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Dear James: My husband and I are in our 50s. We want to build a house which we can stay in as we age. I remember how difficult it was for my mother to leave her house. Is universal design the answer for us? -- Sara B.

Dear Sara: Leaving your home, where you have lived in for many years, can be very difficult and emotionally painful. You can generally find someone to do the landscaping and cleaning. The reason most elderly people have to leave their homes is accessibility and mobility throughout the house.

Typical problem areas include stairs between floors -- and even just a step or two from one room to another. Another common problem is reaching cabinets above a kitchen countertop. As you age, you shrink and lose the ability to stretch. A standard bathtub or even a shower stall with a raised edge can be difficult to enter or impossible if you are in a wheelchair.

Universal design likely is the answer for your new home. Although elderly people are commonly thought of as the ones who have problems in traditional homes, universal design considers everyone -- adults, the handicapped, children, etc. For example, a child often cannot access items in tall cabinets. A step at the edge of a shower can make anyone stumble when he or she is less steady immediately after waking in the morning.

Even if you do not end up staying in your home as you are planning, having a universal design makes you house attractive to a larger group of potential buyers. Older couples are often the best buyers because they have some savings and find it easier to get financing or may just pay cash outright. With proper initial design, the cost of building a universal home will not be significantly higher.

The bathroom is a key area for universal design. At least one of the bathrooms should have a shower stall with no step to enter it. This bathroom should also be large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Install adequate grab bars throughout the bathroom. Don't worry that it will look like a hospital. There are many fashionable grab bars now made with attractive decorative finishes.

The kitchen is another area which should get particular universal design consideration. Standard-height countertops can be difficult to work on for someone who has reduced mobility or is in a wheelchair. To make your new home universal, consider installing countertops at two different heights with a sink in each one.

Locating the cooktop and oven in a kitchen island can increase their accessibility. Strong concrete countertops can be used with decorative wooden edge trim. The trim can be heavy and designed to also function as a grab bar. Also, consider the types of handles on the drawers so someone with severe arthritis can still open them.

Homes are typically designed with a window over the sink and cabinets high over the countertops. A universal design would be lower cabinets above and behind the sink with the windows above reaching to the ceiling. The same is true for cabinets above the rest of the countertops.

In a two-story home, also consider providing space for an elevator. It is a small units about the size of an average closet. Until you need an elevator installed, this area on both floors can be used as closets for storage.

Send your questions to Here's How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com.

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