Erica Christoffer is a multimedia journalist and contributing editor with REALTOR® Magazine. In addition to writing print and online articles, Erica oversees the magazine's Broker to Broker content, co-manages the 30 Under 30 program, and manages the YPN Lounge. Connect with her via email: email@example.com.
Not Your Grandparents' Retirement Home
A burgeoning demographic. A sea of choices. How to help aging baby boomers find the housing that fits the next chapter of their life.
March - April
When a chef who served former presidents and Grammy award–winning artists needed to slow down, he switched gears and went into real estate in 2005. Little did Jeff Stone, CIPS, SRES, know that he’d find his true passion—helping older adults find the housing when they wanted or needed to make a change. Stone, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in the Port Washington-Manhasset area of Long Island, N.Y., had seen the way his mother struggled to age in place. That was all the motivation he needed. “I went all in,” says Stone, 64.
Seniors are a growing and underserved group, says Roseann Farrow, ABR, SRES, a real estate instructor and REALTOR® Emeritus who’s been licensed for 45 years. By 2030, 37 percent of the U.S. population will be age 65 or older, up from about 34 percent in 2018. What’s more, between now and 2050, the 85-plus population is projected to triple while the population younger than age 65 will increase by only 12 percent, according to AARP’s Public Policy Institute. The bottom line: In the near future, senior specialists will be in higher demand.
Looking for a ‘Life Plan’
Until the 1980s, nursing homes accounted for the lion’s share of senior housing. But by the mid-1990s, there was a significant shift toward a greater variety of housing options. Senior housing today can be categorized as independent living, continuing care retirement communities, assisted living, memory care, and nursing facilities. CCRCs offer an age-in-place combination of independent, assisted, and nursing options on one site. They are now going through a kind of rebranding, starting to refer to themselves as “life plan communities,” a concise description that residents may find more empowering.
With all the options, the baby boomer generation is choosing senior housing at a higher rate than previous generations. According to a 2015 study from the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, about 7.5 percent of people aged 65 and over live in some type of senior community, up from just over 5 percent in 1995. Seniors with financial means are attracted by amenities such as walkability, biking and hiking paths, safe transportation options, and activities such as pickleball, says Farrow, who teaches courses for the National Association of REALTORS®’ Seniors Real Estate Specialist designation. She lives in New York state’s Hudson Valley and winters on the east coast of Florida. College towns are attracting older buyers, too, she says, for the recreational and educational opportunities they provide.
In fact, for boomers the term “retirement” no longer necessarily applies. Residents of senior communities are less likely to be truly retired these days. Even if they have adequate savings, “people are looking at retirement as the second half of life or time for the encore career,” says Farrow, 72.
House vs. Senior Community
Like all real estate clients, seniors have a diverse array of personal preferences, says Sandy Castles, SRES, GRI, broker-owner of Castles Realty in Seminole, Fla. Fifty percent of Castles’ active clients are older adults. “Some want a house; others want nothing to do with yard maintenance. You can’t put them in a category,” she says. Whether they’re relocating, downsizing, or searching for a community that will help them stay active while meeting their medical needs, it’s imperative to understand clients’ goals and present all options available, says Castles, 50.
In Stone’s Long Island market, co-op apartment communities are a popular option among empty nesters looking to downsize. A small one-bedroom can go for $230,000 to $270,000, and a two-bedroom starts in the high $300,000s, depending on the location. Maintenance or HOA fees run between $900 and $1,500 a month, also based on location. For buyers with more disposable income, there are luxury 55-plus planned communities. “But I like working with the salt-of-the-earth folks who need help,” he says. If they can’t find what they’re looking for in Nassau County, he’ll help them look elsewhere. If they want to relocate to a warmer climate or a state without income tax, he has close contacts with agents in those destination areas.
“It’s about alleviating the fear of leaving their current home,” Stone says. He recently helped a 92-year-old woman move from the house she had lived in for decades. They looked at several options before narrowing it down to an active assisted living community. “She loves it,” says Stone. He advises other real estate pros to visit senior communities in their market to learn what they’re about. “I take it upon myself to know as much as I can so I can give my clients an idea of what’s out there,” he says.
“It wasn’t too long ago that adult communities just provided shuffleboard,” says Mary Leary, president and CEO of Mather LifeWays, a not-for-profit organization serving older adults based in Evanston, Ill.
The organization has developed two upscale communities in the Chicago area and one in Tucson, Ariz. The amenities they offer are resort-like: multiple restaurants instead of a single dining hall; sophisticated arts studios that include painting, collage, sculpture, digital arts, and creative writing; and athletic offerings that start with a pool but also include fitness and wellness centers, aerobics studios, saunas, spas, and more. “I strive to build communities where my husband and I would live,” Leary says.
Mather LifeWays’ Institute on Aging conducted a five-year study surveying more than 5,100 residents of 80 life plan communities across the country, and compared that data with the Health and Retirement Study conducted by the University of Michigan, which surveyed the general population. It found that residents of life plan communities tend to rate themselves higher than the community at large in all aspects of well-being, except spiritual wellness. The organization is opening another life plan community in Tysons, Va., in 2022 with units ranging from $650,000, up to $3.8 million. The apartments will average approximately 1,500 square feet.
Connecting With Clients
Carving your place in any real estate market takes consistency and dedication. After getting his SRES designation, Stone decided to host a real estate seminar for seniors—but the only people who showed were the speakers. Stone persisted, setting up booths at senior fairs, aging-in-place expos, and community events. On any given Monday during the summer, Stone can be found at his local “FunDay Monday” events for seniors. He speaks at real estate conferences and local churches, organizes real estate seminars, and hosted his own radio show for a year and a half on topics related to baby boomers and downsizing.
He’s won seniors’ trust, he says, by being actively involved in their community and amassing a wealth of knowledge. He’ll share his advice without expecting anything in return, approaching his business as a consultant and guide rather than a salesperson. “It wasn’t about making a million bucks; that’s not what I fashioned my business after,” he says. “It’s about helping folks get what they need.”
Most of his clients today are seniors looking to downsize, find an active living community, or modify their home to age in place. According to the 2019 Housing Confidence Index released by Chase Home Lending in January, half of baby boomers surveyed plan to age in place and 88 percent are interested in making improvements to their current homes. The top renovation cited was making bathrooms safer and easier to navigate.
Stone has assembled a network of professional organizers, contractors, real estate and elder-law attorneys, senior move managers, mortgage professionals, and others who help alleviate some of the difficulties of aging in place or moving. He’s studied the need for affordable housing in his area and regularly attends town hall meetings, especially if there’s an issue being addressed that’s important to his clients. “I walk the walk and talk the talk,” Stone says. “Your own age doesn’t make you well-qualified, either. You have to be dedicated to the niche.” The SRES Specialist designation course provides core knowledge about the needs of older clients as well. Learn more at seniorsrealestate.com.
For life plan communities like Mather LifeWays, outreach to local real estate professionals is an essential marketing tool. “They may bring up the benefits of moving to a community like ours [with clients] if and when it is appropriate,” Leary says.
Mather Lifeways also uses some direct mail and print advertising to reach future residents, but digital outreach is increasingly important. At one time, Leary says, the organization’s web strategy was more of an afterthought to traditional marketing. Today, web analytics show that more and more people are looking at its sites and want to engage through that medium. “Websites must be robust and give people information of value to assist in the information-seeking and decision-making processes,” Leary says. Social media also plays a major role in the company’s marketing efforts.
Get a Head Start
To qualify as a senior community under the federal Housing for Older Persons Act, at least 80 percent of units must be occupied by someone 55 or older—or all units must be occupied by residents 62 or older. State and local regulations and statutes may also apply. But these age restrictions don’t preclude you from helping younger clients evaluate the options. When Mather LifeWays receives an inquiry, the sales team reaches out by phone or email—“Ideally, we have asked their preference,” Leary says—to answer questions about their services, amenities, and care plans. Prospects are also invited to meet with a current resident and have a meal in one of the dining facilities.
Stone says people who buy a senior community unit in his area usually use a buyer’s agent to represent them. “If it’s a new community, they’ll sometimes go direct because they think they can get a better price, but that’s usually not the case,” he says. Generally, communities allow agents to set up showings or tours.
As with any client, when you’re showing properties to older clients, understand what’s important to them. Are they looking for a healthy, eco-friendly environment? As people age, Castles says, they tend to become more sensitive to the health effects of materials and substances, such as off-gassing from new carpets or paint. And while it’s stereotypical to say seniors are technology averse, Castles uses high-touch practices to avoid having tech tools become a veil of separation between her and older clients.
She also recommends being aware of their cultural touchpoints. “My kids are 14, 18, and 20, and they communicate with memes. Someone will say a word, and they all break up over their inside jokes. Well, seniors have their own inside jokes and language that’s informed by their experiences,” she says. “I love working with older people. They’re down-to-earth and realistic, but they’re also smart, informed, engaging, and funny as hell.”
Updated: May 16, 2022