About 6 percent of new housing units in 2003 were built specifically for older adults, and baby boomers are likely to fuel the demand for age-specific housing for years to come, according to home-building experts.

David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders trade group, said about 3.2 percent of all housing starts in 2003 were built in 55-and-over age-restricted communities, while about 2.7 percent of all U.S. housing starts that year were designed and marketed to buyers in that same age group.

About 42,326 of the age-restricted units, or 75 percent, were single-family units, while the remainder were multifamily units, Seiders also reported.

He spoke during a conference call Tuesday titled, “The Baby Boomer Housing Market: How the Aging of America will Affect the Economy and the Future of Home Design.”

Norman Cohen, chairman for the National Association of Home Builder’s “50+ Housing Council,” a group focusing on the housing needs of older adults, also spoke during the call. Cohen, who is a builder for Marietta, Ga.-based Camelot/Signature Development LLC, said the 50-plus population controls about 75 percent of the nation’s wealth and represents about half of the country’s discriminatory income.

“They’re used to living in houses. They’re used to getting what they want, when they want. They are not looking for cookie-cutter (homes). They are looking for upgrades and a lot of options.” Gated communities and recreation facilities are priorities for this group.

While some older adults will choose to remain in their current homes, Cohen’s company focuses on those who are looking for a change of venue. Some of these buyers “are not looking for a place to live — they’re looking for a change in lifestyle,” he said. They don’t want to rake the leaves from their yard or clean out their gutters anymore, he explained. “We do a totally maintenance-free community. We take care of the lawn, the landscaping, the painting, the gutter-cleaning. We call it ‘lock it and leave it,'” Cohen said.

He said many older adults want to remain within 5 miles of where they live, or 5 miles of where their family lives. Cohen’s company focuses on building small communities of 30 to 125 units, with about five to six units per acre. Other builders focus on large, master-planned communities with lots of amenities for older adults, and a growing group of home builders is designing homes with the boomer crowd in mind, Cohen said.

Communities who want to keep their aging residents from moving away are using some unconventional tactics. Cohen noted that several communities in the Atlanta region exempt older adults from paying school taxes as a way to keep them close to home. One county in Georgia, he said, has adopted a tax law that exempts all people over the age of 60 from paying school taxes, for example.

Also, there are communities that provide special zoning designations for older-adult residential developments.

Cohen said that age-restricted communities have had somewhat of a negative connotation historically, though that is changing. “(These buyers) want to be in a community by themselves. It longer concerns me about advertising (age-restricted housing). It becomes a feature that people are actually out looking for. Age-restricted is not a problem at all anymore for the builders,” he said.

Seiders said that baby boomers are generally defined as the generation of U.S. residents born from 1946-64. Members of this group range in age from 42-60, and there are an estimated 78 million Americans in this group. The boomer segment in the 55-64 range has a high rate of heads of household, Seiders also said, and this segment has a homeownership rate of about 81 percent, compared to the national rate of 69 percent at the end of 2005.

There is a “virtual flood of people” approaching the 55-64 age group, Seiders also said. They are predominantly white and native-born.

As demand among older adults for new housing units ramps up, Cohen said builders are focusing on building units with amenities that will allow them to “age in place,” such as entrances that do not have stairs, door handles designed for easy of use, wide hallways, and wall-spacing in bathrooms that will allow for the addition of handrails, for example. Clubhouses, swimming pools, weight rooms, card rooms and meeting rooms are popular community amenities at older-adult developments, he said.

Seiders said that a housing survey planned this year by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should provide more information about older adult preferences in housing.

A survey by Harris Interactive last year, conducted for Pulte Homes’ Del Webb Division found that 46 percent of respondents who are 60-69 would consider moving to an active-adult community, while about 47 percent of those 50-59 would consider such a move, and 41 percent of respondents age 41-49 would consider moving to a community for older adults.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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