Builders tap market for active seniors

The `universal' home has features that are friendly to the aging

March 11, 2001|By Susan Harte | Susan Harte,COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - Homebuilders are recognizing a seldom-tapped market as the number of potential homeowners over the age of 55 continues to grow.

The housing they build for this expanding niche won't be marketed under the moldy-sounding "senior housing" brand. Expect to hear more about the "universal" house, designed for aging baby boomers not ready to give up their active lifestyles.

Within 30 years, the number of Americans over age 65 will top 70 million, said Horace Deets, AARP executive director, in a speech to the National Association of Home Builders Convention and International Builders Show.

Even now, there are enough 55- to 64-year-olds to open a huge and lucrative market to homebuilders.

But these seniors do not want to hear about anything suggesting that someone over 55 might be a doddering centenarian.

That's one of the reasons builders are adopting the "universal" home theme. Another is that features of the "universal" home are so subtle that a casual look would never suggest stiff joints of arthritic fingers. For example:

Wheelchair-friendly door widths, light switches and counter tops.

Lever, not knob, door handles and roll-out shelves.

Raised toilets, open floor plans and direct 911 wiring.

"Universal" also addresses active older adults' oft-stated desire for independent, convenient living in communities that are friendly to the eye.

"We now find ourselves in the midst of a demographic revolution that's changing what it means to grow older," said Deets, who spoke to builders before the opening of the home show. While the over-55 citizens overwhelmingly want to manage their own lives, at least 25 percent expect to have some difficulty getting around within five years, said Deities, quoting AARP research.

The obvious answer for these people is homeownership - but in age-friendly residences with nearby medical care and grocery stores.

This is where builders like Roy Wendt of Snellville, Ga., come in. Wendt, a pioneer in housing for people who want aging-friendly features, already has seen his business quadruple in the past four years. One of Wendt's subdivisions - with houses priced from $180,000 to more than $400,000 - sold quickly.

The city allowed a greater density because, Wendt says, "this group has no children to crowd the schools. Its members travel less on the roads," yet it is affluent enough to support retail activity.

And they do not mind moving to get what they want.

Already within the 55-and-over age group, nearly 2 million households move each year.

They start about age 55 and don't stop until they are well over 80, according the National Association of Home Builders' senior housing council. Eighty percent of them already own homes when they decide to find new quarters.

They move for many reasons, starting with wanting a different climate and having too much house to care for.

"I was paying $400 a month for yard maintenance," said Larry McDaniel, 51, owner of an office-supply business. He and his wife, Debbie, just moved into an airy Wendt house that has places for grandchildren to play.

"Our kids are grown and gone, but we still have 3,200 square feet [of living space]," he said. "We don't feel that we gave up anything."

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