From Jimmy Buffet-themed communities to slightly more mainstream age-restricted enclaves, active adult communities today take many forms. That’s in part because the housing wish lists of those who live there are so varied. For developers of active adult communities, staying up-to-date on trends and one step ahead of buyers is key.
Yet with so much variety among that group, developers are left to ask: Who are these prospective buyers and what are they looking for?
It’s a niche market to be sure. The majority of the 55-plus population is either staying put or moving somewhere besides an age-restricted community. Just one in three who do relocate will seek to live among their peers, according to Paul Emrath, vice-president for surveys and housing policy research at the National Association of Home Builders, in Washington, DC.
There was a time when moving to a housing development specifically for older adults carried a stigma, assuming it was the kind of place for those who needed assistance. “But we’re past that now,” Emrath said. “People look at active adult communities today as nice places to live where there are plenty of amenities.”
Another reason these neighborhoods are so popular is that they practically guarantee new friendships, said Annette Fuller, editor of Where to Retire magazine. That can help to ease the process for people moving at this life stage. “They’re uprooting their lives and leaving friends behind,” she said. “But [an age-restricted] master-planned community (MPC) is set up to help build back a support system.”
What the 55+ buyer wants
For active-adult buyers, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Although baby boomers comprise the largest segment of prospects at almost 75 million people, there’s no upper age cut-off for those relocating. The majority are between the ages of 65 to 69, Emrath said, but people in the 85-plus set will also move. Residing in a high-earning income bracket isn’t necessary either, helping to explain the wide range in home prices in the category.
In a 2017 readership survey, Where to Retire found that 58% of respondents chose 55-plus MPCs as the type of neighborhood they’re most interested in at this stage of their life. Traditional neighborhoods were favored by 47%, while 35% preferred condos or apartments and 33% selected MPCs that included all ages.
The top factors for choosing retirement housing, according to this group, were a low crime rate and having a hospital nearby.
Builders are also catering to variation in desired price point. Fuller said MPCs listed in the 2017 version of its annual 50 Best Master-Planned Communities in the U.S. ranking included home prices from $80,000 to $3 million. Of that list, 38 communities have homes priced at less than $300,000 and, of those, 14 were less than $200,000.
"[An age-restricted] master-planned community is set up to help build back a support system."
Editor, Where to Retire
The standby of moving somewhere with a more temperate climate is still important for some, said Steve Snoddy, vice-president of sales for AV Homes, a 55-plus builder in Arizona, the Carolinas and Florida. The company also sees buyers downsizing to homes with two or three bedrooms. That's in part because the last real estate downturn made some buyers more conservative in their purchases. “They don’t need four or five bedrooms because the kids aren’t living at home,” he said. “But they still want an extra room for guests.”
There are more similarities than there are differences between what active adult and other buyer groups are looking for in their homes. That starts with the overall preference of single-family detached living. For example, AV Homes’ core 55-plus product is single-family and on one level, according to Snoddy.
Other widely desired features for all age groups include energy-efficient homes on culs-de-sac and near walking trails, parks and retail. “What distinguishes the 55-plus [buyer] from other buyers is that they’re less interested in being near playgrounds, and they want a maintenance free lifestyle with everything on a single floor,” Emrath said.
A community within a community
Fuller noted that a number of 55-plus developments are being built within all-age MPCs. Appealing to those wanting access to neighbors of different ages while appreciating the qualities of a community subset in which all residents are at the same life stage, this setup may offer active-adult buyers the best of both worlds, Fuller said. For example, extended families can have their own spaces but enjoy the benefits of living nearby.
AV Homes has developed two such communities near Phoenix — Encore at Eastmark and CantaMia at Estrella. “We’re seeing more people wanting to move into a 55-plus community inside the larger, all-age master-planned development, where they can have their own area but still be close to kids and grandkids,” Snoddy said.
The variety among active-adult buyers makes the future of building in the category a bright one. The number of 55-plus households is growing and is projected to continue to do so through 2024, Emrath said, in both absolute numbers and as a share of the population.
“The baby boomer segment is continuing to grow and this is the lifestyle they’re demanding,” Snoddy said. “Their lives revolved around their kids, but now they get to make decisions for what they want. This time is for them.”