A rising trend: Home elevators

Special to The Log

An elevator in a personal home has been viewed as a luxury for years. However, more buyers — ranging from families with young children to those with temporary or permanent disabilities — now want a platform that can move people and things from one level of a home to another.

Historically, only the rich could afford elevators. While commercial versions date back to the 1850s to 1860s, private residential elevators only came into vogue with high-ceilinged three-story homes, according to Stuart Cohen, architect and coauthor of Great Houses of Chicago, 1871–1921 (Acanthus Press, 2008).

“First-floor ceiling heights were frequently between 12 and 20 feet, making ascent by stair to the second floor daunting,” says Cohen. “For urban houses such as the Frick Mansion in New York City or the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., the largest house in the United States at the time, elevators were a must.”

These private home elevators were practical. Wholesale grocery tycoon Franklin McVeigh had an elevator installed in 1887 at his family’s Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive mansion that whisked guests directly to a third-floor ballroom. Novelist Edith Wharton’s water pressure–powered elevator at her Lenox, Mass., house brought guests' luggage up to the third floor.

The popularity of personal home elevators and three-story homes declined after the stock market crash of 1929 and the advent of ground-floor master bedrooms. Home elevators have become popular again with universal design, which is a method of constructing living spaces that are safer, easier, and more convenient for everyone.

Generally speaking, there are three different elevator types.

Hydraulic: This system takes up a lot of space and requires a machine room to hold the mechanics of the lift. This elevator is easier to install in a new home, where it can be part of a plan, rather than in a retrofit.

Traction: Also called an MRL (machine room-less) elevator. As the name implies, it does not require a separate machine room. This elevator slides up and down a track with a counterweight. However, it does require space on top of the shaft to house the machinery.

Pneumatic: A polycarbonate tube with a separate internal tube uses air pressure to move the car up and down; it’s similar to tubes used for check deposits at banks. Outer tube diameters range from 30 inches to 52 inches. The tube can be installed without a shaft or a machinery room, making it ideal for a retrofit. At the very least, the home will require an opening that’s slightly wider than the tubes to get them inside, though home owners can gain some maneuvering room by temporarily removing the tube door.

Standard hydraulic and traction lifts are substantially more expensive than their pneumatic counterparts, which cost $23,000 to $57,000 including installation. But these conventional lifts remain popular because the pneumatic variety is newer and remains less well-known.

The cost of a standard elevator will depend on whether you are including it in new construction plans or if you are retrofitting an existing space. The latter could be half the cost of the whole bill for retrofitting an existing home for mobility concerns, according to Mike Fearn, owner of Mike Knows Construction in Biloxi, Miss. Adding an elevator to an existing home means the home owner will have either to use existing square footage or to build a shaft on the home’s exterior. Home owners will need to request special permission to add an exterior elevator shaft to an existing home in an historic district if the shaft can be seen from the street. If home owners are building or remodeling their home and would eventually like an elevator someday, they may consider constructing the shaft now (perhaps in the form of a set of closets, one on top of the other) to save time and money later.

Setting aside labor costs, the actual elevator can run $17,500 to $35,000 or more, which includes the expenses of moving electrical wires, outlets, HVAC, plumbing, as well as building the steel framework, installing wall panels and applying finishes. For buyers looking at an existing home with an elevator, an inspector from the company that manufactured the elevator may be available to service the device.

Real estate professionals should market homes with elevators as a convenience for all ages and mobility levels, says F. Ron Smith, founding partner with Partners Trust in Los Angeles, who’s selling two three-story properties with elevators.

“Families, couples, and singles alike use elevators for the Costco runs, flats of water bottles, cases of champagne,” he says. "Elevators are also handy for “caterers for parties to get food up and down, when you sprain your knee skiing, or from just getting out of the car, and when you just don't want the stairs.”

Elevators can be an asset for your listings, if shown in the right light. And while adding an elevator to an existing home or incorporating it in new construction isn’t cheap, it will add value and allow buyers to maximize the use of their home for years to come.

This article was contributed to The Log by the National Association of Realtors.