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Accessibility Surveys and The Due Diligence Process

Accessibility Surveys can be a critical due diligence report because property owners ultimately bear liability for issues resulting from accessibility code violations.

An Accessibility Survey, also known as an Accessibility Review, is an evaluation of a property’s compliance with applicable federal, state, and local accessibility regulations. During an Accessibility Review, a qualified commercial building inspector evaluates the paths of travel throughout the exterior and interior portions of a property, as well as the design of parking spaces, ramps, stairs, signage, public spaces, restrooms, signage, guestrooms, residential dwelling units, and other special uses.

While Accessibility Surveys are often referred to as ADA Surveys, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is just one of many regulations involved. In addition to ADA compliance, the inspector may also check for compliance against the following:

  • Fair Housing Amendments Act
  • Architectural Barriers Act
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • State and Local Building Codes as they relate to Accessibility

Accessibility Surveys can be ordered at any time during the lifecycle of a property, but are most often required during a sale or finance transaction or before a building is modified or renovated. For real estate investors considering a property for acquisition, Accessibility Surveys can be a critical due diligence report because property owners ultimately bear liability for issues resulting from accessibility code violations.

In addition to current compliance status, if the acquisition is slated for adaptive re-use or renovation, the investor must consider accessibility requirements associated with future use, which may be different than currently applicable requirements. For example, would the size of the parking lot accommodate additional handicap parking spaces if required? Would existing building systems support additional ADA-compliant restrooms?

Because due diligence needs and objectives vary, there are varied levels of Accessibility Surveys. Generally, an Accessibility Survey is completed as an add-on item of a Property Condition Report, which examines the overall physical condition of a property. The Property Condition Report scope is defined by ASTM standard E2018 “Standard Guide for Property Condition Assessments: Baseline Property Condition Assessment Process.” This standard includes an appendix defining three levels of an accessibility investigation, as follows:

A Tier I Accessibility Survey is a visual assessment of:

  1. The path of travel, to identify physical barriers;
  2. Opining on the adequacy of the reported number of ADA-compliant parking spaces (no measurement or counting required);
  3. Determining if the public toilets appear to have been designed and constructed to provide accessibility features (stalls, low sinks with clearance, and strobe and horn fire alarm systems);
  4. Determining if the reported number of ADA-compliant guestrooms are present, and if they appear to have been designed and constructed to provide accessibility features;
  5. Identifying if the elevators have the following: call buttons with visual signals (pretty uncommon to see one that doesn’t); Braille and raised numbers on the interior controls; emergency controls at the bottom of the control panel; interior floor buttons that provide visual signals (again, pretty uncommon to see one that doesn’t); visual and auditory signals at each floor; doors with a reopening device; and an emergency two-way communication system that does not require voice communication.

 A Tier II Accessibility Survey is more comprehensive and includes additional observations to complete a checklist contained within the ASTM standard.  Completing the checklist requires basic measurements and counts of: parking spaces; ramp slopes, lengths, landings and handrails; doorway widths, spacing and operation; visual evaluation of the path of travel and property signage; elevator controls and signals; toilet rooms and fixtures; and accessible guestrooms.

A Tier III Accessibility Survey is the most comprehensive survey and involves measuring or counting each accessibility feature.

When establishing the scope of an Accessibility Survey, these three tiers of inspection apply whether or not the survey is conducted as part of a Property Condition Assessment. Also, while ASTM E2018 refers to ADA regulations, the three tiers of investigation are used to determine the scope of a survey regardless of applicable code.

The individual ordering the Accessibility Survey will select the tier that suits his needs. A lender performing due diligence on collateral property may be satisfied with the information presented by a Tier I or Tier II survey. Property investors, who will take on greater liability and bear the expense of renovations needed to make the property compliant, will often require the detail provided by a Tier III survey.