Rear entry vs. side entry. Buying online. Buying used. What do you need to know to get maximum benefit for minimum expense?
Good information is the key to saving money and getting the most value for the dollar when making a big-ticket purchase like a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
With that in mind, Seek out and find experts who truly care for answers to some common questions about adaptive mobility equipment.
Q: Can I just go to a car dealer down the street or do I need a certified mobility dealer?
A: Certified mobility dealers help consumers buy the right vehicle and adaptive mobility equipment to meet their mobility needs now and in the future. Future planning is especially important for people with muscle diseases that get progressively worse over time.
“There are so many different products out there, and technology has improved so much. We just want to help people make the right decision,” says Jim Sanders, president of Automotive Innovations based in Bridgewater, MA for over 25 years.
“Many times, consumers will go to a car dealer and buy [a vehicle] that can’t be modified or one that doesn’t fit their needs. And once you buy a vehicle, normally it’s very difficult to return it.”
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), a nonprofit organization that provides consumer guidance and ensures quality and professionalism in the manufacturing and installation of mobility equipment. Members include mobility equipment dealers, manufacturers, driver rehabilitation specialists and other professionals.
NMEDA member-dealers must follow the safety standards established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in addition to NMEDA’s own stringent guidelines.
Some dealers choose to enroll in NMEDA’s Quality Assurance Program (QAP), which requires them to adhere to national motor vehicle safety standards, and use proven quality control practices to yield the highest level of performance and safety. Automotive Innovations was the First Mobility Dealer in Massachusetts to enroll and exceed the safety standards.
“The QAP dealer is audited by an outside engineering firm to verify that technicians have been trained, make sure the dealer has insurance and make sure the facility is ADA-compliant,”
So it means the QAP dealer is going above and beyond.”
Other reasons to seek out a certified mobility equipment dealer include:
They provide a link to qualified service and repair, that it’s crucial to have done on a adapted vehicle serviced.
Some manufacturers of adapted vehicles sell directly to consumers, cutting costs by cutting out the middle man, says Jim Sanders, of VMi New England, based in Bridgewater, MA.
But expert assessment and “try before you buy” remain essentials for prospective buyers, with or without a dealer in the middle.
For example, We, a NMEDA QAP-certified member, send representatives to customers’ homes for assessment and test drives before they buy, and also offer unmatched service/maintenance to just about any modified vehicle including Rollx vans.
Q: Can I get a better price if I buy online rather than from a dealer?
A: As with any online shopping, the warning “buyer beware” rings true. Buying online without trying out different vehicles with different conversions can be a costly mistake. Furthermore there are many grey market converted vans being offered as quality conversions.
Online, clients are mostly shopping blind. Typically they have no idea how the vehicle they need will even work fro them, even if they have specific recommendations from a driver evaluator or occupational therapist.
“You definitely shouldn’t buy it online,” “There not trying to assess your needs by e-mail or over the phone. There just trying to sell you something.
Some online dealers even have a questionnaire on its Web site to try and give you the idea your getting what you need. But, it will never replace being able to go to a local mobility dealership and try the vans out first hand.
A mobility vehicle is probably the second-largest purchase after a house. You should see it, try it out, and make sure it’s something that will work for you. It’s horrible when people get something that they’re disappointed in.
Every vehicle is a little bit different — such as in the dimensions, electrical and fuel systems, or suspension modifications. “If you go online and buy [based] on price, you’re not really looking at the total package.”
While buying online maybe able to save money up front, it wont over the long term.
In addition to consumers missing out on the important local service contact that a mobility equipment dealer provides, these online deals or grey market vans are worth much less when it comes time to trade it in.
Where do you want to sit? If you plan to drive from your wheelchair, then a side-entry conversion is what you’ll need, unless you can transfer to the driver’s seat (rear entry). With a rear-entry conversion, the wheelchair user typically is positioned in the back or between two mid-row captain’s seats, while a side entry offers a wheelchair user multiple seating options in the driver, front passenger and middle sections.
Q: What are some common mistakes people make when buying a modified vehicle?
A: Manufacturers and mobility dealers agree that one of the most common — and costly — mistakes is buying the vehicle first and then shopping for the conversion or adaptive mobility equipment. Not all vehicles can be converted.
For example, If you purchase a minivan from a traditional car dealership you can hit a roadblock if it doesn’t meet specific requirements to have the floor lowered for a rear- or side-entry conversion.
Q: What are some good questions to ask a dealer or manufacturer?
A: Although buying a modified vehicle can be “a daunting experience,” says VMI’s Monique McGivney, it also can be “exciting and fun when you walk in armed with good questions and information.”
Prior to getting an assessment from a mobility dealer, evaluate your needs and try answering the following questions:
- What vehicle will fit in my garage?
- What kind of parking issues will I encounter where I live?
- What is the size and weight of my wheelchair?
- What is my seated height in the wheelchair?
- How many people will ride in the vehicle?
- In what part of the vehicle do I want to sit?
- Will I be able to drive with hand controls?
- Do I want a full-size van, minivan or alternative vehicle?
- Do I want manual or power equipment?
- Will an in-floor ramp or fold-out ramp meet my needs?
- What is my budget, and do I have access to supplemental funding?
The first question mobility dealers usually ask a client is: “What is your seated height in the wheelchair?” From there, the dealer can advise whether a full-size or minivan is appropriate, and what kind of conversion is needed.
Be sure to ask the dealer about the warranty and how the vehicle can be serviced.
A: The most important difference between a rear- and side-entry conversion is that with a rear entry, wheelchair users can’t drive from their wheelchairs nor can they ride in the front passenger seat. From there, the choice comes down to personal preference and budget.
In recent years, because of quality, convenience and cost, there’s been a shift toward side entry vehicles. Rear entry is more of a frugal modification, involves a less of conversion process and is typically a little less expensive than a side-entry conversion.
Many people prefer side entry with a in-floor conversion for many safety reasons additionally because they can park almost anywhere and not worry deploying the ramp out into traffic. Also, side entry allows the consumer to ride in the passengers front position along with maintain the rear seats in a minivan because the conversion doesn’t affect that area.
Rear entry is harder to get out of compared to a side-entry.
Anyway you look at it side-entry vehicles are more versatile. For example, side entry allows someone with a progressively worsening condition to use the vehicle for a longer period of time. A wheelchair user can start out driving from his or her chair, and then move to several other positions in the vehicle when no longer able to drive.
Side-entry conversions typically are a little more expensive than rear-entry because they’re more intrusive and labor intensive. For example, with a minivan, the entire floor and frame must be removed and replaced with a lowered floor and new frame.
Q: What’s the difference between a fold-out ramp and in-floor ramp?
A: This decision comes down to safety, aesthetics, convenience and cost.
A fold-out ramp folds up into the vehicle, takes up valuable space in the passengers front area and must be deployed whenever the door is opened.
The in-floor ramp slides under the floor, so it safer for anyone seated in the passengers front position, mid-ship position, there’s no obstruction to the door, and other passengers can enter and exit without deploying the ramp. In-floor ramps only are currently only available for side-entry minivan conversions, and there is even a manual (unpowered) option.
In-floor ramps in addition to being safer will generally provide more room in the vehicle because there’s nothing blocking the doorway. The ramp is “out of sight, out of mind and may last longer because it doesn’t have to be deployed each time the side passenger door opens.
Fold-out ramps generally cost a little less than in-floor, and consumers can select from manual and power versions; a power fold-out ramp still costs less than an in-floor ramp.
If an in-floor ramp system breaks down or the vehicle loses power, VMI’s in-floor ramp systems have a backup system (sure-deploy) that bypasses the vehicle’s battery.
A lot of people just feel more secure knowing there isn’t a fold-out ramp next to them in the event of a accident.
Q: I use a wheelchair, but a van or minivan just isn’t “me.” Are they my only options?
A: You have some choices.
Lowered-floor conversions with fold-out ramps can be done on the Honda Element, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Toyota Scion. The conversions are small and don’t fit as many people.
Due to them being built on a much smaller scale, the ones we have seen have not been built with the same level of quality of mini van conversion. Parts availability and repairs have been a problem, some of the companies that converted them are out of business and or have no support for “something they used to build”
For those who prefer to keep their standard car rather than purchasing a modified vehicle — and who can make the transfer from a wheelchair to a car seat — the answer may be as simple as a set of hand controls or a left foot gas pedal
Turning seats can be used in a wide range of vehicles, from sedans to SUVs and pickup trucks. A way to transport the wheelchair (like a rear lift) also is needed.
The rate at which your disease symptoms are worsening is one thing to consider when looking at turning seats — is it likely you’ll be able to transfer and ride in a car seat for many more years? Also, be sure to check with a mobility dealer to determine if your vehicle can accommodate a turning seat and a wheelchair lift.
Q: Why are modified vehicles so darned expensive?
A: A vehicle conversion can cost consumers upwards of $27,000 — and that’s just the cost for the conversion, not the vehicle. The total package can run between $45,000 and $80,000 — or more.
Besides the cost of the components, the reason it’s so pricey is that basically there is a lot of work involved to build a quality vehicle.
Modified vehicles from certified manufacturers and dealers must meet NHTSA’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). That means all modified vehicles must be properly crash tested. (To learn more, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.)
It’s quite a labor-intensive process because of the customization. When you make structural modifications to a vehicle, you have to go through all of the crash testing, and you have to show that the vehicle is compliant again, and those tests are very expensive.
Most of the time lowering the floor in a minivan requires replacing or moving the fuel tank. Once the conversion is finished, the vehicle still has to meet the original requirements for evaporative emissions, in addition to NHTSA requirements.
Q: How can I pay less?
A: Consumers have some options.
Many consumers cut costs by purchasing pre-owned vehicles with new conversions, typically saving around $10,000 to $12,000.
The previous van owner already has absorbed the depreciation hit on a new van, which essentially occurs right after you’ve driven off the dealer’s lot.
Buying used can be beneficial for first-time buyers who want to try out a vehicle for a few years before buying new.
But if you plan to buy used, do some research and make sure the vehicle is structurally sound including the conversion. Ask for a vehicle history (CARFAX) report, and get the vehicle inspected by a mobility dealer to ensure it’s in good shape and was well taken care of.
Q: How do people manage to pay for it?
A: Many consumers used home equity loans to purchase a vehicle and adaptive equipment. But with home values decreasing.
Many dealers and manufacturers work with lending institutions that offer extended-term financing, including 10-year loans, allowing consumers to make lower, more affordable monthly payments. The downside is that consumers are locked into the vehicle for 10 years, and end up paying more in interest.
If you finance for 10 years, and you’re not going to keep the vehicle for that amount of time, you’re going to lose money when you try to sell or trade it because you haven’t paid off much of the balance.
When you buy a new vehicle, many car manufacturers offer mobility reimbursement programs (up to $1,000) to help offset the cost for the purchase and installation of adaptive equipment.