ADA and FHA: What Builders Need to Know

Filed in Codes and Standards, Legal, Multifamily by on February 9, 2015 31 Comments

sign pointing to rampBuilders and developers continue to get conflicting information about how to comply with the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on their projects, especially when it comes to multifamily housing.

A session at the 2015 NAHB International Builders’ Show helped attendees understand the finer points of what can be a myriad of confusing guidance documents and regulations designed to allow renters, owners and their visitors maneuver around a property in a wheelchair – and when those accommodations are required.

The first thing to understand, said presenter Jeffrey Augello, NAHB Senior Counsel, is that ignorance of the law is not an option. “If the primary entrance to the building has steps but no accessible ramp, you might as well post a sign that says, ‘persons with disabilities are not allowed.'”

There are seven basic requirements for accessibility when constructing an apartment or condominium building of four or more units. In addition, if that building has an elevator, each unit in the building must also comply. If there’s no elevator, only the ground-floor units must comply.

  • An accessible building entrance on an accessible route. Not every door needs to be accessible by wheelchair, but at least one public entrance must be easily accessed.
  • Accessible common and public use areas.
  • Doors that are easily operable by a person sitting in a wheelchair.
  • An accessible route into and through the dwelling unit: in other words, hallways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
  • Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls that can be operated from a wheelchair.
  • Reinforced bathroom walls so that grab bars can be installed later, if necessary.
  • Bathrooms and kitchens that allow a wheelchair user to be able to move around and access the fixtures.

What if limited space or zoning requirements affect how accommodating your design can be? “When in doubt, err on the side of accessibility,” said presenter Felicia Watson, NAHB Senior Counsel.

And don’t necessarily take the word of code officials or city inspectors who say that you don’t need to worry about accessibility because of the size or layout of your structure. The builder is ultimately responsible no matter what kind of advice or guidance they follow, Augello said.

There are, however, recognized safe harbors, including various iterations of the International Building Code.  It’s important to be consistent throughout the project, however: It doesn’t work to follow the FHA Design Manual for the kitchen but the FHA Accessibility Guidelines for the bathrooms. Mixing and matching safe harbors is not allowed.

It’s also important to understand that the FHA may not apply to re-purposed buildings: a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse converted into loft apartments, for example. The FHA’s accessibility requirements only apply to buildings designed and constructed for “first occupancy” after March 31, 1991.

ADA and Single-Family Homes

While the FHA includes specific requirements for multifamily housing, single-family home builders don’t need to make their homes accessible, unless, for instance,a model home is also used as a sales office. In that circumstance. the portion of the model home used for the sales office becomes a “public accommodation” and is subject to the ADA. That means the sales office must be accessible.

The ADA may also kick in for amenities within a single-family development, including infrastructure such as parking lots and sidewalks, or if the community swimming pool is open to anyone besides residents and their guests.

The bottom line: Understand the requirements of both FHA and ADA, make sure the contracts you have with designers and subs are clear and protect your interests, and get to know an attorney familiar with all aspects of the two laws.

For additional information or a copy of the presentation, contact NAHB Senior Counsels Jeffrey Augello or Felicia Watson.

Comments (31)

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  1. Good article! I would enjoy a copy of your presentation.

  2. Jon Johansen says:

    Great info! Please forward a copy of the presentation and any link or info regarding retrofitting homes and businesses for ADA compliance. Thanks in advance.

  3. Outstanding post. Please forward a copy of the presentation if you are able.
    All the best,
    Chris Moline LEED AP, CAPS

  4. As Homebuilder and also a remodeler I’m keenly aware of the infirmities and challenges of home owners & buyers. That reality is reflected in my everyday planning for all customers.

  5. Kendra Pachter says:

    Difficult to believe that there is no guidance or requirements for builders of single family homes even when there is a generational suite marketed, sold, and implemented in a new home?

    • NAHBNow says:

      Neither the Fair Housing Act nor the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to the construction of single family homes. However, for those builders who want to provide features for their customers that allow home owners to stay in their homes as they age, or to accommodate requests for retrofits or suites for a customer’s parents, builders could review the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines for guidance on features to include. For more information, please visit the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines available on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website via this link:

  6. Rex Miller says:

    Does a “custom home” builder in MT have to follow ADA guidelines for a private home?

  7. Alvin Harley says:

    Does ADA require the addition of accessible bathroom facilities in a model home sales office?

  8. Joseph Fisichelli says:

    I believe I know the answer, but to confirm, in Massachusetts do the handicap ramps for a custom condo style home (half a duplex) in over 55 development, need to meet ADA requirements, or anything else in the home for that matter? The unit has it’s own private entrance, there is no common area.

  9. April Merjil says:

    In the case where there are 6 apt. units in 3 separate buildings, 2 units per bldg., all single story, what are the requirements for ADA and/ or Adaptable units?

    Thank you for your assistance!

    • NAHB Now says:

      Thank you for your question. The Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements apply to buildings with four or more units, and the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements only apply to residential buildings where there is a sales or leasing office on the premises. However, there may be additional state or local requirements for “adaptable units.” Please consult your attorney for details.

      • April Merjil says:

        Thank you, I appreciate the quick response, we have separate buildings but they are connected by the front porch covering so we’re trying to determine if that’s considered a “breezeway” if you will, although the buildings are separated from one another.

  10. noel young says:

    For an existing mix use building with 2 residential units in the 2nd floor and a small store in the first floor, would the owner be required to provide a handicap parking space, if the owner want to build a 2 car garage?

    • NAHB Now says:

      Thank you for your question. The Fair Housing Act accessibility requirements apply to buildings with four or more units, and the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements only apply to residential buildings where there is a sales or leasing office on the premises. However, there may be additional state or local requirements for “adaptable units.” Please consult your attorney for details.

  11. Fern martin says:

    I own a summer home with a proprietary lease. I am legally disabled and can no longer navigate the stairs to the unit. We have “owned the unit for over 45 years. I would like to put in a back door and not have to build a ramp in the front of unit where the stairs are. I would cover the expense. How does fha or ada come into play when trying to get approval from board? Thank you.

  12. Kenneth E Holderman says:

    Is there any requirements for proper insulation of an apartment to keep energy cost consistent with the local area?

  13. Kenneth E Holderman says:

    I am living in a new ADA compliant apartment that is grossly under insulated causing heating costs to triple the norm. Thermal imaging has confirmed this condition. Are there ADA requirements or are they simply implied within normal building practice. This is in Granger, IN 46530 (near the Michigan line). This prompted my prior inquire.

    • Mike Breen says:

      Do home developers have to have models that they can modify for people in wheelchairs. I am a real estate agent and took a gentleman in a wheelchair to look at models. The sales people said they had a home they could modify. They didn’t have pricing available. They said they would get the pricing but it has been weeks since I asked… with multiple requests in between. You would think that developers would have pricing available. Not having cost available on hand and readily available puts handicapped individuals at a major disadvantage when purchasing a home. Are there any rules regarding this?

  14. Todd Imboden says:

    My company is building an open air pavilion next to a restaurant that will be rented out by the person renting the pavilion.
    There are no restrooms, running water, HVAC, or doors. There will be a sidewalk running from the restaurant to the pavilion. It will have electricity but nothing else.
    Can someone advise me what to watch out for?
    We are residential builder and no used to doing commercial work?

    Thank You
    Todd Imboden

  15. phillip odell says:

    I am currently providing an estimate for new appliances for new construction single family dwelling that is government funded. There are to be 7 of these houses at this time. Do these appliances have to be ADA

    • NAHB Now says:

      Based on the information you have provided, neither the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nor the Fair Housing Act (FHA) would apply to the appliances in your project.

  16. Mike Sanders says:

    do doorways in a certified 55+ community have to be 36″ wide?

  17. Larry says:

    We are currently renovating the Old First United Methodist Church building in Alvin, Texas to open a local Karpeles Manuscript Museum. We are in need of an ADA inspector. Could you recommend a couple of business.
    Thank you.

  18. Garrick says:

    If an ADA standard is referenced in a single family home for sale by a builder – for grab bars for example, would any other aspects of ADA be brought into play? Would there be any responsibility to apply additional ADA standards?

    • NAHB Now says:

      The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) does not apply to single family homes for sale. However, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) may apply to single-family homes, if certain conditions exist. To find out if the FHA applies and the requirements they may use NAHB’s free app, called the “Pocket Guide to Fair Housing Act Accessibility.” It is available on both the Apple Store and Google Play Store. You can learn more about the app here.

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