How baby boomers have remade home buying

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As she approached retirement, Clare Lynch began to think about downsizing from her Silver Spring, Md., split-level, where she had lived for 22 years. After considering several towns near the Chesapeake Bay, she moved her search to Leisure World, a community of 5,600 homes for those ages 55 and over, spread across 610 acres in northern Silver Spring, Md. She toured dozens of homes there before settling on a one-level, two-bedroom, two-bathroom house attached to two others.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” she said, noting the dozens of activities available to residents, from a ceramics studio to water aerobics, as well as nearby shopping and health care. “Whatever you want, it’s right there.” She said she also appreciates that yard maintenance and snow removal are taken care of for residents.

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Lynch is part of a trend of people buying homes as they age. The median age of all repeat home buyers is 58, according to the National Association of Realtors, and some of these, like Lynch, are buying in age-restricted communities.

“We are seeing that in 2024 every single boomer has turned at least 60, a critical time period where they are asking themselves, ‘Do I want to retire? Where do I want to live?’,” said Jessica Lautz, deputy chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

“Last year, baby boomers were the biggest share of buyers. What that means is they’re buying later in life than traditionally. Previously, we didn’t see the retired saying, ‘I want to move.’ Baby boomers have reinvented everything. I suspect they’re reinventing what it means to be a retiree. It doesn’t have to look like their parents’ generation.”

In its 2024 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Report, the Realtors association found that 19 percent of all buyers over 60 moved to communities specifically designed for older adults. Nearly 60 percent bought single-family houses, while 12 percent bought townhouses and 5 percent purchased condos.

More than half of the homes purchased in these communities were in suburbs or subdivisions, a trend seen in the Washington area, where new 55-plus communities, also called active-adult communities, are popping up in Loudoun County and the northern edge of Montgomery County, rather than in the city itself, where land is scarce and pricey.

In Clarksburg, Md,, for example, three builders are constructing what will eventually be a 375-home community called the Village at Cabin Branch, with condos and townhouses. Beazer Homes is putting the finishing touches on a 140-unit condo building there as part of its Gatherings brand of communities for those 55 and over. Its Gatherings at Potomac Station in Leesburg, Va., opened last year. The four-story Gatherings buildings have elevators and fitness rooms, along with book, craft and other clubs based on residents’ interests. Condos start in the mid- to upper-$400,000 range.

Beazer Homes’ Area President Troy Radelat said that Washington is one of the six metro areas across the United States where Gatherings communities are being built, not just because of a growing population of older adults, but because condos and apartments are more common housing choices than in some areas.

“We are focused on location, very close to where our potential buyers are living. People want to keep their same doctors, dentists, social networks. Gatherings give you the ability to come somewhere where there’s a much lower portion of your time spent maintaining your home. Rather, you can spend time around folks of similar age and interests,” Radelat said.

The number of homes being built in age-restricted communities has skyrocketed since 2009, reflecting trends in all types of housing starts, said Paul Emrath, vice president for survey and housing policy research for the National Association of Home Builders. He crunched the numbers from the Census Bureau, which started tracking new homes in age-restricted communities that year. In the most recent data, available for 2022, 59,000 homes were built in age-restricted communities for those either age 55 and older or 62 and older, about 6 percent of all new homes.

While the median size of the homes at 2,300 square feet in age-restricted communities is the same as in all other types of housing, the lot size is smaller, according to Emrath. There are also other differences. While 77 percent of the homes built in age-restricted communities were one story, just 47 percent in non-age-restricted neighborhoods were. In addition, houses for older adults were less likely to have a basement, but more likely to have a patio.

This reflects what Creig Northrop, founder of Northrop Realty in Clarksville, Md., has found.

“First-level living is the hottest trend, period, out there right now," he said. "Stairs become the biggest enemy as people are aging. Elevators are becoming big. 55-plus communities appeal to people who want more amenities, but don’t want senior housing or need care.”

What might turn people off from these communities? Northrop thinks some don’t want to live in houses that are too close together and want more privacy. At the same time, local zoning often allows developers to build more densely in these communities, which makes them appealing to builders, he said.

Another downside for some people is the age restriction itself. No children under 16 are allowed to live there, although they’re welcome to visit. This means that if a resident’s young grandchild needs to come live with them, the resident would have to move out. On the flip side, Northrop noted that some municipalities are more likely to approve these kinds of communities because they won’t be bringing more children into already crowded schools.

For Sandy Jaso, the decision to move from her five-bedroom house in Ellicott City, Md., was fortuitous. She moved a mile and a half away into the end unit of three attached houses in 2017, built as part of the Courtyards at Waverly Woods development in 2014. The house has three bedrooms, including a primary suite on the first floor. Soon after, she needed knee replacement surgery and was grateful she had no stairs to climb.

Jaso, who is also a real estate agent with the Northrop Group, said she relates to many of her clients looking to buy in 55-plus communities.

“They’ve had the half-acre lot, the mowing and garden bed. They’re kind of done with that. They want to turn the key and know everything outside is taken care of. Snow shoveling right to the front door is just a blessing to a lot of people. It’s really a nice, easy lifestyle,” she said.

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