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Real estate agents adapt to needs of clients with disabilities seeking the right home

Pierre Jazraoui felt more than discouraged. He had visited almost 120 homes in four months, sometimes viewing six properties in a day with Jack Dagher, his real estate agent.

Jazraoui told Dagher he was losing hope of finding a place in a nice area with good schools that would allow him to put money aside for the modifications he knew he would have to make to accommodate his physical disability.

Dagher, who works for Keller Williams in Calabasas, remained steadfast, saying to his client, who has lived with a prosthetic leg for 30 years, "Don't worry about the $450,000 budget, Pierre. Pick the house and the floor plan that you like, and my negotiations will take care of the rest."

Finding the right home for a client with a disability requires planning, research, time, diplomacy and a little extra heart. But a growing class of real estate agents are becoming experts in the search.

Gina M. Labellarti, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Dynasty in Temple City, says annual requests from disabled clients — and not just aging boomers, she notes — have increased about 20% since 2010.

"It can be overwhelming for people with disabilities to think about moving," says Labellarti, who has worked with numerous physically challenged and elderly clients over the last 15 years. "A lot of people don't have anyone to help them or know what options are out there, so I have become sort of the specialist. I just fell into it."

With the exception of common-use areas at housing developments and rental office spaces, in most cases, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 does not apply to residential housing.

Labellarti says the real estate industry needs to be more focused on access and have broader search definitions (beyond "wheelchair access" or "ADA") and listing options to help identify properties with unique features that can meet the varied needs of people with disabilities. Two of her clients, Arcadia residents Eleanor and Vincent Di Fronzo, have 10 adopted children with disabilities and they are in the market for a larger home that can accommodate a number of needs.

"Six of them are here at home," says Eleanor Di Fronzo. "We go one day at a time."

As she shops for a larger home, Eleanor Di Fronzo considers whether an ambulance can easily negotiate the street and if a wheelchair can get through the doorways. "When [real estate agents] are not educated in the needs of clients with disabilities, it can be really frustrating," she adds.

"Our society is changing," Eleanor Di Fronzo says. "You have head-trauma injuries from accidents and people coming home from war who have been injured. You have people taking care of elderly parents. Homes need to be equipped for them or have the capability of being equipped with minimal costs."

Bill Rubenacker, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties in Long Beach, has worked with five disabled clients in the last two years. "Many people think that everybody with an ADA challenge is in a wheelchair," he says. "But there are a number of disabilities. You become more of an advocate for that person."

Rubenacker says the time he spends working with clients and families with special needs has some unique rewards.

"I have learned that you don't feel sorry for people. There is something in being broken down that builds you up."

Dagher says that his experiences have had a lasting effect on the way he does business. "Working with a disabled client has made me more thorough as an agent. You have to think about the little things when you are working with a disabled client. You want to make it easier for them."

Although he never asked about the history of Jazraoui's disability, Dagher noticed when his client tired during viewings. He tried to offer support or a tactful exit if necessary, and he learned to plan routes in advance. He asked listing agents for details about access and home features in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act (no-step entryways, temporary or permanent ramps, single-level living, widened door frames and hallways).

The information he received was often lacking — the agent and his client still encountered steep driveways, mountains of steps and buildings with no elevators. Dagher says the two men bonded during the search. Jazraoui says he came to rely on his real estate agent, often stretching his arm across the back of Dagher's 5-foot, 10-inch frame, leaning on him for support.

After a five-month search, they found a home they believed would work: a 1,500-square-foot Glendora town home.

Dagher was able to negotiate a price, from $425,000 to $387,000, leaving financial breathing room for Jazraoui to put a walk-in shower in the master bathroom.

"I can't forget those moments with him giving me a hand when getting into or out of his car or taking care and watching my steps when walking into a house," Jazraoui says.

Dagher feels changed by the experience as well. "I would say that if you have the opportunity to help change a family's life, you want to be selfless and thoughtful.... It's amazing when the family welcomes you in. It's priceless."

home@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 23, 2016, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Agents adapt to buyers' special needs" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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