calls to ask for donations or volunteers, it is often helpful to have a script. Here is a sample of what the asker might say when making these calls. Obviously, adapt it to your specific situation. You usually begin by speaking with the receptionist.

“Hi, my name is….. I’m calling on behalf of the “x” family. They live in your community.  I am helping this family to do renovations because they have a [daughter, son, parent] with a disability who needs the work done for better mobility and accessibility. I understand that you manufacture/ supply “x” product (e.g., interlocking stones). The reason I am calling is that we are building [name project  (e.g., wheelchair ramp)] for their son (give first name only) who is (age) and who uses a wheelchair as a result of having x condition(s) (e.g., cerebral palsy). Who would I speak to regarding the donation of some of your product (interlocking stone)?

If you are calling from a charity or not-for-profit you might begin with:

Hi, my name is….. I am calling from [organization’s name]. We are a not-for-profit (or charitable) organization. We help families who have a member with a disability to do renovations in their home around mobility and accessibility concerns. Then continue with the rest from above.

What to do if the receptionist will not transfer your call or give you the name of the most likely person to speak to about your request.

In one case, the receptionist told us “We’re not interested.”

A sample reply in a generous tone and with a degree of curiosity is: “I am not trying to sell you anything and I haven’t asked you for anything. So I do not understand what you mean by saying you’re not interested. Are you not interested in being seen as a good corporate member of the community? Are you not interested in your community?”

At this point the receptionist asked us to hold and went to get the person with decision-making powers for permission to transfer the call.

Be patient but be persistent. You are a customer in the community with a legitimate request to make of the company. Someone with decision-making powers should speak to you because it is good customer service.

Receptionist connects to person who can make the decisions

In many companies there is now voice-mail that requests you leave a message. Always go first to the receptionist to speak with a live person. Once they have transferred you to the correct person, understand that you have interrupted this person’s day, their work and their priorities. A general rule is that if you are put through to the person who can make the decision, you have about a  90% change of getting what you want (assuming the person has what you want). If you get through to this person, your confidence should soar. This person is a doer and competent and they want to get the ‘job’ done.

If you get a voice mail, you may have a doer who is not available at the moment, or a person who spends their time “putting out fires” and is always behind. They have problems making decisions. The success rate is reduced to about 30%. You will not know until you speak to the person which type of decision maker they are.

Give the same introduction you gave the receptionist and follow with “Could I send you some information about the project and the materials that we need?”

Possible responses from person you are in direct contact with:

Yes you can have whatever you are looking for.

If you send me documentation to support your request, you can have whatever you are looking for.

I will have to check with “x” (marketing, accounting, etc.) to see who is going to cover the cost of the material. (You are getting what you want, they just have to figure out which budget it comes out of.)

I can’t help you right now (either permanent – “we don’t give donations of that material” [rare] or temporary reason). They usually give you an alternative (e.g., call back in three months when our new budget year starts.

When a person says they cannot help you, if they are on-side with your project’s needs, they will usually try to think of an alternative way of getting what you want (e.g., refer you to someone they know elsewhere). ). For example, we once asked for a product the company no longer made but were referred to another person at another company who could help.

If the person you are talking with begins to talk to you about the project in any way (type of wheelchair being used, the type of ramp you want to build, etc.) they are on your side. You are most of the way to getting what you need. Their mind set has changed from their priorities for the day to your priority. You will get what you need unless you say something that makes the request seem too large and therefore give the impression that you are taking advantage of their interest and asking them to solve all the problems rather than just one. Sometimes, they may offer to solve more problems than you have requested help with, but this is not the time to ask them for more help than with one aspect of the project.

Keep the initial request simple and build on it based on the response. For example, 120 square feet of interlocking stone may be needed for a wheelchair ramp. The retail cost equals about $400.00. Cost to the manufacturer is about $100. So asking for $100 is not very much. They may even offer suggestions or help with the project as a way for them to feel better about their effort and to provide you with their valuable expertise, not just for this project but for others in the future.

Always extend an invitation to come and see the project and the recipient. Perhaps, one out of 20 suppliers will actually come or send a representative before they commit material. This adds another level of confidence that you are going to use the material for the project you described rather than a luxury item (e.g., patio for yourself).

The most important part of the telephone request is the intonation in your voice that says that you honestly believe that they can meet your need. You are not begging. You are offering that company an opportunity to participate in their community. Most companies do not get offered enough opportunities and some are even looking for more opportunities. One manufacturer helped us with one of our projects and followed-up by asking if they could assist with two other projects per year!

Send the documentation by fax or e-mail in the fastest way you can. Mail only as a last resort. The longer the time period after your discussion with some, the less likely they will remember you or what you discussed.

The difference between two sample requests

How you ask for something makes a difference. Here are two requests for the same thing.

You are walking to your car in the shopping center when someone approaches you with a request:

Person 1

My car won’t start. Can you help me? (You mentally ask yourself, do I have the time, the knowledge, the tools, the comfort that this person will not rob me, that this request is legitimate)

Person 2

The person is holding a set of jumper cables. “My battery is dead. Can I use your car to boost it? (You know how long this will take. You do not need any knowledge or tools. The person has legitamized their request by having the cables in their hand. You can stay in the safety of your car and just unlatch your hood, they will do the rest.)

Which request are you likely to accept?

This example shows you how to request material from a company. They, too, are concerned about their time, resources, and knowledge. Know the specifics of what you are asking for versus a general request for help. For example, the person you are talking to may never have built a wheelchair ramp and could not advise you but they do know how much 120 square feet of interlocking stone costs the company. You must also volunteer to do as much as you can (e.g., write out the documentation, send it, follow up on it) to assist them in the decision-making process. Remember, no one will ever say “no” to you sending them information.

If you get a direct “no” from the person responsible for making decisions, then accept it and move on. You might finish the conversation with: “Thank you for listening to our request. Is there a time in the future when I can call you back when you might be able to help?” This gives them one more opportunity to be helpful. Most people want to feel helpful.

Who and How to Ask for Volunteers

For skilled labor, trade unions are often the best place to look for volunteers. Usually it is the business manager of the union local who will make the arrangements for members to volunteer. This may include retired union members who are highly skilled and are more flexible in their time. This source should be considered first in mobility equipment installations (e.g., wheelchair elevators), electrical and plumbing work. These are areas where it is hard to find highly skilled people since most are already working long hours in that trade. The exception,of course, are skilled trades people that you know personally.

The charity that might be sponsoring the project and other ones in your area may also have a pool of volunteers that could be helpful. For example, a local Rotary club may have dozens of local business owners who have contacts that can help. You are not asking the club for money but for access to their people who have contacts with suppliers who can be very helpful.

Another excellent source of volunteers are schools and colleges some of which offer trade programs and are often looking for community projects on which the students can gain experience. Their teachers are often highly skilled in these trades and can supervise the students in doing excellent work. Also consider some of the sporting and recreational groups in your area. If you need a lot of ‘muscle’ work done in excavating some property for a ramp, the local high school football team or swim club may be helpful, especially is there is a pizza party afterwards.

In Ontario, for example, high school students are required to donate 40 hours of community volunteer time between Grades 9-12. By contacting the local school, you can have your project approved as a community volunteer project. Again, your affiliation with a local charity or not-for-profit organization will make it easier for the school to agree to help rather than if you came to them as an individual family.


You always have to follow-up your requests yourself. Do not count on a business or grant-giving agency to respond or follow-up themselves. It just does not happen very often. That does not mean they are uninterested and unwilling to help. It is a matter of priorities. Your priority is getting the job done while their priority is to manage their business that day (when you call), and your project will never be a high enough priority when you consider all the human resource issues, supplier problems, scheduling difficulties that they face each day.

The ‘asker’ should have easy access to a fax machine and e-mail. This helps to confirm telephone conversations and agreements made by telephone.

Your fax or e-mail describes the person who is being helped (not the family but the person). Describe in ways that encourages compassion rather than pity. Describe how their life is not measuring up to what the reader of your fax or e-mail would consider acceptable and how that will change with the completion of the project. Describe a number of difficulties that the disability creates. Then ask the reader to help solve one of those difficulties. You can also describe why the family needs the help now. For example, the person you are asking for help to build a roll-n shower may be asking themselves why the family cannot lift a child into the bathtub. The answer will either be the child’s need to become self-sufficient or because of the strain on the parents’ backs. Give a sense of urgency for why the need exists now for the renovation.

People fear being taken advantage of. Therefore, picking one difficulty to address with this project shows how specific and useful the solution is and how reasonable. The documentation gives them some confidence that you are not taking advantage of them. If you are working with a charitable organization, it may increase that confidence. A reasonable request of dealing with one of the issues cements that confidence. Then they are on your side and more often than not they are willing to help in ways even beyond your request

Always ask for, or accept an offer by, the manufacturer or supplier to deliver the materials directly to the home:

(1) it confirms where the material is going,

(2) the paper work is all taken care of for the request in advance,

(3) the time and money saved from having to pick up the material can be spent elsewhere on the project.

For example, if a company has agreed to donate material but they do not offer or you do not ask for delivery, then it is up to you to pick it up and convince someone at the service desk that you have a legitimate claim to pick up the material. If the person who agrees to the donation also arranges the delivery, the paper work is all in place and no middle-person is required to ensure the material gets to you. At this point, do not hesitate to give the full name, address and telephone number of the recipient and their family. It is necessary for the delivery. Up to now, you have only used the first name of the recipient.

Persistence is the key. If one company cannot help, then you ask another. Never give up trying to get the materials and volunteers you need. Do not be put off because you get a ‘no’ from more than one person. Our general success rate is 50% which is high for sales. The projects we work on, and the people whose lives are improving because of the work, makes the odds higher than if you were asking people to buy into a telephone marketing plan. To get this success still requires asking the right person for the right donation – so do your homework.

The homework is to call up the company or check their web site to see if they produce or sell what you need. Take notes of what you need, what they offer and see if you can discover the retail as well as manufacturing cost.

When asking for items, do not be afraid to ask about “seconds” (not damaged, but returned items or discontinued product). For example, a company scraps items that are not up to quality, while a discontinued item may be a product that did not sell as quickly as projected and, therefore, the cost per unit was too high for what the market would pay, so they discontinue production. The product, itself, may be of higher quality than what is sold in the stores.

Windows and doors have the most returns as measuring mistakes, color preferences, etc. often change after the order is made. You can get excellent reductions or donations of these items.

By accepting a second or returned item, you are telling the donor that you value their products but also that you want to keep their costs down. We have had only two suppliers in three years tell us that they would only give us seconds or slightly damaged products.

Time of year does not seem to matter when asking for donations of materials. The exception is that a good time is just before a company takes inventory as they might be pleased to get rid of product before having to record it. Companies will not make donations during inventory as they must record all items.

If you are doing the asking yourself (homeowner), a good way of legitimizing your request is to have your sponsoring charity or a recognized ‘expert’ write a letter that you can copy to give to potential donors. You might also get a letter come from a physiotherapist at a rehabilitation center outlining the need for the modification or renovation. You might also get a letter of support from a school principal, teacher, accountant, lawyer or a church leader. These letters let manufacturers and suppliers know that trusted people and organizations in their community agree that the request you are making is fair and necessary.

No Place Like Home

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Copyright © 2003, 2006 Harry van Bommel

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