Retirees, boomers staying closer to home, amenities

Low-maintenance retirement complexes gaining popularity

September 16, 2001|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, N.J. - With their children grown and out of the house, Georgina and Richard Davis faced something of a dilemma.

They could have put mothballs in the empty bedrooms in their rambling colonial home and continued paying the lawn doctor, the pool cleaner and the person who cleaned up after their dogs.

Or they could have followed their parents' generation and migrated to a low-maintenance retirement complex in Florida.

But the Davises chose the kind of move that is gaining appeal for baby boomers, who began turning 55 this year. They decided on a tract of sandy pine scrub in central New Jersey that is being carved into a residential resort catering to every whim of the leisure-seeking boomer.

Recently, the couple strolled into the sales center at the Greenbriar Westlake resort and signed the papers on a $400,000 house that is far smaller than the six-bedroom home they own in Manalapan, just a half-hour to the north.

What they got for their money is a gated neighborhood of quiet cul-de-sacs where children are permitted to visit but not live.

It has an 18-hole golf course, two pools, an expansive clubhouse and, most important, maintenance-free living.

"When you get to our age, the grass starts growing much faster and the stairs become your enemy," said Davis, a 55-year-old accountant who said he has no intention of retiring soon. "As for the kids, they can stay in a hotel when they come to visit. Who needs the noise?"

`Hotbed of activity'

In a trend sweeping the building industry, tens of thousands of older Americans are forsaking the sun-and-sand colonies of Florida, Arizona and California and choosing to stay closer to home in communities that combine luxurious, suburban-style living with the amenities of a country club.

Unlike traditional communities for older adults, these enclaves eschew the word "retirement" and supply a dizzying array of distractions to keep residents busy and healthy.

Although there are no national statistics on such communities, industry experts say New Jersey has more than any other state.

"New Jersey is the trendsetter," said Leslie Marks, executive director of the National Home Builders Association's Senior Housing Council. "It's starting to happen in other places, but New Jersey is a hotbed of activity."

The center of the trend is Ocean County, poised halfway between Philadelphia and New York and blessed with huge, undeveloped tracts.

In the last five years, the country's largest home builders have flocked to the area, creating more than 10,000 single-family homes in developments that look like scaled-down versions of suburban tracts - but without the minivans, spacious lawns and frolicking children.

And with millions of affluent boomers nearing the retirement threshold, the builders are seeing gold.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Kira McCarron, vice president of marketing for Toll Bros., a luxury-home builder that is developing two age-restricted communities in Ocean County and another two in metropolitan Detroit and Washington.

Like other builders, Toll Bros. is tapping into a bulging population of aging homeowners drawn from metropolitan New York and Philadelphia, where soaring real estate values have turned middle-class suburbanites into well-off empty nesters, experts say.

"People who paid $30,000 for a Bergen County ranch in the 1960s can sell it for $300,000 and live the life they never had when they had kids and bills," said William Becker, a consultant to the age-restricted housing industry. "Most of these people are paying cash for their new places, which is why it's such a hot business."

`Retire gracefully'

Unlike many in their parents' generation, aging boomers do not want to be far from family and friends and do not want to skimp, builders say. They want cathedral ceilings, two-car garages, big closets and large windows overlooking the golf course.

Many are opting for basements and second floors, features unheard of in retirement communities a decade ago. And they want space to entertain and an extra bedroom for visiting grandchildren.

"They don't want to make sacrifices to move out of their homes," McCarron said. "They want to retire gracefully."

They also don't want to slow down. More than a third of those buying homes in adult communities still work, market researchers say, but they have more time for tennis, tai chi and canasta.

Traditional retirement villages used to draw people in their mid-60s and early 70s, from a Depression-era demographic that wanted small, reasonably priced homes, a shuffleboard court and an on-site health clinic.

These days, the average buyer is 62, with many in their early 50s, according to the New Jersey Senior Housing Council. (In general, people younger than 55 are allowed in as long as their spouses are older.)

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