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Purchasing Commercial Real Estate that Is Not ADA Compliant


Many people have questions regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while constructing commercial buildings. There’s a range of misconceptions and myths that can lead to confusion.

During the process of building a new facility, ADA compliance typically isn’t an issue because the people involved in the project know the accessibility features they must include. However, older buildings constructed before ADA regulations were enacted contain various violations.

Existing buildings that aren’t ADA compliant must make upgrades. However, there tend to be some uncertainties about who’s responsible for making the necessary changes. With commercial properties, the landlord and/or tenant becomes responsible and must take steps to make the building accessible.

What Is the ADA? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a law that was passed in 1990. It prohibits discrimination against anyone with a disability, including individuals with impaired mobility, eyesight, and hearing. The law applies to multiple areas, including:

  • Public accommodations
  • Employment
  • Communications
  • Transportation
  • Access to local and state government services and programs

All commercial properties must meet the most recent ADA Standards for Accessible Design requirements. The accessibility features included in these regulations are:

  • Ramps – Ramps must have up to a 1:12 running slope. However, ramps in existing structures can be steeper than 1:12 if there’s limited space.
  • Doorways – All doorway openings should consist of a clear width between 32 inches and 48 inches.
  • Handrails – Both sides of ramps and stairs should have handrails continuing along the entire length of the ramp run or stair flight.
  • Drinking fountains – Any drinking fountain in a commercial facility must have spout outlets at a maximum of 36 inches above the ground. The spout should also be no more than 5 inches from the front of the unit and at least 15 inches from the vertical support.
  • Bathrooms – There must be clear floor spaces and accessible stalls in bathrooms. Each space must be at least 30 inches by 48 inches clear so that a person in a wheelchair can rotate easily.
  • Signage – Signs should have a non-glare, matte finish with a contrast of approximately 70 percent between touchable lettering and the background. Braille is also a requirement for displays identifying permanent spaces.

Who Does the ADA Cover? 

The ADA applies to a protected group of people with disabilities in public accommodations. Accommodations can include:

  • Doctor’s offices
  • Restaurants
  • Movie theaters
  • Retail stores
  • Hotels

Existing facilities must not exclude disabled individuals as long as the owner does not suffer undue hardship in making the facilities accessible. That means modifications are necessary for existing facilities and newly constructed buildings for easier access by the protected group. 

Who Is Responsible for Making ADA-Required Changes?

The tenant or landlord are the only people responsible for making changes required by the ADA. Specific circumstances determine which party must update the commercial property for ADA compliance.

Tenant Responsibility

Although the owner and tenant could share responsibility for some aspects of compliance, the tenant is solely responsible in other situations. The tenant is responsible for ADA compliance regarding operational issues inside their space.

However, any physical upgrades required under the Standards for Accessible Design are the tenant and owner’s shared responsibility. For example, installing ramps in an existing building would be the owner and tenant’s responsibility, while only the tenant would be responsible for ADA-compliant signage. 

Owner Responsibility

Building owners must provide access to everyone visiting their properties. That means they must ensure features exist within the structure and along the route to the building so anyone can access different areas.

Improvements made to commercial property that is not within ADA regulations are the owner’s responsibility. However, any easily accomplished removal of barriers to accessibility could be considered the tenant’s responsibility during standard operations.

The owner is solely responsible for upgrades and construction of parking areas, entryways, and parts of the building not leased by tenants but open to the public. These locations could include lobbies, hallways, and common areas.

If a dispute arises between the owner and tenant regarding ADA compliance, the Department of Justice can decide who is responsible for the necessary upgrades. 

How We Can Help 

At Wagner Zemming Christensen, LLP, our team of dedicated California commercial real estate lawyers has represented our clients in various real estate matters since 2004. We know how to handle issues that arise during the construction and modification phases of commercial property development.

If you face ADA compliance issues in a commercial building in Riverside, CA, call us at 951-686-4800 for a confidential consultation.

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