The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) calls them “zoomers” to indicate their “on the go” attitudes and lifestyles. Others label them “nexers” for their readiness to move into their next (and probably last) home. They also go by “active adults,” “semi-retirees,” and, of course, “baby boomers,” the latter ever since a 1947 article in The Washington Post coined the term.
Call them what you want (except “seniors,” if you expect them to answer), but the continuing influence of the nearly 80 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 on every consumer good and service is undeniable, and perhaps housing most of all. That's because, as their legacy indicates, they'll do exactly the opposite of what their parents and previous generations did in their golden years; instead of fading away to Florida (or Arizona or an old-folks home), most want to age in place, work well into their 70s, and take out 30-year mortgages to finance lavish lifestyles in a variety of urban and suburban housing settings and styles, most likely close to where they live now. “This generation is looking for new homes to treat themselves with,” says William Feinberg, president of Feinberg and Associates, an architecture and design firm based in Voorhees, N.J., that focuses on the 50-plus market. “They want everything to be the nicest they've ever owned.”
For new-home builders and residential remodeling contractors, the opportunities associated with such attitudes are almost limitless. That's also good news for dealers, who will be challenged along with their pro customers to keep up with the demands of arguably the most fickle generation of consumers yet seen but also benefit from their willingness to spend more on a bigger pool of high-margin options and upgrades, low-maintenance and environmentally sustainable products, and universal design features that extend their accessibility inside and around a new, existing, and/or second home.
A New Attitude Trying to figure out the whims or track the trends of today's emerging active adult market might appear futile given their unpredictable purchasing history, but one thing seems to be for sure when it comes to their housing preferences: “We don't hear the word ‘downsizing'in any of our focus groups,” says Feinberg, who also says terms like “age-restricted community” and “retirement” are generally frowned upon, as well.
Instead, Feinberg and other active adult market experts say, they want a single-level single-family home in a village-like suburban setting ... or an urban loft in the heart of downtown ... or a seasonal vacation home within a few hours' drive ... or a whole-house remodel of their existing family home that replaces the living room with a generous great room–kitchen arrangement, provides a home office, media room, and fitness area, and puts a full bedroom suite on the main level.
“Boomers are not at an age where they see age-restricted [housing] as appropriate,” says Chuck Covell, president of Bozzuto Homes, a builder based in Greenbelt, Md., who adds that buyers of age-appropriate communities (housing projects designed for older active adults, but not restricted to them) are seven years younger than those who purchase homes in truly age-restricted communities, both of which the company develops. “They haven't gotten to the point where a home is a burden they can't handle.”
Maybe not, but boomers also are historically willing to pay for convenience and low-maintenance products; for their homes, specifically, those characteristics help reduce the burden of housing upkeep chores and enable them to age in place in the same home, whether new or remodeled. “It is important to remember that boomers are convenience-driven consumers,” says Mark Goldstein, president of Impact Presentations Group in San Ramon, Calif., and a leading market expert. “Wasting their time is worse than wasting their money.”
An Expanding Inventory For pros and dealers, that mantra translates into synthetic or hybrid-material exterior finishes (think fiber-cement siding, composite roofing, fiberglass doors, clad windows, and polymer-based trim) as well as universal design products that include doors and cabinets with lever or grip handles instead of knobs; crank-open casement windows instead of hung units; hard-surface flooring; multiple lighting schemes; work surfaces, storage options, and appliances at varying heights; and the structure—if not the actual hardware—for grab bars and other helpful handles in bathrooms to create, as Goldstein says, a “boomerized” version of their homes.
And all at the highest quality, too. “Low maintenance and high quality are the hot buttons for these buyers,” says Kendall Carre, marketing director at Ambrosia Interior Design in Tustin, Calif., which works with builders to properly spec and amenitize homes for the 50-plus crowd.
That statement is bolstered by a 2003 study co-sponsored by the NAHB and Countrywide Home Loans of Plano, Texas, that found half of older home buyers are spending as much or more for a new house than their previous homes and are willing to pay extra for high-tech options and upgrades in those homes. Boomer buyers at Sun City Lincoln Hills, a Pulte Homes/Del Webb community in Lincoln, Calif., for instance, are spending upwards of $60,000 for architectural upgrades and options such as flooring and countertops.