Use of home elevators is on the rise

The Baltimore Sun

Ed and Pauline Lohr have built a dream retirement home, in more ways than one. The Essex couple's waterfront place has a dock for their boats, and an elevator in the house so Ed's "bad feet" won't keep him from using all three floors of living space.

"I use it all the time - I hardly ever use the stairs," says Lohr, 61, who retired two years ago after 33 years with the U.S. Postal Service. Achy knees and gout make climbing up and down an ordeal for him.

Once a luxury mainly for the rich, elevators are showing up these days in less pricey single-family homes and even townhouses, from Aberdeen to Ellicott City and even in Leonardtown in Southern Maryland. Not the awkward-looking stair lifts of old, but wood-paneled, brass-trimmed vertical hoists that glide smoothly and quietly from floor to floor.

Aging baby boomers drive the trend, elevator manufacturers say, as 50- and 60-somethings install the devices hoping to be able to stay in their homes longer as their mobility declines.

But even some younger homeowners are going for in-home lifts, industry experts say, to accommodate their elderly relatives - or sometimes just to have another high-end amenity, like a soaring grand foyer or granite countertops.

"Residential elevators are quickly becoming a 'must-have' option among homeowners," according to Dan Quigley, marketing director for Otis Elevator Co., a leading manufacturer of vertical lifts based in Farmington, Conn.

"They've become more mainstream," says Matthew Aird, general manager of Premier Lifts Inc., who says his firm's sales in the Baltimore-Washington area have doubled each of the past two years. "When you're talking about an $800,000 house, a $20,000 elevator to keep you there until the day you die doesn't seem so bad."

Counting installation, the total cost of putting an elevator in a new home is likely to start around $30,000, dealers say. Fitting one into an existing home can run much higher, since the shaft or "hoist way" would have to be carved out of floor space already in use or grafted onto the exterior of the house.

For competitive reasons, elevator manufacturers won't say just how many in-home lifts they've sold. But they agree that business is going up.

"Year over year, we're probably looking right now at about 32 percent [more sales] over last year, and last year was a record year," said Jim Quinly, general manager of the residential elevator division for ThyssenKrupp Access, which once specialized in making stair lifts for the disabled.

"Demand is extremely strong," says Perry Engler, regional marketing representative for Residential Elevators Inc., another manufacturer, based in Florida.

Manufacturers say they often sell lifts to individual homeowners, who have them installed during construction of custom-built homes or retrofitted into existing dwellings. But home builders also are starting to include elevators in their new projects, particularly when the dwellings are being marketed to "active adults" or when they have four stories, including basements.

Elevators aren't nearly as popular as granite countertops among new homebuyers, but they're coming on, says Steve Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders. Eight percent of consumers surveyed in 2004 about what features they want in a new home rated elevators as desirable or even essential - double the proportion who wanted a lift in 2001.

Melman attributes the growing interest in home elevators to the graying of the population, particularly the large generation born just after World War II.

More than one-third of all U.S. households are headed by someone 55 years or older, according to census estimates, and the share of 55-plus households is expected to top 40 percent by 2012. Older people tend to want to stay put, but even so, one in five home buyers is 55 or older, the home builders' association points out.

"Definitely a majority of people, if asked - especially baby boomers - would prefer to stay in their current residence, at least for the next five years," Melman says.

But in 2005, the Census Bureau reported that a third of the 55-plus households in single-family housing said they had physical difficulty. As householders age, the share with some kind of disability is expected to grow.

Elevators are just one of the ways in which homes can be built or retrofitted to accommodate older, less mobile occupants. Other measures include stepless showers, wider hallways to accommodate wheelchairs and adjustable kitchen counters.

Others see elevators appealing across the generations.

"We automatically think, 'An elevator? Well, it's for handicapped people, or it's for the elderly.' When in fact my largest-growing segment is the 30- to 39-year-olds, neither old or disabled, who look upon their elevator as just another lifestyle amenity, like a garage door opener," said Quinly, of ThyssenKrupp.

"It made their lifestyle easier," he says of an in-home elevator. "I see the younger generation thinking, 'I've got to move kids, laundry, golf clubs, luggage all through the house.'"

For many builders, elevators are another amenity to offer in the growing number of "active-adult" communities they're developing to lure the 55-and-older buyer. Leading national home builder D.R. Horton has been putting elevators in townhouses in retirement havens like Florida for years.

Here in the mid-Atlantic, smaller home builders seem to be blazing the trail.

Engle Homes, for example, is offering elevators as a sales incentive in a new 56-unit townhouse project called River Run that it's building near the Gunpowder River in Joppatowne. Asking prices start in the upper $300,000 range.

"We're offering them here because this is an active-adult community, and these are three-level townhomes, and it's just a convenience," said Sally Simpkins, Engle's regional sales and marketing coordinator. "Instead of going up three flights of steps or whatever, you can put an elevator in there and be on the third floor in no time."

Engle also installed elevators at the buyer's option in a townhouse development it did a few years ago in Crofton, Simpkins said. That project wasn't restricted to older buyers.

Sturbridge Homes, based in Anne Arundel County, features elevators in luxury townhomes it is building in Leonardtown in St. Mary's County.

John Shipley, sales and marketing manager for Altieri Homes, said elevators seem to be in demand among older, "down-sizing" buyers, who aren't ready yet to move into something as small as a condominium. Altieri is installing lifts in four-story single-family homes it is building for the general buyer in Aberdeen. It also has offered elevators in three-story "active-adult" townhouses it is selling in Ellicott City.

"It's gone over fairly well," Shipley says, noting that the first three buyers in the townhouse community all said they bought there because of the elevators.

In cases where builders offer elevators as a buyer's option, the dwelling is designed with closets "stacked" on each floor that can be opened up to make way for the rails and car.

Patriot Lennar Homes, meanwhile, is installing elevators as standard equipment in 49 four-story townhouses it is building off Key Highway on the side of Federal Hill, with prices starting at nearly $1 million each.

Rita White, the builder's "new home consultant," said she expects the Federal Place townhouses to be popular with those who want in-town or water-view living, as well as those empty-nesters who don't want to deal with the stairs. "I'm sure it's going to be a pretty popular feature of the home," she said of the elevator.

Pauline Lohr doesn't ride the elevator in their Essex home, but she's still glad they got one. Her husband's gout flared up while they were planning this house a few years ago, and she wound up pushing him around the Ocean City boardwalk in a wheelchair. The new lift is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a person standing behind it, she said.

Ed Lohr, an engineer by trade, enjoys the lift gadgetry, showing a visitor the steel rails on which the elevator car glides and the magnets that guide it to a clean stop on every floor. He also points out the various safety features, including a backup battery to prevent anyone from being caught between floors if the power goes out. There's a telephone inside to call for help just in case, as in commercial elevators.

Pauline Lohr won't ride it, but not out of any concern for her well-being. The 60-year-old hearing-aid sales agent prefers to keep exercising on the stairs as long as her knees hold out. But she says she's not above using the elevator to haul loads for her - such as groceries and laundry, which need to get from the ground floor to the second or third story.

And the lift is a big hit with their 8-year-old grandson, the couple said. He brags to his classmates at school about how his grandparents let him ride their elevator.

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