The private real estate group, Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO), is fronting a movement to require uniform inclusion of accessibility features in all multiple listing services (MLSs) across the nation.

RESO develops voluntary data standards for the real industry, often adopted by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). In the latest round of implementations, NAR voted to require all MLSs to adopt various RESO data standards by 2016. RESO is further advocating all MLSs provide a searchable field in property listings which display these accessibility features.

The push for a more disability-friendly MLS comes in response to the realities of the population and a demand in the market. Nearly 20% of the U.S. population has some type of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Further, in 2010, about 30.6 million people had physical disabilities that made walking or climbing stairs difficult, or required them to use a wheelchair, cane or other form of mobility aid.

A designated field for accessibility features is not currently standard for all MLSs, and is implemented dissimilarly in those that do provide it. Sales agents are able to search for standard specifications homebuyers always inquire about, such as the number of rooms in a home or its total square footage, but are unable to narrow their search to homes that feature wide hallways for wheelchair accessibility or bathrooms with grab bars. Thus, searching for suitable homes for buyers with disabilities in the current MLS environment is a tricky task.

Incorporating accessibility features

The South Central Wisconsin MLS was the first to offer searchable accessibility terms in 1991, allowing agents to search for up to 15 accessibility features on a property. Other MLSs have since followed suit by adding similar search capabilities, including many California MLSs.

For those MLSs which do not currently provide these search parameters, agents use the notes section to discuss a property’s accessibility features. However, this is not an ideal solution to the problem as notes are not generally programmed as searchable features and do not allow use of MLS search filters.

Once accessibility features become standardized as proposed by the RESO, the MLS layout is likely to include an additional data field that allows a seller’s agent listing a property to check off applicable accessibility features – much like the South Central Wisconsin MLS. A buyer’s agent is then able to filter search results by one or more accessibility features indicated by the seller’s agent.

Expect future MLSs to include accessibility features like:

  • extra-wide hallways and doorways to accommodate wheelchairs;
  • first-floor master bedrooms and bathrooms;
  • entry thresholds that are level with the sidewalk or entry ramps;
  • grab bars in bathrooms;
  • lever doorknobs and faucets;
  • low-profile carpeting;
  • roll-in showers; and
  • lowered countertops, cabinets and light switches.

Standard listed features may also include the accessibility of the surrounding neighborhood and community. For example, agents seeking accessible housing for a homebuyer may be able to filter a property by its proximity to public transportation or level topography.

Expanding your practice

The recent attention to MLS accessibility features highlights the need to better accommodate a wider homebuyer population. Though buyers and renters with disabilities are protected by fair housing laws, agents do not have a standard method for finding accessibility features required to meet these housing needs. The MLS’s current lack of standard accessibility search options does nothing to improve the process.

Further, as the retiree population grows, so too will the population of those with unique real estate demands and a need for accessibility features. California’s 65+ population was at 13% in 2013 and continues to rise as Baby Boomers age and retire. With some of the highest rates of homeownership based on age, these retirees will continue to own homes but are expected to downsize to lower-priced replacement homes — likely resulting in a growing number of searches for properties with accessibility features.

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Thus, these potential MLS revisions will not only broaden the real estate industry’s efficiency and availability to buyers with disabilities, but will also help prepare agents for accessible house-hunting to meet the inevitable and constant demand for it in the market.