In 1989, a man came to my office and introduced himself as the vice president of development for the Del Webb Corporation. He retained my firm to prepare a master plan for their first active-adult community outside of their typical desert southwest market.
This led me to an exploration of what made a successful active adult community. I learned they required unique and distinct considerations quite different from those used in more conventional master planned communities. During the information gathering process, I toured each of the Sun City projects, interviewing staff and visiting residents to understand the qualities and features which attracted buyers and provided the lifestyle sought by retirees.
Since that initial project, I and my partners have had the opportunity to plan and design over 60 active adult communities, many of which were realized and built out over the past 10 years. We have also worked with existing active adult communities to expand or enhance their amenities and programming to remain relevant to the changing needs of the boomer resident and buyer.
Over the past several years, our firm began working with small towns and rural communities utilizing our insight and knowledge of the retiree market and desired community amenities to create or enhance their position as a retirement destination. Additionally, we have assisted them in establishing programs to recruit retirees as an economic development strategy that taps into economic, social, educational and professional attributes of the boomers.
Through my work with both the active adult and rural/small town communities I have observed changing trends in the retiree market as the Eisenhower generation gave way to the boomers. The following are some of the patterns and behaviors which are vital to the boomer home buyer as they make decisions on their retirement living.
Trend 1 – When making a decision regarding retirement housing, boomers are savvy consumers, typically having purchased between 3 – 9 homes in their lifetime. These are buyers who know what they want and are reluctant to compromise their selection criteria.
Trend 2 – Recreation preferences have shifted significantly over the 35 years I have worked in this market. In the late 80s, virtually all active adult communities relied on golf as the primary community amenity. Now golf ranks 8th as the preferred amenity of retirees and continues to decline in popularity. Walking facilities are by far the most requested amenity in retiree focus groups followed by fishing, bocce, tennis and pickleball.
Trend 3 – The preferred design of single family homes sought by retirees remains one-story living with no steps between parking and front door. The size of individual dwellings is smaller but still well constructed and featuring no reduction in amenities. However, specialty rooms are being replaced by multi-use space. My favorite analogy is the comparison of a Cadillac to a BMW. There is also increased demand for design and construction techniques which enhance the conservation of water, electricity and natural gas.
Trend 4 – Community size is smaller, ranging from 10,000 to 2,500 units. The trend now reflects a growing demand in the market for smaller, more intimate communities. Finance and entitlement issues further support this trend.
Trend 5 – 65% of boomers desire to continue their education through formal and informal means during retirement. This preference drives the decision to purchase a home in towns with a college or an established academic program. Communities which do not have higher learning institutions have brought in private education, on-line and community educational entities. Senior University in Georgetown, Texas was established to meet this demand by the residents of Sun City Texas.
Trend 6 – Historic residential sales patterns show that the “resort-style active adult community” appeals to only 7% of the age and income qualified boomer market. Small towns and rural locations, however, are finding themselves the preferred destination for boomers in retirement.
Trend 7 – We know there are many factors which are essential to attracting retirees including affordability, health care, transportation, established social fabric, significant retention of visual history and moderate climate. However, there is a much greater emphasis on proximity to family, especially grandchildren. This is driving the relocation decision for many boomers. Additionally, safety and security have been identified by a greater portion of focus group participants. This preference has become more difficult to realize due to a growing reluctance by municipalities to allow private roads and secure entry gates as a facet of the community’s security program. The requirement for connectivity is also complicating this trend.
Trend 8 – Boomers are not flocking en masse to multi-family dwellings in urban cores. Robert Charles Lesser and Company recently reported that only 4% of affluent empty nesters indicated they would move to a condo downtown in their current metro area while 3% would chose a condo in a suburb of their current metro area. Essentially, there is little migration of retirees from rural communities and the suburbs to the urban core, contrary to widely held beliefs.
Overall, the boomer market is diverse and no one solution will appeal to the entire market. A knowledgeable developer or small town councilman must formulate their plans on local preferences and values. And remember that many of the myths perpetuated by the media – notably the return en masse of boomers into the city – are just that, a myth.
Joe Verdoorn, a Principal at SEC Planning, LLC, has over 40 years land planning and development experience working with clients such as Pulte/Del Webb, Motorola, Apple and Hunt Investments. He is a pioneer in the field of active adult community design who continues to research the retiree market to understand their evolving wants and needs.