Realtors call it curb appeal—the first look at a home and yard. The housing industry has long known the importance of that first impression. According to Zillow, curb appeal is one of the top five decision factors for home buyers.

In this article, we will examine the outside of a typical home. We will offer recommendations to creating a more accessible outdoor space that is also aesthetically pleasing and practical.

Who Will Benefit?
The builder, contractor, tradespersons, and product suppliers will receive the immediate benefit of these safety ideas because it makes the sale easier and faster, and keeps them in business. The long-lasting benefits are for the homeowner and their visitors. Yes, it improves the home value, but more important it is improving accessibility and safety, bringing a level of comfort to the homeowner that may allow them to continue their desire of staying in their home for many years -- what we call living in place.

Let’s start at the curb, taking a walking tour around a typical home. We will not talk about the 1% of Americans who use a wheelchair or the 3% that use other devices to help them walk, because if you follow our recommendations, outdoor spaces will be accessible not only for those individuals but also anyone gardening, carrying a child or groceries, or walking hand in hand with a loved one.

We understand that every home has unique challenges. Housing professionals are naturally creative and to them, no challenge is too great. They know how to utilize a team of experts from different professions to solve complex problems.

How smooth is the surface? Most driveways are either concrete or asphalt. These surfaces were most likely smooth originally and did not create tripping hazards. After time, the soils under the driveway can shift, causing uneven surfaces and creating tripping hazards. The solution is to either smooth the uneven edge, mud-jack, or replace the problem area. Some driveways are pavers, cobblestones, or stamped concrete, and some are dirt or gravel. Unfortunately, not much can be done to improve those surfaces. At a minimum, pave the area from the parked car to the house.

You should also allow enough space for a person to exit or enter a car without stepping off a driveway surface. Open your car doors and measure from outside of one door edge to the outside edge of the other door. This should allow enough room to comfortably and safely step out of a vehicle carrying a child or sacks of groceries, or to help a family member or friend.

Walkways to the Entry Doors & Around the Home
Walk with a friend side-by-side and measure how much room is needed for a walkway. You may be surprised and wonder why most walkways are only 24 inches to 36 inches. Be careful to make these surfaces smooth. If your grocery store shopping cart will stop when one wheel hits a tiny pebble, imagine using a wheelchair. Make the walkway smooth and free of bumps. Right-angle corners on a walkway can add a challenge, so recommend curves or wider areas at the corners. And if walkways are long, suggest creating rest areas off to the side.

If you are in an area with freezing temperatures, recommend heated walkways or portions of the driveway, especially north-facing ones. Snow and ice melt systems must be designed and installed by experts who understand your climate. LED lighting should be added using automatic motion-sensor switches, timers, or light sensing devices.

"Everyone should be able to walk around their home without danger of falling," says Christine Stouffer, project manager at Creative Housing/Creative Renovations. "Walkways should be wide enough to allow for a wheelchair to turn easily or to allow someone assistance while walking side by side."

From the driveway to the front entry, this house has no steps or thresholds. Case Design/Remodeling
From the driveway to the front entry, this house has no steps or thresholds. Case Design/Remodeling

A good home design has no steps into the house. If the home is a new construction, specify entry elevations for no-step entries, including gentle grades and a covered entry. If conditions do not allow for no-step entry, then allow a space for a future vertical platform lift, stair lift, or inclined platform lift with an adjacent electrical GFCI outlet.

"If steps are there to stay, be sure the riser heights do not exceed a 1/4 of an inch difference from step to step," says Stouffer. "Contrasting colors make it easier to see each step and non-slip materials should always be used. One easy and immediate solution for safety on steps is to add contrasting color adhesive traction tape to the nose edge of each step. Handrails on steps should be installed on both sides. Be sure all stairs and handrails are code compliant. To help keep a person safe, extend each railing at least 1 foot beyond both the top and bottom of the steps for an individual to hold onto as they approach and leave and the staircase."

Lighting is important on steps, so be sure to consult with a lighting expert to recommend what type of lights, amount of illumination, controls, and their exact placement to ensure maximum safety. LED lights under handrails are beautiful, efficient, and safe. All lights should be operated by light senor switches, timers, a smartphone, or voice-activated home device, such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Ramps, when installed by professionals, look seamless as good design. If a ramp is installed, recommend a slope with less than an inch rise for 18 inches of length. Nathan Colburn, partner at Accessible Systems, suggests an alternative to ramps is a sloping walkway. Be sure there is proper lighting, rest areas, and turn areas of about 6 feet by 6 feet.

An ultra-low–profile ramp leading up to the front entrance is cleverly disguised by landscaping and a front porch.
Courtesy New American Homes An ultra-low–profile ramp leading up to the front entrance is cleverly disguised by landscaping and a front porch.

"We promote the use of concrete ramps with decorative iron railings," says Stouffer. "They also incorporate steps accessing the front door landing for visitors who may not need to travel the length of the ramp. Add some landscaping for screening, and you have a durable ramp that blends right in with the home.”

Doors and Door Hardware
Entry doors should all be a minimum of 36 inches. A porch or level area at the door should be large enough to allow several individuals to congregate when entering or leaving the house. Be sure there is at least 18 inches on the handle side of the door so no one falls off the porch or steps off the entry area. A package shelf next to the door is handy to set small items down when opening the door. Create a horizontal space at the entry 6 feet by 6 feet to make it easy for a person using a wheelchair or walker to open and close the door. Door thresholds should be no higher than 1/4 inch, or preferably, no-threshold.

Technology has made locking and even opening doors much easier and safer. Deadbolt locks controlled by a smartphone or tablet are now less expensive and easier to install. Door knobs should be replaced with lever or push/pull styles. When specifying a lever handle, recommend only those with an end return that angles back to the door. They keep a hand from falling off the end and help prevent clothes, purses, or backpacks from snagging on the open end.

Finding the House from the Curb
Are the house numbers easy to see from the curb? Make it easy for visitors and emergency responders to find the home. Large visible numbers on a mailbox or on the house are a must. Light letters on a dark background are easier to see and read, as well as lighted or reflective numbers.

Outside Maintenance and Utilities
Storage sheds should be easily accessible. Access to hose faucets should be easy and safe to reach. Suggest automatic lighting in those areas. Build and remodel to minimize home maintenance needs. Cleaning gutters is very dangerous; suggest installing gutter guards or recommend a professional to keep the gutters clean.

If the electrical panel is outside, create a clear path to the circuit breaker if it needs to be reset. If remodeling, suggest moving the panel indoors for easy access, especially in areas that experience bad weather.

Gardens, Playgrounds, and Pools
Colburn recommends installing raised garden and flower beds.“These can be attractive and easier to reach for someone with a stiff back or sitting in a chair while tending to their crops."

Pools present a greater challenge. Pool fence companies know how to reduce hazards. Child safety experts can be invaluable for understanding safety in playgrounds and pools. To make pools accessible for almost everyone, install a pool-side lift or a gradual sloping walkway into the water.

These are just a few of the many improvements you should add to every project. Explain to your clients the importance of safety for them, their families, and friends who visit. For information about how you can make all outdoor areas more accessible, comfortable, and safe, contact a knowledgeable and certified professional in your area. If it looks good to the client and you know everything is as accessible and safe as possible, only then can the client be comfortable as they enjoy their lives, living in place.