Every time Robert Criner sees his 94-year-old father, he gets a better understanding about the importance of aging in place contractors — and how big this growing market could become.

“As you see people around you having a need for aging in place retrofits, it makes it easier to accept,” said Criner, owner of Criner Remodeling who’s also a National Association of Home Builder’s Certified Aging in Place Specialist. “I’ve been in the business so long, my clients have aged as well, and it’s become obvious there’s a need for this.”

The Centers for Disease Control defines aging in place as "the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level." And the market for contractors who help homeowners accomplish this goal looks to be huge.

Homeowners aged 55 and over are expected to increased their home improvement spending from $90 billion in 2013 to $107 billion by 2018, according to the 2015 report, Aging in Place: Implications for Remodeling from Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies. Of the 25 million households age 65 and over today, nearly 45% have some need for home accessibility features, the JCHS report says.

Meanwhile, the nation’s housing stock is getting older too, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. The JCHS report notes that 40 percent of households age 65 and over with accessibility needs will not have new housing options to consider in those regions.

“The demand is there, the supply is not,” said Kermit Baker, JCHS Remodeling Studies program director. “The only way it can realistically be filled is through renovation, so it really does point to some potential growth in areas of the country that might not otherwise be seeing a lot of activity.”

But when it comes to this rapidly growing — and potentially lucrative — market, “contractors don’t have a clue,” said Criner, who’s also National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Chair. “It’s not all grab bars, wider doors and plumbing. It’s really about looking at the individual and seeing what weaknesses they have and how we can design around them.”

Criner says most aging in place work falls in the following categories:

  1. Mobility: This category includes a wide variety of retrofits. For example, people who require canes or walkers need entrances and hallways big enough to provide comfortable clearance. Those with ailing backs need appliances that are easier to reach.
  2. Vision: As vision fails, lighting becomes even more important. Also, contractors must supply visual cues to help myopic homeowners such as visual clues as to where steps are or countertop edges.
  3. Hearing: Background noise can make it difficult for those with hearing loss. Contractors can help with sound baffling and improvements such as triple-pane windows that cut traffic noise.

But other experts point out that aging in place work is more than just about retrofits or improvements. It really comes down to knowing how to talk to a different demographic. “If you haven’t had any formal training, you may not understand how to talk to a generation that’s separated from yours by one or two generations,” said Bill Owens, president of Owens Remodeling and principal of Better Living Design, a nonprofit.
Owens who has worked with AARP on a number of joint projects, says older adults may need additional accommodation, such as photos and videos to see what’s wrong with the roof, rather than climbing the ladder to look for themselves as younger customers might do. And he says many still prefer paper and pen rather than cell phones or computers, which they may not even own.

Like Criner, he says the best thing contractors can do to start capitalizing on this market is to get specialized training such as CAPS. The CAPS program also offers a list of manufacturers who specialize in aging in place products. Along with practical tips, these programs teach the nuances of working with a different population.

“Contractors sometimes think they have it all figured out and they don’t need any continuing education,” Owens said. “This is a way to augment your business and take it to the next level without having to learn through the school of hard knocks.”