Practical Tips for Adding a Wheelchair Ramp to Your Home

by Samir Shah on Mon, 2013-06-03 14:15

Ramps are expensive but worth it for the independence and safety they provide, says a man who details his experiences with having a ramp built for his wife

Article Highlights:
  • A man whose wife has progressive muscle weakness due to a mitochondrial disease details his experience with building and adding a ramp to their home.
  • When building a wheelchair ramp, a qualified contractor is the most important choice you’ll make; tips are given for finding and selecting the best contractor for the job.
  • To control costs, choose a contractor who lets you pay separately for labor and materials.
  • Ramps are expensive; they can be financed using low/no-interest loans from a bank or the contractor, or through grants from foundations or your state.

When my wife got her TiLite manual wheelchair, it opened up a world of freedom for her. Her back pain was gone, along with her risk of falling, and she could move longer distances. Suddenly, she could again move across the shopping mall, maneuver around the house and perform at her job.

While the wheelchair gave her more freedom inside and outside the house, it introduced a new challenge: getting inside the house from the outside, and vice versa, because of the four concrete steps going into our house.

Watching her carry her lightweight manual wheelchair up the steps made me very nervous. So nervous that most of the time, I carried it for her. I wondered about a ramp, but the issues seemed so complex. Ramps did not appear to be cheap, and we were still hoping for a cure, though it had been one-and-a-half years without a diagnosis for her progressive muscle weakness (later found to be a mitochondrial disorder).

What finally motivated me was a blunt statement from her doctor — that it would be a lot harder for her to recover from a broken bone. It was time to accept the reality, and consider a wheelchair ramp to access our house.

We made the decision, but were not sure what to do next. I wondered how to find someone who could build a safe ramp. I did not know anything about estimated prices, best designs or even what materials it should me made of. I also wanted to learn about funding sources. And were there any rules we had to follow?

In this article, I am going to share the answers we found to these questions to help you as you plan your own wheelchair ramp.

Finding a contractor

The contractor you choose will affect how your ramp looks, how well it helps you get into and out of your house, and how much you pay for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a Consumer Reports guide on how to find a wheelchair ramp builder. Luckily — because ramps have many similarities to decks, and local codes regulate these structures — you do not need someone specially trained in ramps, just someone with experience. I recommend first generating a long list of contractors and then narrowing down the list to those qualified to do the job.

Referrals are the best way to find someone. But few of us know others who have built a wheelchair ramp. For that reason, start by contacting your county and state disability services organizations. The local building permit office also may tell you who has built ramps, or perhaps where they have been built. You then can drive over, knock on the door and ask about the ramp.

Broaden your list even further by asking friends and family for names of contractors they would recommend, especially ones that have built decks. It doesn’t hurt to have more names than you need because right now you want to generate the list; later on, you’ll narrow the list.

Another great source is Craigslist, which is how we found our contractor. Before you post on Craiglist, first take some pictures of the area and measure the height of the doorway to the ground. Then, create an email address just for this purpose, since it may attract a lot of spam. We posted in the skilled trades jobs category that we were looking to build a home wheelchair ramp, along with the height needed, the general region where we lived, and that we wanted estimates. In retrospect, I would have added that we were looking for someone who was licensed, insured and experienced. Through Craigslist, you will collect a lot of names.

A final source of potential contractors are expos, like the Abilities Expo, and even home remodeling or garden shows. However, contractors pay a premium for booths at these types of shows, and therefore may be at the higher end of the price scale.

Choosing a contractor

With this long list of contractors, you now can identify those who are most qualified, most affordable and have the fewest potential pitfalls.

Start by eliminating anyone who is not insured and licensed. They may offer a lower price, but your town may not grant a permit to work, and you’ll have little recourse if they build the ramp unsafely.

For the remaining contractors, share your pictures and ask them for details and pictures of past wheelchair ramps they’ve built. Invite all the licensed, insured and experienced contractors to your house to look at your area and provide an estimate. Several contractors will weed themselves out by canceling (for what usually sounds like a good reason), or by not showing up. This happened to us three times; two did it a second time, and by the third, we learned not to waste time on them.

Talk to the contractors who visit; show them every external door to your house, and listen to what they say. Observe if they seem to understand your needs, how they visualize a solution and your own feelings about them. After inviting at least three contractors, you should see important differences among them.

Another difference is their source of materials. Experienced contractors in this field will have discounts at lumber yards; inexperienced ones use local hardware stores to buy materials. Our contractor provided separate costs for labor and materials, with the intent that we pay the materials cost directly to the lumber yard, therefore ensuring there was no markup on the price. Due to increased lumber prices, and changes to our design, our materials price was much higher than originally estimated. Our contractor joined us in calling around to different lumber yards, and we ended up choosing a different supplier (which the contractor also chose for a deck job he was doing the following week).

The contractor we chose, Ron Lester, in central N.J., was the first one who visited within a few days of our email. When he looked at our front door, you could tell he was trying to think of the best way to lay it out, avoid getting too close to the road, and with enough distance for a gentle slope. We then walked him to the backyard. You could tell by the way he walked around our deck that he liked it much better. It was then that he talked about buying the materials directly from the supplier and mentioned his preferred supplier house.

Another contractor that we did not choose had similar ideas when he looked at our backyard. However, when he talked about materials, his low price and preferred sourcing from the local hardware store had us concerned about quality. A third contractor recommended by someone at the town suggested a design that we did not find as appealing and provided a total cost that was higher than our other estimates, and not broken down by materials and labor as we had requested.

The process of finding the right contractor is kind of like finding the right idea when working within groups. First you brainstorm, getting a long list. Then you narrow it down, in this case, by contractors that are licensed, insured, experienced, responsible and appear to understand your needs.

Designing the ramp

Click to enlarge photos.

Even though your contractor will design the ramp, you need to understand how design aspects will affect its usability and cost, particularly if the contractor gives you choices. In this section, I explain factors to consider regarding the ramp length, the materials it is made of, landings, railings, the foot of the ramp and securing a permit.

Ramp length: The first design issue is the length of the ramp. For places of public accommodation, codes require the ramp to be 1 foot (12 inches) long, for every inch of height. That equals an angle of 4.76 degrees (inverse tangent of 1/12). Even though making it steeper shortens the ramp and reduces its cost, we recommend against that because going uphill at the 1:12 ratio is challenging enough.

Ramp location: Next consider which external door to use. The front door seems most logical; however, if the ramp is lengthy, it may not be aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, putting a ramp on the front yard may require tearing up a sidewalk or driveway to put in pillars to hold the ramp, or getting special permits to bring the ramp closer to the street level than normally allowed. A backyard ramp requires an asphalt or concrete path to the front, but it may be easier to dig holes for the pillars, may have more room for the length of the ramp, and will be away from the street. We built our ramp to the back of our house because we already had a deck back there; because our driveway comes up to the side of the house; and because we had more room there for the length of our ramp. We also considered placing the ramp near a side door to the house but eliminated that idea because there were two steps within our house to reach that door.

Ramp material: When we first considered a wheelchair ramp, we heard differing stories on whether wood or metal was more expensive or more durable. We learned that wood can actually be more durable than metal, as well as less expensive, and nicer looking than a metal ramp. We received three estimates for a wooden ramp and one estimate for a metal ramp. The metal ramp was the second-highest estimate we received and the design — consisting of horizontal bars with a few vertical poles — did not seem very eye-catching.

On the other hand, the wood ramp proposals we received showed pickets that matched the pickets on our deck. When I asked about durability, I heard that ramps made of pressure-treated wood can last forever if properly maintained. Though there are many warnings about the durability of wooden ramps on the Internet, I considered that most outdoor decks for homes are made of pressure-treated wood, not metal. Our contractor advised us to wait six months to a year for it to get weathered, and then put a water-resistant seal on it. For these reasons, and because our ramp was connecting to our wooden deck, we chose a wooden ramp, and we’re very happy with how it looks.

In our town, and most likely yours, the bottom of the ramp must be concrete. Our contractor designed it to open up — "fan" — into the driveway.

Ramp landings: Our contractor and others said that ramps don't have to just incline up. You can have short areas in the ramp where they remain flat — a resting place perhaps — called a landing. On our lengthy ramp, we have two landings. These landings hold the ramp up, since they are the only parts of the structure that go into the ground. The four legs of each landing go 36 inches deep into a concrete-filled hole in our backyard, ensuring the ramp is also very stable.

My wife has really appreciated having the landings. Going uphill at a 1:12 ratio is not always easy, so these landings provide a place to rest.

Railings: If you do not have a power wheelchair, you typically use your hands to move the wheelchair. That can require a lot of energy going up at a 1:12 incline. Most ramps have railings or something you can grab to help you pull yourself up.

What you should know is that code requires railings on only one side of the ramp, not both. In retrospect, we wish we had railings on both sides. From the bottom of the ramp, it is far easier for my wife to use her hand, perhaps both, to pull her way up the ramp than to wheel up.

Door entry: One detail not to overlook is whether there is an incline into the door as well. Our door is about 2 inches above the bottom of the deck. Our contractor therefore built a gently sloping ramp out there too, with a handrail to keep her from rolling off the platform at the door.

Permit: Finally, a discussion of the design could not be complete without the issue of a permit. Actually, a permit should be your first concern when considering a wheelchair ramp. Make sure the contractor is willing to take responsibility for securing a permit. We had one contractor suggest we could get by without one. This is not a good sign! You may want to ask your contractor if they have built in your area before, how familiar they are with the local ordinances and whether they are willing to call the permit office. Most of all, do not purchase material or place any deposits until you have the permit in hand.

Paying for a wheelchair ramp

Wheelchair ramps are not low cost, so paying for the ramp becomes another issue. They cost anywhere from $80 to $120 per foot of ramp. Furthermore, the lumber yard usually wants payment for materials before the ramp is built. Here are some options to consider when paying for a ramp:

Split payment into labor and materials: Our contractor was clear at the onset he only made money on the labor, not the materials. He gave us an estimate of his labor and then an estimate for the lumber, based on prices from a job he did the year before. It turned out lumber prices had gone up since then, so that price did increase. We took his materials list, sent it to different lumber yards and got quotes, then chose one, after ensuring the contractor was comfortable with the vendor. Our contractor did not want to work with a local hardware store and was disappointed that the lumber yard we chose (not his preferred one) did not have the same level of service he was looking for (replacing bad wood). In retrospect, though, we likely saved $1,000.

Payment plan with the contractor: Our contractor agreed to give us a no-interest loan for the labor. He asked how much we could pay and then split it into equal payments. To make that happen, we had to sign a promissory note putting up the house. For the materials, however, we had to pay the lumber yard upfront; some lumber yards may offer payment plans, however.

Low-interest bank loan: After calling around to the county disability organization, we learned that one local bank offered low-interest loans for wheelchair ramps. We met with them and discovered the loan was based on individual income, not family income, so we were excited. However, that also meant they only looked at my wife's credit history, not mine, to qualify for the loan. The rate on the loan was about 3.25 percent. (We did not use this method though, because the contractor offered us a no-interest plan.)

Habitat for Humanity, state agencies, foundations: We heard from others that Habitat for Humanity in our area had some ways to build a wheelchair ramp for someone. However, due to our family income, we did not quality. We also reached out to organizations we found through county and state disabilities agencies, but did not qualify for any of their programs for the same reason.

Once you have worked out the payment arrangements and figure out how to acquire the materials, you're ready to start building.

Light it up

We were excited when our ramp was complete and could be used. (My wife actually rolled on it before the contractor gave us the OK.) After a few nights using the ramp, however, we realized another problem: It was pitch dark.

I did not like leaving the deck light on all the time, but that was the only way for my wife to see to unlock the back door. This was not a safe situation. We fixed the situation by wiring and installing 180-degree or 240-degree motion security lights purchased at a local hardware store: one by the garage, one by the back door and one that lighted the ramp about halfway up. (We tried an expensive solar-powered light at this middle location but it didn’t work well, perhaps because it didn’t get enough sunlight. So I wired the area myself to accommodate the light.)

With my wife's help, we set the distance settings for the motion detection so it would pick up her motion either coming down the ramp, or when her car first comes into this area. It’s been more than a year since we installed these lights, and they’ve been fantastic. They turn on when they sense her car or when she is going down or up the ramp, and have required no maintenance, other than changing one light bulb. Furthermore, they have worked in rain, snow and hot summer. These three sets of motion sensor lights have made her ramp a lot safer for her to use.

A year after having the ramp built, we had it stained to more closely match the wood on our deck, and it really looks nice.

Well worth it

The wheelchair ramp cost us a great deal of money. A year later, we feel it has been indispensable for preserving my wife's independence and safety. My wife can lift her ultra lightweight wheelchair into and out of her car by herself. She can then safely move up the ramp and enter the house. Therefore, she can come and go to the house, as needed, to meet the timing of her activities, job or baby.

I believe a major reason for the success of our ramp was that we chose a contractor who understood our needs. He realized that a backyard ramp was more appropriate and aesthetically pleasing. He helped us choose the right number of landing areas, and stabilized the ramp by grounding those landing areas in 36 inches of concrete. He came up with the right wood design, ensured entry into the door and proper railings. He only charged us the labor, and let us purchase the materials, thereby ensuring there was no markup. These steps made the ramp a great value for us.

If you have a need for a wheelchair ramp due to steps in your house, I hope you can use our tips to make it worthwhile for you.

Samir Shah lives in the New York City area with his wife and child. He says his engineering, organizational and communication skills have come in handy in getting medical and support services for his wife, who has a mitochondrial disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness.

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