Use of home elevators is on the rise

Aging population, love of luxury make devices popular

May 13, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

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.

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