'Active adults' living smaller and smarter

THE MIDDLE AGES

55-plus buyers seek housing to suit their downsized, but hardly sedentary, new lifestyle

October 22, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN REPORTER

A new feature about staying young, growing old and what happens in between.

Sandee and Joe Demar are searching for a nest that's smaller, but not exactly more modest.

For the past year, the Randallstown couple has wandered through a rarified world of granite countertops, sparkling Palladian windows and "great" rooms with cathedral ceilings.

They've evaluated gas fireplaces and toured "state of the art" fitness centers that include Sandee's favorite exercise machine, the elliptical trainer. They've listened to descriptions of parties -- and office meetings -- they could hold in suites at brand new community centers.

Like thousands of other baby boomers, the Demars are exploring the possibilities of a "maintenance-free lifestyle" in a new kind of neighborhood with walking trails, gyms and master bedrooms on the first floor.

After 20 years in a traditional neighborhood, the Demars may purchase their next home in an age-restricted community -- known in the trade as "55 and Better" -- where the townhouses are called "villas" and senior citizens have morphed into "active adults."

(Generally, to qualify for a 55-plus home, at least one resident must be 55 or older and no one younger than 19 can live there permanently.)

On a recent Sunday, the Demars toured a bright and sunny model villa in The Cloisters at Village Crest, part of a new development in Ellicott City, where townhouse villas start in the upper $400,000s. The home Demars visited had a second floor, a basement and lots of space, perhaps a little too much, even for these active adults.

"We want to be out and about," says Sandee Demar, 55, who plans to retire in a few years from Baltimore County public schools where she's a special education facilitator. "We don't want something so expensive that it would stop us from traveling or doing what we want to do."

Joe Demar, 57, is retired from the postal service and runs a power-washing business from home.

With tuitions behind them -- both of their children are in their 30s -- and leisure time ahead, the couple has visited many 50-plus developments in the greater Baltimore area as well as non-age-restricted condominiums near the Inner Harbor.

"We want to know where we can get the most for our bucks," Sandee Demar says.

And homebuilders are eager to court them: The Demars are the demographic dream couple to the 50-plus housing market.

They're tired of raking leaves and shoveling snow. They feel a little out of touch with the youngsters in their neighborhood. They want to travel and share good times. They want a community -- maybe even one that's gated -- that feels secure. They want a two-story building with a first-floor bedroom suite that offers privacy; Sandee's mother may continue to live with them. And they want a place that allows them to carry a low mortgage, because most of the equity from their present home will go into the new one.

But there's no rush for them to move. The fit has to be right.

Adults staying put

Last year, 55-plus households comprised nearly 37 percent of all American households, according to the 50+ Housing Council of the National Association of Homebuilders. By 2012, they will represent 40 percent.

And many of those folks will want to downsize -- even if, like the Demars, they are still working.

Sandee is searching for a place not too far away from her Ashburton roots in West Baltimore. Active adult communities in White Marsh or Havre de Grace, for instance, don't seem as appealing to her. Moving out of state isn't even an option.

"One of the relative surprises about the baby boomers is that most of these folks want to stay in this area," says John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "There was a great deal of speculation that people would head towards warmer climes, but a significant majority wants to stay where they're comfortable with their neighbors, friends, family, familiar stores and medical services."

As many as half of the residents in the newest 50-plus Del Webb communities across the country are still employed, says Caryn Klebba, spokesperson for the Del Webb brand of Pulte Homes. (Del Webb pioneered the idea of age-restricted communities in 1960 with Arizona's Sun City retirement development.)

Del Webb's 2005 survey of baby boomers reports that the postwar generation of 42- to 60-year-olds is more interested in staying in their current jobs than in retiring when they are eligible.

Increasingly, many of these new age-restricted communities are built near cities, says Evelyn Howard, a market researcher in senior housing.

"It's expected that many of the older boomers will continue to work full-time, maybe changing jobs, or work part time, and work out of the home," she says.

Staying near family

Howard says one goal of those who are downsizing in their 50s and 60s is to move closer to family members -- especially grandchildren.

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