Sun Belt moves North

Playtime: Retired people are spurning the usual Sun Belt haunts in favor of staying put. The shift has spawned a boom in retirement communities here.

November 21, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Rev. Eric Peacher and his wife, Bernice, knew it was time to leave their split-level Timonium home when the routine upkeep took a downturn.

"If we could afford a caretaker and a maid, we might have stayed," said Peacher, a retired minister who works part-time at Towson United Methodist Church. "As you get a little older, you don't work as fast. You are spending a good amount of time working for the house -- even though you love it."

In their early 70s, the Peachers will soon move to Mays Chapel North, a development tailor-made for senior living. They say they just want to slow down, move on and travel. To abandon the yardwork, repairs and countless trips up and down the stairs for a new life with a groundskeeper and an elevator. They are not alone.

Housing experts say theirs is one of the fastest-growing markets today as retired couples and empty nesters search for comforts and conveniences under a new roof. Once limited to Florida and the Sun Belt, the low-maintenance, age-friendly housing is fast becoming a fixture on the East Coast as the overall population in the United States steadily grays.

According to a study released this year by the American Senior Housing Association, the Baltimore-Washington corridor is the fastest-growing area of new assisted-care construction geared toward seniors, rising above New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.

But assisted living is only one segment of the aging population market. Many builders are recognizing and catering to the "active adult" market.

"These folks are looking to move out of a significantly larger single-family house into a low-maintenance home," said Bob Coursey, director of marketing for Ryan Homes, the largest homebuilder in the Baltimore metropolitan area. "It's now appealing to the parents of baby boomers -- and then there will be the boomers themselves."

To meet the demand, Ryan, which until a few years ago didn't have any elevator condominiums in its repertoire, is building them in developments in Owings Mills, White Marsh and in Anne Arundel County. Starting in the upper-$90,000 range, these homes reflect a trend that began three years ago when Ryan sales representatives started becoming inundated with requests for low-maintenance living. "At some point there, we said this is a market," Coursey said. "And not only was it growing, it was undeniably under-served.

"So far this year, we've sold 230 condos -- 80 percent of them with elevators."

Nationally, builders are taking notice.

In a 1998 survey, the National Association of Home Builders asked members, whose core business isn't in "active adult" communities, if they had built that specific single-family product in the past two years. Only 4.8 percent said yes. When the same group was asked whether it planned to build an "active adult" community in the next two years, the number increased to 11.5 percent.

Polly Lucas Downs, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc., who has worked the Baltimore market for 32 years, said the empty-nester market is hot. She guides prospective buyers to developments in the Mays Chapel, Owings Mills and White Marsh areas, saying, "more and more, I get requests and it isn't going to change.

`Golf all they want'

"We'll all be at this stage at some time in our life and, with medicine and health the way it is, our life expectancy is changing all the time. Look at the women and men running marathons in their late years, they want to live a more independent lifestyle. I see people retiring in their late 50s and they want cluster homes and want to do things like golf all they want, travel all they want and go see the children. "

Statistics back up the Realtors and builders' findings. The state's over-60 population is expected to increase by 81 percent during the next 20 years -- with most of those residents living in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, said Sue Green, an official with the Baltimore County Department of Aging. From Towson to Owings Mills, Catonsville and Essex, the senior population is projected to grow from 138,689 in 1998 to 207,109 in 2020, a 49 percent increase.

"Currently, this group is 19 percent of the total county population," Green said. "So housing is a huge issue."

Joseph Link, who owns Market-Wise, an Ellicott City consulting firm that specializes in housing, agrees. "This is a large and expanding market and that's not guesswork." Nationally, Link ticks off figures that show by 2002, more than 60 million Americans will be 55 or older, and that adults over age 50 will control 70 percent of the nation's wealth.

"So by anyone's definition, that is a significant market," he said. "For that reason and the fact that it comes as a predictable development, many builders have turned their attention to seniors housing, which has segmented markets within it."

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