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Builders put welcome mat out for retiring baby boomers

Developers are again tailoring homes and communities for the age group that fell off their radar during the economic downturn. Boomers want a wider variety of home styles, less space, access to jobs and walking trails, and a sense of security.

February 13, 2011|By Mary Umberger, Reporting from Chicago

Once courted ardently by the housing industry, aging baby boomers sort of dropped off the housing map the last few years as their retirement funds dwindled and they faced the prospect of working longer before they could head off to the retirement of their dreams.

But there are too many of them — perhaps 77 million — to think that boomers are no longer a force in housing, and builders and developers are planning for their possible comeback. Now, however, they're expecting that when the boomers return, they'll have a simpler agenda than in the go-go era of just a few years ago.

"We have an opportunity to rethink a lot of the things we've done" in designing communities and homes that are intended for that age group, said Douglas Van Lerberghe, a land planner in Denver who spoke during a Back to Basics presentation on the older-adult market at a National Assn. of Home Builders meeting in Orlando.

Retiring boomers still are interested in developments restricted to older buyers or at least marketed specifically to them, but they want a greater variety of home styles than were offered during the housing boom, he said.

Just make them smaller this time around, Van Lerberghe said. They've decided they don't need as much space, and the recession left them with less money. Successful developments these days are scaling back home sizes by 200 to 400 square feet, he said.

Among the things they're seeking in seniors-oriented communities around the country:

•Younger boomers expect to continue to work, at least part time, so developers ought to consider proximity to job hubs. And don't forget to allot space for home offices in floor plans.

•One thing that hasn't changed is that walking trails are still the No. 1 amenity desired by this age group, the panelists said. And they still like the idea of fitness centers, but because developments tend to be smaller, such facilities also will possibly be smaller and have fewer frills than the ones built a decade or so ago, the panelists said.

•Providing a sense of physical security is key, and in some parts of the country boomers like the idea of gated access, the panelists added.

But don't make it look like a stockade, and be careful what you call it, said Donald Evans, president of an Orlando architecture and planning firm. Some developments are creating attractive live-in "cottages" for the staff that double as a secured entrance to their communities, he said.

"Don't call it a guardhouse," Evans said. "Call it a greeter's cottage, a gate master, a ranger's station. People will say, why do you need guards — is this a dangerous place?"

•Not everyone in this age bracket wants to buy, and the industry needs to respond to a demand for rental properties geared toward older residents, Evans said.

He cited one successful rental community with a medical facility within walking distance — access to quality medical care is a key consideration for this group, he said.

Some aspects of these homes that 50-plus buyers might expect to see:

•As with their counterparts in the broader housing market, walls are coming down and rooms are being combined in order to do double duty.

"Now it's zero waste," Evans said, and as such, the foyer will probably open directly into a great room. Or, in the back of the house, the laundry room may have expanded to incorporate a space to work on crafts or for a small office, he said.

•In these smaller homes, multitasking takes on new meaning, which might mean that the garage gets new respect — and air conditioning, Evans said.

"They're moving from the Midwest, and they miss their basements," Evans said. So builders should build expanded storage into garages and expect that homeowners will spend more time there.

"It is a living garage," he said.

•And how might recession-bitten boomers pay for these new lifestyles? Maybe by becoming landlords, the panelists said. More older-oriented developments, particularly in warmer climates, are offering small, separate "casitas" on homeowners' lots with the expectation (and appropriate zoning) that the boomers will rent them out.

"That's called 'the mortgage lives next door,' " Evans said.

Umberger writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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