The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 & Real Estate

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is broad in scope and touches many types of real estate. In this lesson, you'll learn how the Americans with Disability Act applies to various types of commercial properties.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Defined

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990. In a nutshell, the Act tries to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against and have an equal opportunity regarding access to employment, government services, places of public accommodation, and commercial facilities. As you can see, the ADA is pretty broad in scope, but we'll just be focusing on its application to real estate in this lesson.

Public Accommodations & Commercial Facilities

Karl has a dream that he is making reality. He is constructing a quaint country inn in a mountain resort town in Colorado. In constructing his inn, Karl needs to make sure he is complying with the ADA because it prohibits discrimination in public accommodations. For purposes of the ADA, you can think of a public accommodation as most businesses that provide goods or services directly to the public on the premises. Examples include restaurants, bars, places of lodging (like an inn), doctor offices, hospitals, retail stores, libraries, museums, movie theaters, schools, and health clubs. The ADA does exempt private clubs and religious organizations from its requirements.

Karl has ordered custom cabinetry for his bed and breakfast from Lucy, who owns a custom cabinetry business. Lucy's custom cabinetry factory is also subject to the ADA because her factory is a commercial facility. You can think of a commercial facility as privately owned property that is not used as a residence and does not fall under the definition of a public accommodation. Examples include factories, warehouses, and office buildings.

You may be asking yourself: what about just plain old residential housing? The ADA doesn't generally apply to residential housing. However, housing provided by a public entity, such as housing on a state college or university campus or housing provided by a public housing authority, will have to comply with the ADA. Common areas of housing developments will also have to comply, such as a leasing office. Also, keep in mind that other fair housing laws may prohibit discrimination in residential housing based upon a disability, such as the Fair Housing Act, as amended.


The ADA and its regulations impose certain architectural standards on places of public accommodation and commercial facilities. Further, ADA regulations have imposed accessibility standards on the construction of buildings that will be used as a place of public accommodation. For example, Karl's inn should utilize ramps if people need to climb stairs. Elevators may be required depending upon the nature of the business, the number of stories, and the size of the building. The parking lot should have parking spots for the disabled. Likewise, the lobby, hallways, doorways, and bathrooms should be designed to accommodate wheelchairs.

You should note that a place of public accommodation might also be required to make alterations to buildings that were constructed before the ADA was even enacted. Generally, the ADA will require places of public accommodation to remove architectural barriers to accessibility in existing buildings if removal is 'readily achievable.' This pretty much means that the removal is easy to do without much financial cost. What is readily achievable depends upon the size and resources of the business in question. What is readily achievable for a national restaurant chain may not be for a mom and pop bistro barely turning a profit. Adding a ramp to access a raised doorway or removing or rearranging display fixtures in a retail store to allow wheelchair access is probably readily achievable for most businesses.

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