Popularity of home elevators gets a lift

Aden Enzer, 5, right, and her little sister Bennett, 2, use their elevator at home in Los Angeles. Families juggling children, pets and groceries are among those who are adding home elevators.
Aden Enzer, 5, right, and her little sister Bennett, 2, use their elevator at home in Los Angeles. Families juggling children, pets and groceries are among those who are adding home elevators.

Actress Jane Fonda bought a home in Beverly Hills, Calif., last year with a feature that might seem counterintuitive for a fitness guru: an elevator.

The Los Angeles house that pop icon Michael Jackson leased has one within its 17,200 square feet of living space. So does the nearby 56,500-square-foot mansion that heiress Petra Ecclestone bought from socialite Candy Spelling two years ago for $85 million.

But home elevators aren’t just for the super-rich anymore. Baby boomers looking to age in place are installing them to ease the burden of bad knees and growing girth. So are families juggling children, pets, and groceries. Builders say lifts increasingly are showing up in house renovations, custom homes, and high-end spec properties.

McKinley Elevator Corp., an installer of home elevators, has opened an Irvine, Calif., showroom “to meet the explosion in demand,” said Mike Burke, vice president of sales. So far this year, he said, they’ve seen a huge, architect-driven push for home elevators.

Like other companies, privately owned McKinley wouldn’t divulge sales figures. And there is no central repository of home elevator stats nationwide. Still, a recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders said that 25 percent of homeowners listed elevators as a desirable or essential feature, compared with just 8 percent in 2001.

Glass elevators are in vogue in contemporary houses, while mahogany-paneled designs are popular in traditional-style homes, said Gary Drake, chief executive of Drake Construction in Los Angeles. He has seen all sorts of customized models during his 30 years in construction.

He once installed an elevator behind a den bookshelf. “It was totally hidden from view,” Mr. Drake said, “and above it was a working bell tower.”

Home elevators and their uses are as varied as the families that have them.

For Los Angeles resident Jennifer Katz, the home elevator gets a workout hauling strollers and small children.

Two years ago, her mother bought a Spanish Revival duplex and transformed it into a multigenerational family home by connecting the levels with an elevator.

Ms. Katz, an editor at Fox News, likes the security of having her 5-year-old daughter visit their grandmother within the safety of their home.

“I can just send her down by herself,” Ms. Katz said.

Jane Angelich had a custom home built in Tiburon, Calif., a decade ago with an elevator in it. The contemporary house was designed with the front door and foyer at garage level and the main living areas up a circular staircase.

“I wanted to anticipate what would we do if we couldn’t climb the stairs someday,” said Ms. Angelich, who was 50 at the time. “But it was also cool.”

Soon after moving in, Ms. Angelich discovered uses for the elevator besides carrying groceries from the garage to the kitchen. It proved handy for hauling the Christmas tree and for entertaining.

But perhaps the most unexpected use for the elevator surfaced when she and her husband, Mark, became a breeder family for Guide Dogs for the Blind. They had no experience with pregnant dogs and had not anticipated how a pregnancy would affect a dog’s ability to climb stairs.

“That elevator was just like a godsend,” said Ms. Angelich, chief executive of Supercollar, which invented and markets a dog collar with a built-in retractable leash. “You would find her sitting in front of the door waiting for her ride.”

The floor plan of the Angelich residence is common in Los Angeles’ hilly neighborhoods, where designs place living areas on top to take in the views.

The average cost for a basic two-stop home elevator in a new home is $21,000 to $25,000, experts say. Three stops run from $28,000 to $30,000, and costs increase for customized “cabs,” as the residential cars are called.

Adding an elevator within an existing home can easily double the expense. In addition to a spot for a shaft and the equipment, the elevator will need electricity and a phone line. Some cities require permits and an equipment closet; others do not.

A standard-size elevator is 12 to 15 square feet, and a mid-size is 15 to 18 square feet. Some luxury homes will have even larger commercial elevators or more than one lift.

With so many variables, costs can range from $25,000 to $125,000 or more to add an elevator to an existing house.

Hoping to tap into the growing demand for design-oriented elevators, Elevator Boutique of Australia opened a showroom this year in West Hollywood, Calif.

In today’s double- or triple-height foyers, for example, the right elevator can provide a “wow” factor, said Les Katz, chief executive of the company’s U.S. operations. And stylish designs may help overcome consumer resistance.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea an elevator in the home — chief among them, those prone to claustrophobia.

“Face it: It’s a prison,” Ms. Katz said. “A small, secure box.”

Such fears are being addressed by the increased use of glass.

“You can see out,” Ms. Katz said. “It’s like being in a small room with windows.”

Safety concerns during power outages are also a part of consumer opposition to home elevators.

If an elevator should stop, manual lowering options and backup batteries can be used. But the riders would need to be familiar with those options for them to do any good.

Real estate agent Craig Knizek was in a newly built 8,000-square-foot house in Westlake Village, Calif., when the listing agent took his clients ahead on a house tour. After 10 minutes or so, Mr. Knizek began to wonder where they were.

The clients, who were specifically looking for a home with an elevator, were stuck in the cab, which stopped about four feet short of the landing. Because no one knew how to operate the safety features, Mr. Knizek called the fire department, which freed the passengers.

Despite being in the elevator for close to an hour, “they were in great spirits,” Mr. Knizek said, “and still wanted to see the rest of the property.”