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The Evolving Trends in 55-Plus Communities

Baby boomers are staying healthy and independent longer. Find out what that means for the 55-plus residential real estate model.

October 8, 2018

Baby boomers have always done things a bit differently than their predecessors. As the generation that famously came up in an era of counterculture and played a major role in shaping the modern world ages, they continue forging new paths by redefining what it means to grow old, including where and how they choose to live once AARP letters start showing up in the mail.

While the 55 and up residential model doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere soon, plenty of variations in the old model have sprung up. Baby boomers’ health and prosperity appears to be enhancing that business model, and real estate professionals might find even more creative opportunities to market these communities as a result.

As president of Signature Real Estate Companies, Ben Schachter manages 26 different real estate brands in the senior housing market scattered mostly throughout south Florida. He says that no matter what region they’re in, baby boomers have similar needs to those of their parents and grandparents but with new preferences and demands in their housing.

A Branding Twist

Today, the preferred marketing term for 55 and up communities and their residents is “active adult,” indicating a clear desire to abandon stereotypes and stake out new territory on the aging frontier. It also helps more clearly delineate between 55 and up spaces and retirement communities, promising a fully independent lifestyle, fitness and social opportunities, and even a chance for a bit of carousing (think happy hours, organized bar crawls, onsite lounges, and dance halls).

The phrase “active adult” seeks to wipe out the notion that a move to those communities opens the door to stagnation, or that the properties are geared more toward elderly people. From a marketing standpoint, that sort of psychological rebranding has enabled developers and agents alike to meet their target demographics.

Schachter, who operates in a region with a booming active adult lifestyle and community, says he welcomes the marketing refresh as a chance to erase negative connotations commonly associated with later stages of life and replace them with something more positive.

“The word ‘senior’ tends to lend itself more to an older clientele being sleepier, quieter. We’re trying to stimulate and play off of their desire to live longer and healthier, more energetic and vibrant lives,” Schachter says. “We hear people all the time say 75 is the new 55, and 55 is the new 45.”

Influence of Economic and Social Climates

Schachter believes that a strengthening stock market and lower unemployment enables many boomers to buy in these communities well ahead of retirement so they can save money by downsizing. He sees the average age of buyers lowering as a result of that economic boost. “We were selling to people in their early 70s, and now we’re selling more to people in their late 50s, early 60s,” he says. “They want to take advantage of low interest rates that exist in today’s economy, and tax benefits that exist with homeownership.”

Bill Ness, founder and CEO of 55Places.com, a Chicago-based online resource for people seeking 55 and up communities across the country, says 55 is still a relevant age for marketing active adult or retirement communities. In a survey his company conducted among those over age 55 who were planning to move within 12 months, about 10 percent of respondents said they were extremely likely and 14 percent said they were very likely to move to an active adult community.

Ness doesn’t think the aging-in-place trend has disrupted demographic targeting overall. Ness says the people visiting his website are still relatively young, with the average prospective buyer a little over 60 years old. “On the one hand, you have people who are working a little bit longer so they’re moving out a little bit later, but you also have people who are right at 55 who can’t wait to move into an active adult community. I think those two forces balance each other out,” he says.

One force driving people to purchase within active adult communities is the promise of being surrounded by people of a similar age. “For the most part, the homes that baby boomers are coming from are often in areas that there’s a lot of young families living in,” Ness says. “They don’t have as much in common with them.”

The Lifestyle Appeal

When it comes to the homes themselves, the general preference is for low ranch homes and condos built with open floor plans and practical features to accommodate physical ailments and mobility issues that may arise down the road, according to Ness’s survey. It’s more about preparation than anticipation—planning now for whatever might happen so they don’t have to worry about it later.

Bruce Nemovitz, SRES, an agent in Milwaukee with Realty Executives Integrity who has written two books on transitioning to senior housing, says people who decide to move into a community geared toward seniors have a few specific demands. According to a study Nemovitz conducted about what causes potential senior buyers to delay downsizing, one of the primary reasons for procrastinating is not being allowed to bring pets. Nemovitz says they also want comfort and practicalities built-in, such as higher counters and an attached garage. And echoing Ness’s survey findings, Nemovitz says clients he works with want to be around people closer to their own ages, albeit on the slightly younger end of the spectrum.

“The boomers are looking for senior community apartments that have ‘younger older people,’ 55-75. The older folks—the World War II generation—also want to be around folks their age or slightly younger,” he points out.

In Minneapolis, an independent living cooperative called Becketwood has an average age of 80, although the average age of buyers is 71. According to broker and marketing supervisor Maura Kolars, that buying age is slightly younger than it was in the past, when people often bought in their late 70s and early 80s. She also says the new generation of buyers has different expectations. “Baby boomers coming in now want everything to be modified to fit their needs and tastes,” she says.

As an active adult community situated in a metro area where residents are relatively athletic—Minneapolis was ranked number one in 2017 and number two in 2018 on the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual American Fitness Index—homeowners stay busy all the same despite the colder climate. “Seniors in the Twin Cities are generally more active because they grew up that way, playing tennis, biking, walking, golfing,” Kolars says. “We have people in their 90s here who put me to shame with their level of activity; one just returned from zip lining in Panama and he is 98 years old!”

Baby boomers are redefining aging as they glide into their golden years. Along the way, they’re sure to have the same outsized impact on the future as they’ve done in other areas of American culture.


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Laci Gagliano

Laci Gagliano is a freelance writer and journalist. Her writing, research, and multimedia work has appeared in regional and national publications, and she can be heard on the regional radio station Jazz88.5 Morning Show on Mondays giving a rundown of upcoming Twin Cities events. Her writing and storytelling focus is primarily on tech topics, but she has covered a wide range of industries and fascinating subjects, and especially loves investigating and telling stories about people and our changing world. Laci lives in Minneapolis and loves camping, hiking, gourmet mushroom hunting, art, travel, and drumming. More of her work can be found at www.lacigagliano.com

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