Home Elevators – Saving Money and Effort

When one of the Architects at my firm suggests to a client that an elevator might be the answer to some of the issues in their new home design, the reaction is often predictable: “An elevator? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? Aren’t they really expensive? Who puts an elevator in their house anymore?”

Residential elevators are found in more homes than you might think – and not always as an extravagance, but often as a practical and cost-saving design feature.

We’d Live Here Forever, But…

As American homeowners age, they’re becoming concerned about their ability to remain in their homes. They’d like to stay well into the golden years, but most family homes have all of the bedrooms on the second floor, including the owner’s suite. With sixteen or more steps between the first and second floors, the stair can quickly become a difficult (and often dangerous) obstacle for older homeowners. It’s a major reason why empty-nesters move to one-level homes.

But while a one-level home design is more easily adapted to a changing family structure, a one-level home is more expensive to build. It can have nearly twice the foundation and roof area of a comparable two-story home without any additional space, adding greatly to the cost of the house. And so most families build a two-story when they’re young, and move to a one-level home later in life.

It’s cheaper to build a two-story house, but is the difference between a two-story and a one-level enough to offset the cost of an elevator? The answer is often a resounding yes, and with money to spare. If the cost of a one-level home is a 25% premium over a two-story, then an elevator can be a money-saving consideration in even a relatively inexpensive home.

Design And Lifestyle Considerations

What do you do when a family is still young, wants to live in the house forever, but can’t justify the cost of installing an elevator they may not need for many years? A solution we like is to install the elevator shaft – without the elevator – and use the space for temporary closets.

As it happens, the area required on each floor for the elevator shaft is about the size of a walk-in closet…so that’s what we do – put a temporary floor at each level and use the spaces as closets until they’re needed for the elevator. Installing the elevator years later is a simple matter of removing the floors and installing the cab, doors, controls, and related equipment.

A second stair is frequently added to a design when a house becomes so large that a single stair is too remote to effectively serve the entire second floor. That second stair takes up a lot of space, however, and can be difficult to work into the plan.

But an elevator takes up much less space than a stair and can be much more easily worked into just the right spot in a house design. It can also be “hidden” in the plan – visitors are unaware that there’s an elevator in the house.


Elevators are operated either by a hydraulic piston or a cable-and-pulley and electric motor. Most residential elevators are the cable type and are quiet, safe, easy to operate, and relatively quick. There’s no “machine room” as with commercial elevators – all the equipment is contained within the elevator shaft.

The interior of the elevator cab can be finished to match the rest of the house including the flooring and trim, and the door is indistinguishable from the others in the house. With the door closed, the only clue that there’s an elevator in the house is the call button next to the door.

A typical residential elevator cab is about 4′ by 5′, large enough for two adults and two children, or an adult in a wheelchair and a caregiver. It will also hold boxes of holiday decorations, furniture, groceries…

A Luxury That Saves Money

A typical residential elevator adds $20,000 to $25,000 to the cost of a house. But since an elevator can allow you to build more efficiently, it can actually save money.

You’ll save the cost of moving, and of building a new home at future prices. You may recover the cost of the elevator – and then some – at resale. And if the elevator becomes a medical necessity, you may be able to take advantage of tax benefits.

It’s a small part of a house, only about two percent of the area of a 3,000 square foot house and just one percent of a 6,000 square foot luxury home. At current custom home costs that’s less than four percent of construction costs.

But most important is the benefit of staying in the home where you raised your family; the home you’ve grown to love; the home with the memories. Is an elevator a luxury? Perhaps, but maybe one you can’t afford to pass up.