Housing, It’s a Human Right (Part 1)

A 3-Part Series on the digital accessibility of the housing process experienced by people with disabilities.

In this 3-part series, we will look at the challenges and rewards of the entire experience surrounding the process of acquiring housing for people who live with a disability. 

We will look at:

  1. Buying an existing home
  2. Leasing an apartment or home
  3. Building a new home

All three options have some similarities and many differences. We will recap the 3-part blog series with a webinar where Matthew Luken and I (Patrick Sturdivant) will have a conversation about my firsthand experience with all three scenarios, and can answer any questions about the process..

Who is this blog posting for?

We hope that anyone interested in digital accessibility will find this series of value, but more specifically, the blog applies directly to the following groups.

  • Business professionals in the housing industry working with customers or providing platforms to support home ownership.
  • Technology professionals focusing on the apps, websites, and electronic document resources that drive the entire process from locating, financing, closing, and moving to making the process work efficiently for people of all abilities.
  • Digital Accessibility program leaders looking for opportunities to improve their organization’s overall experience for people interested in buying or leasing a home.
  • People living with a disability that are interested in participating in the process, to own or lease a home.

Buying A Home, “the American Dream”

Before we get started, let’s set the stage so you can have some awareness and background on my experience.  For those who may have not followed any of my blog postings, I am blind (no vision), am a screen reader user and have worked in Information Technology for over 36 years.  Technology and accessibility are my passion, as well as inclusion of the disabled in daily life.

I purchased my first piece of property in 1989 and eventually built a home on it, moving into it in 1993. I lived there for 28 years enjoying home ownership until 2021 when a change was in order. More about that change in part 3. I purchased a second property in 2022 and am currently finishing up the construction of my second home. While I have never purchased an existing home, I have gone through the process to purchase land and have been through the home buying process with many friends and family members.

Along this most recent journey I found myself needing to rent temporary lodging so I leased an apartment and went through an interesting experience which you will learn about in part 2. One last point of interest. I am doing this for the most part as a single individual.  There is no spouse or partner to share in the responsibility of the entire process which has its advantages and disadvantages. I do have a lot of good friends that have been very helpful, but if you ask them about my adventure they would tell you Patrick did it all which will lead to many stories of challenges doing things alone as an individual who is gifted with unique abilities.

Selecting A Realtor

While it is technically possible to locate and purchase a home without a realtor, the majority of people acquire the services of a professional real estate agent. Finding a realtor is really the first step in buying a home. People with disabilities should ask around for recommendations, interview professionals, and make it clear up front any disability of concern and the challenges it could pose and what the expectations are. The more someone communicates up front their needs the better the outcome will be. If someone has any hesitancy working with you, move on to another professional as there are a lot of realtors out there you can work with. I got lucky locating my realtor who sold my home through a friend, but it was very helpful that my realtor’s broker had a son who had a disability so her team of professionals was very in-tune with what challenges a disability can pose and how to find creative ways to work around each opportunity we faced.

The home buying process is filled with a lot of negotiating, compromising and communicating. People will be spending a lot of time working with their realtor searching for the right property and going through the buying process all the way through the final closing. The realtor needs to be comfortable working with someone with unique abilities and challenges and the client needs to be confident their chosen professional can help with the ultimate goal of home ownership. One of the first things they will do is send you a lot of documents to review and sign, making them your agent. Hopefully this works out well with the documents being made accessible and the document signing process is easy.  You will most likely be given materials in a PDF format but you may be directed to a website depending on how the agent is set up. This is your first chance to see how digital accessibility will impact your journey and will give you an opportunity to see how your agent handles initial bumps in the road.  For me, when selling my home, the first bump happened when I was told the agent previously used a particular electronic signing tool but had recently changed to another. I knew the original tool was accessible from experience, so I explained the potential challenge and they decided it wasn’t worth the risk. They reactivated the original tool and we used it for all our signing interactions. The signing process has to be accessible and has to work because for most interactions with the agent, and there will be many, all signing is performed electronically. The only time I was executing hardcopy(wet signatures) was at the final closing.

Question Point: Realtors should be thinking about the accessibility of their online documents and tools for clients who may be challenged with electronic content.  Websites that provide property information need to be accessible as well as the PDF files and electronic signature software used in the home buying process.

While someone can search for properties on-line themselves, your realtor will be doing a lot of that leg work for you once they understand the requirements. Ultimately, they will be sending links to listings on different platforms that hopefully will be accessible. There are many platforms out there so hopefully both parties can agree on particular platforms that are accessible and easy to use in order to review properties prior to in-person visits. Some popular sites are Zillow, RedFin and Realtor.com. These sites are filled with pictures which for many are useful but for someone like me who can’t see, of little use unless the realtor or a friend is assisting. This is where buying land has its benefits because there isn’t usually a lot to see other than trees and grass. These sites do have a lot of text-based content as well that include home attributes, room sizes, neighborhood and school information, which can be helpful.

Question Point: Is your home search website accessible to the 1 in 4 Americans who live with some form of a disability?

Picking the Right Neighborhood

Once you’ve selected a realtor that you are comfortable working with, location is the next big item to cross off your list. This is another area where a real estate professional can assist. Here are some questions that should be considered:

  • Is there a certain part of town, near work or family, that is of interest? 
  • Is the ability to get transportation important?  When I purchased my first property, proximity to my employer was very important along with the ability to use paratransit. I was very lucky to find a property to build on that would be compatible with my home’s attributes— available to paratransit and close to work.  When all those elements aligned, I immediately purchased and stayed there 28 years for those reasons.
  • Is the neighborhood conducive to traveling on foot? When looking at neighborhoods, look at the availability of sidewalks and traffic patterns. Will someone be able to feel comfortable going out for a walk? 
  • Does the neighborhood provide a sense of security?
  • Does the neighborhood support the types of housing options that meet the requirements? Single family, townhome, duplex, high-rise condominium?
  • Is a homeowner’s association (HOA) to govern how the neighborhood is managed important? 
  • If relocating to a new community, is that particular community’s website accessible? For larger cities does the local government have an accessibility department? Here in San Antonio, I can say we do and I do use their services when facing a challenge with accessibility of either physical or digital nature.

A good realtor can help their client with many of these questions. Many neighborhoods and communities have websites dedicated to the area, so make sure to Google the area you are looking at, especially if there is an HOA. Try to talk to people who live in that neighborhood to hear more detail on what it is like living there.

Question Point:  Does the home/property owners’ association, or local government website or mobile app meet WCAG standards?  Can they provide information in an accessible PDF format? Local government is mandated to be accessible under ADA Title 2.  (Private HOA/POA WCAG compliance?)

Finding The Perfect Home

Once someone has a realtor and a location selected, the next step is to determine what kind of home feels right. 

  • Is a yard important, or is a townhome more desirable? 
  • One story or multi-story. 
  • What amenities are high on the list for the home to contain? 
  • Is a home that is accessible for someone in a wheelchair, or other special requirements that not all homes may have, a must? 
  • Is a newly built or existing home a requirement?

Many on-line real estate sites do mention accessibility features of the home. There is a lot to consider when deciding on the right home, so start making a list of your requirements. Which requirements are mandatory and which are nice to have. Share  this list with your realtor. I have been fortunate to build my last two homes so I am able to design the attributes I want in a home for someone who is blind. There will be more about my builds in part 3.

Question Point: Do large new home builders consider accessibility of their homes for the 1 in 4 Americans with a disability?  Do builders ensure their websites that showcase their new properties, features and plans meet WCAG standards?

Financing the Purchase

Unfortunately, for most buyers, financing your purchase will be a requirement. This brings an additionally lengthy process filled with checklists, forms and approvals. Selecting a lender will be one of the first steps. You have many options. From local banks and credit unions, to national mortgage companies and mortgage brokers. These selections are worthy of a conversation with your realtor. I opted for a local credit union for my interactions because I value the ability to interact with people in my community and the value of the credit union model when building is easier to deal with an organization that is local in my opinion. When looking at financial institutions to deal with, the first thought should be to inquire with a bank or credit union that you already have a relationship with about their mortgage products. Already knowing what the accessibility of that institution is like gives you the benefit of not having to identify alternative financial institutions that may not be as accessible. 

If you are looking at other options for financial institutions, you should start by test driving their public facing interfaces to get a feel for their ability to put forward an accessible public experience. Read their accessibility statements and check out their willingness to have a <feedback mechanism> to report problems. Be warned though that many financial institutions, even the largest, may have two sides to their online presence. What I am referring to is the fact that organizations may have their website for regular financial transactions like checking accounts, auto loans and credit cards, but will then move you off to a mortgage processing site for application processing and loan management when you are closing.  The experience between the bank’s main site and the mortgage processor (often a vendor) they use can be different. This could make your accessibility experience different as well. You may initially be looking at an accessible page showing mortgage rates and terms but the entire application process may be on a different platform that has a different level of accessibility conformance. When talking with a financial institution, ask about their level of accessibility if that is important to you and let them know of any requirements you have like accessible PDF statements, mobile apps or website pages.

Once a lender is chosen, the application process comes next. This will almost always contain lengthy PDF documents to read and sign. Here is where accessible electronic signature signing software is critical for a good experience. Not all electronic signing software is created equal, so be careful not to presume even if a PDF is readable that you will be able to sign if you’re a screen reader user. When PDF documents are accessible and the electronic signature software is also compliant with digital accessibility standards, it can provide a very positive experience for the loan applicant who has a disability and uses assistive technology. Financial transactions, such as loans, that require income disclosures on applications are very personal and not always conducive to having friends or family members help. Would you want your Sister or Uncle to be able to review your tax return? In some cases, no, but this is what happens when people who are disabled have to rely on family for financial transactions when accessibility is not accounted for.

Question Point: Are financial institutions such as banks, credit unions and mortgage companies working to provide a compliant and accessible experience for their customers to include those with disabilities?

Submitting a Bid

Once the pre-approval process for the loan has gone through, it is time to get serious about looking at properties. After the perfect home is narrowed down, it is time to enter a bid. This is normally handled by the real estate professional, but will most likely require you to electronically sign a simple document and hope for the best that your offer is accepted. This is also the part in the process where negotiating price, closing dates and other important requests from both the buyer and the seller are hammered out and a final sales agreement is put together for review.. It’s important to get your requests in writing and agreed upon by both sides. At this point, everything needs to be in writing and your Realtor should be drafting documents for your review and approval.  A lot of back and forth should be expected, most likely all information will be provided in PDF format, along with a substantial amount of digital signatures.  Another key factor for why accessible digital signature software is a must.

Question Point:  Is the electronic signature software used by your organization accessible?  Does your company test the electronic signature software you sell business professionals for digital accessibility?

Acceptance Period

Once a contract has been accepted, there will be a period for review and inspection of the home. This is to ensure the property is properly represented and any issues or concerns can be discovered. A realtor can guide their client to appropriate inspection professionals who can review and report on the condition of the property. This inspection process can take many hours, days, and even weeks. The purchaser should be present for certain parts of the inspection, particularly near the end, in order to receive the report and ask any questions. Before hiring an inspection professional, ask how they will communicate their findings. Will they provide a hardcopy written report or an electronic report?  Will the report be accessible?  Will they take time to review the problems discovered? Be up front again with any challenges that might cause communication problems and make sure to work with a professional that is flexible and willing to accommodate a person with a disability.

Question Point:  As a home inspector professional are you ready to work with someone with a disability that may require an interpreter or the need for PDF documents to be accessible or converted to some form of an accessible document?

Securing Insurance

Prior to closing, a very important item on the checklist will be purchasing homeowners insurance.  If the property is being mortgaged, the financial institution will require their investment in the property to be protected by insurance. If you already have a relationship with an insurance agent or company, the process to receive a quote, approve, and pay for the policy should be straightforward. If this is your first time in the home buying process you will need to research the market for insurance and review insurance company sites to find one that is both accessible and inclusive of your needs. 

Question Point:  Are insurance professionals ensuring their websites, apps and documents are accessible to those customers who use assistive technology?

Closing Day

It’s almost time for the transfer of ownership, including those all-important keys! Like choosing a realtor, you most likely have a choice in the title company used for the transaction. Make sure the title company is aware of any special needs you have and the ability to read and sign documents electronically. While closing is most likely still conducted in a room with paper documents, prior to the closing date, the title company will be sending a lot of documentation for review and signature. This will disclose a lot of figures and totals that you will be responsible for. The title company will also provide documentation on any binding contracts you enter into if you are a part of a property or homeowners’ association. If these documents aren’t accessible, you will need to find a way to obtain the information whether that means reading it aloud or having somebody present to help with review. Buying real estate comes with lots of risks and everyone needs to know their responsibilities.

I had a great experience with my title company, so much so that I used them for the sale of my previous property and the purchase of my new property. Again, it was luck that the agent at the title company had a son with autism, so she was very aware of how important it was to be inclusive of people with different abilities. She was very accommodating and assured me that the electronic signature software was accessible.  On closing day, she booked additional time to make sure she could go over and read each printed document I would be signing. Remember there is always a choice as long as you communicate your needs early and ensure everyone understands the requirements in order to be successful. At this point in the game, a good realtor should also be aware of the need for accessibility and be able to communicate to other colleagues working with them to help make closing a smooth and stress-free process.

Question Point:  Are title companies aware of the needs of people with disabilities when it comes to how they conduct business?

The Pre-Move Process

Prior to moving, a lot has to happen.  Most importantly, having utilities turned on and readily available. Your realtor can be a good source for listings of utility companies that serve the property being purchased. Each organization will need to be contacted and their process for verification: personal information, credit check, and other forms of verification will need to be completed to get accounts set up for things like electricity, water, garbage service and internet.  Each organization will have a different level of accessibility, so your experiences will vary. In many cases, utilities are controlled by some form of local government, so there is a chance that accessibility is already a  consideration. This is where knowing if a local government accessibility office exists may help in resolving any accessibility related issues.

Question Point: Do public and private utility companies understand they need to be accessible to all customers including those with disabilities? 

Moving Day

Closing is complete and the loan has been funded. Keys are in hand and it is time to move. Prior to this point, most people have made arrangements for movers of some sort. If a professional moving team is being used, make sure to communicate special needs, get estimates in writing and ensure the  review process is also accessible. If the documents aren’t accessible or you can’t electronically sign, ask for accommodation. Make sure they have awareness of any challenges that may be encountered on moving day upfront. Moving day can be stressful, I know. The movers will swarm in and do quick, maybe even hasty, work of moving things and loading them into the truck. If you can’t see, things can be moved that you didn’t mean to move, everything is fair game. Have a plan and give clear directions at the very beginning. Don’t wait to let movers know that the grandfather clock can’t be loaded until the very end. 

Home Ownership Is So Rewarding

Once your move is complete and you’re in your new space, it is very rewarding. I guess after everything is unpacked. At this point, you can look back at the accomplishment of a large project being finished and look forward to many years enjoying your new surroundings. It’s clear that the process of buying a new home is complex, lengthy and filled with many opportunities for a variety of organizations to make a good experience a reality for people with different abilities, as long as good digital accessibility practices are exercised. Expect bumps in the road, have backup plans and don’t be afraid to ask for accommodations when an experience has accessibility issues.

The home buying project is a major life event filled with many opportunities for stress and joy. Take each day, and each challenge, one at a time. Remember that every interaction with people and the organizations helping you along your home buying effort is at a different point in their digital accessibility journey so your experiences will vary. Look at each experience as an opportunity to educate and advocate for home ownership of people of all abilities.

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