Active adults' need homes

Demand for units will pick up speed as boomers hit 55

A maturing market

May 07, 2000|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

It's not unusual for Leslie Marks to answer her phone and hear the following:

"I have a piece of land, and I want to build seniors housing."

Then, Marks said, there is a pause.

"And so I am supposed to tell them in 25 words or less how you do that?" she said.

Marks, director of the National Council on Seniors Housing -- an organization under the National Association of Home Builders -- is getting more and more questions about what is becoming the next boom in residential construction as the first wave of baby boomers turns 55.

Turning 55 is key to the building industry because it is the threshold where those boomers -- or "active adults," as they are labeled -- can purchase in age-restrictive communities.

Builders and developers will have a chance to get answers tomorrow when the council holds a one-day educational program in Washington to teach them how to prepare for the millions of homeowners who will start to downsize and search for a simpler, maintenance-free home.

Marks said the program will concentrate on demographics, defining and designing the community, marketing, managing and ultimately answering the question: "Am I ready to enter the active-living market?"

"I usually ask [the builders] what they know about the market and if they have done any research and if there is any competition," said Marks, who has been the council's director since 1997. "Have they seen other senior projects ... see if they know what they are getting into.

"There are some builders and consultants who are very knowledgeable, and some who have no idea."

According to Evelyn Howard, who does research for Bethesda-based RF&S Realty Advisors Inc. and is a scheduled speaker, the active-adult development is "a relatively new concept in the minds of the masses, in the minds of most builders."

"They haven't segmented a market in terms of people who are empty-nesters, and what are their design and amenity needs and who the active-adult market really is," said Howard, who described the empty-nester -- those whose grown children have left home -- as 55 to 70 years old.

Supply opportunity

"In this area, and in most areas other than the Sun Belt, there are not enough homes designed for this age group. There are not homes tailored to them in design features and amenities. But it is starting and it is an opportunity that builders are seeing."

Said Marks: "Part of our mission is to sensitize the builder to understand that when they build for this market, that if do these things, it will give them a competitive edge in the long run. It will be a benefit to them because they can promote it. It's smart business. It's smart design."

Marks added that the builder of custom homes should be more aware of the emerging trend and take a more active role in considering how the product will mature with their customer.

"Many of the custom buyers are 45 to 50, and they say that this is their last home," Marks said. "What we are trying to do is get to the custom builder and help him to understand that while the buyer -- at the time they buy -- may not have any problems with eyesight or mobility or dexterity, but they will.

"They most likely will not end up in a wheelchair, but they will get arthritis. So raise your counter tops in the bathroom [to ease bending] and make sure the lighting is good and make the hallways a little wider and put in blocking so that if grab bars are needed there is something to tap into."

High cost of land

In Baltimore County, where the over-60 population is expected to grow from 138,698 in 1998 to more than 207,000 in 2020, there are few, if any, active-adult specific communities operating, and one of the reasons is the high cost of land.

"Usually [these developments] take up a lot of land because they have a clubhouse and they build a lot of units. And when you have land that is expensive, it's hard to put it close in," Marks said.

"My sense is that the land in Baltimore County has gotten so expensive that it would be hard to do, because you have to support not only the housing, but all the infrastructure that needs to go in ahead of time."

The absence of such communities isn't lost on Jeb Bittner, president of the Maryland division of Pulte Homes Inc., the nation's largest builder and fourth largest in the Baltimore area.

"Pulte, as a company nationally, has a larger presence than any of the public builders in the active-adult market, and what is going on in Maryland right now is we're in the formative stages of presenting [plans], and there will be several," he said.

Bittner pointed to a "phenomenon" among developers who spar with local governments and community groups over roads and school capacities.

"Many developers are looking to age-restricted communities as a way to develop [land] because those buyers don't put the same taxation on those resources," he said.

Demographics and amenities

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