Page Reviewed / Updated – December 17, 2020

As people age into their golden years, mobility tends to become an issue. Bones weaken, heart conditions make getting around tough and breathing may be restricted. Elderly people living in homes with more than one level discover they cannot navigate stairs, and ramps may not be feasible. To remain in their homes, many seniors may consider a stair lift or even an elevator.

In this guide, we explain the difference between a stair lift and an elevator and provide information needed to make a decision about which system to install.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Stair Lift or Elevator

Adding a stair lift or elevator to a home relieves the barrier seniors encounter when they can no longer climb stairs. Stairs can not only be difficult to manage; they can become dangerous. A fall can be debilitating and cause months of recovery or an injury that’s difficult to recover from.

Most elderly people desire to remain in their homes. It’s where memories were made, children were raised, and where they feel most comfortable. Moving to another home with a single floor or to an assisted living facility might be too stressful or unnecessary if the home they live in can be modified.

There are several factors when deciding to install a stair lift or elevator. These items concern the senior’s ability to use either choice, the modifications needed to be done on the home, and the cost.

  • The Homeowner’s Maneuverability: An elderly person confined to a wheelchair may not be able to maneuver from the wheelchair to a stair lift seat. If they can do this on their own, a stair lift may be a good choice, but if they need help to get in and out of the wheelchair, they would need to have someone with them. A stair lift cannot carry a wheelchair. Living alone means they would not be able to use the chair lift and an elevator is needed.
  • Space Constraints: Staircases come in different widths and heights and may include a landing with a turn or may include a spiral shape. Depending on the placement in the home, the distance needed for a stair lift and it’s hardware, there may not be enough room for installation and safe operation. The architecture and layout of the home also change the decision on whether a stair lift or an elevator would work. An elevator requires a separate space in the home but may prove to be better if the staircase is not modifiable.
  • Carry Weight and Room: A stair lift is made to accommodate different weights but an elevator may come with weight constraints. The width and depth of an elevator make a difference if the senior needs to have another person ride with them or if they have a large wheelchair with additional items such as an oxygen tank.
  • Cost to Purchase and Install: When budget is a factor, the homeowner needs to compare the cost of both a chair lift and an elevator and any structural modifications that need to be done.

Stair Lift Basics

A stair lift is fitted with a chair to allow a person to ride up and down the stairs. It’s simple and easy to operate. Typically, no construction is required, and many stair lifts can be designed to work with the size of the staircase and to carry the user up more than one level at a time without needing to exit the lift. The track is secured to the stairs, not the walls, and the operation is safe and quiet. They run on electricity so an electrical outlet needs to be nearby or installed close to the power supply.

Stair lifts come with a controller, leg rests, armrests, a seat belt and a swivel seat. Be sure the lift has a swivel seat to make it easier and safer to mount and dismount. Stair lifts offer color and design options to match a home’s decor.


  • Quick and easy installation usually without any construction needed
  • Inexpensive to run
  • Comfortable and quiet
  • Folds away when not being used
  • Stair lifts are easily uninstalled


  • Made for staircases only
  • Cannot carry a wheelchair
  • May be visibly deterring

Home Elevator Basics

If a senior needs a way to go from one floor to another in their home and a stair lift is not applicable, a home elevator may be the best choice. There needs to be a place to install the elevator, keeping in mind some need a shaft and pit and others do not. Elevators are offered in many sizes and shapes and do take planning versus a chair lift. Construction is necessary to install a home elevator and it will take much longer than a chair lift installation.

Elevators are a bit noisy and require yearly maintenance. Although an elevator seems like a great solution, most have weight limits and may not be able to fit a wheelchair. It may add a lot more to the cost of purchasing the elevator if it needs to go up and down more than one floor. While home elevators are expensive, the cost may not be comparable to an elderly person being able to stay in their home.


  • Doesn’t alter the staircase
  • Comfortable to ride
  • Adds value to a home
  • Inexpensive to operate
  • Aesthetically designed


  • Requires extensive construction and home modifications
  • Difficult to remove
  • Takes a longer time to install
  • Typically noisy when in use

Do the Benefits of Stair Lifts and Elevators Outweigh the Costs?

A chair lift can cost between $1,000 and $3,000 to purchase and $3,000 and $5,000 to install. Elevators present a wider range of expenses because of the numerous types of elevators and the installation requirements. A pneumatic elevator that works on air pressure, costs from $5,000 to $7,000 to purchase and up to $10,000 for installation. A hydraulic elevator, which has an arm that pulls it up and down, costs considerably more, averaging $10,000 for the unit and at times, as much as $10,000 to install.

While a chair lift does not add any value to a home, an elevator adds resale value with as much as a 60 to 100% return on the investment to purchase and install one. The benefit for each option ensures seniors can remain in their homes longer. The costs vary greatly between a stair lift and elevator and depending on what an elderly homeowner can afford, an elevator may be the safest and most durable option.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Stair Lifts vs. Elevators

What are the two types of elevators, and how are they installed?

A shaft-driven elevator includes a shaft installed below the floor. A pneumatic elevator works on air pressure and typically consists of a clear plastic or glass tube-like enclosure that’s raised and lowered by air pressure. Shaft-driven elevators are enclosed in the walls of a home and can be concealed by panels matching the home décor. A pneumatic elevator is placed in a room of the home and cannot be hidden.

How long do elevators take to install?

A shaft-driven elevator takes planning and extensive construction with installation taking an average of three weeks. Pneumatic elevators do not require machine rooms, pits or shafts, and they can be installed within a few days.

What types of stair lifts are available?

Seated stair lifts come designed for straight staircases and curved staircases according to the staircase configuration. There are also standing stair lifts for narrow staircases and outdoor stair lifts for patios and balconies.

Do chair lifts need maintenance?

Chair lifts need little maintenance. It’s recommended to inspect all moving parts and call for service as soon as unfamiliar noises are heard.

How long does a chair lift last?

With proper installation and care, they can last up to 10 years or more.

What kind of maintenance does a home elevator need?

Home elevators need to be inspected once a year by a professional. Breakdowns require a technician to come to diagnose the issue and then do the repair. Homeowners should not attempt to do repairs themselves.

How long does a home elevator last?

Home elevators can remain in service for up to 20 years.