SAN FRANCISCO — A 75-year-old man who is embarking on a new career in real estate and a former CEO who now works as a limo driver are examples of a larger trend, said Sherry Chris, chief operating officer at Prudential California Realty.

There is a growing population of older Americans – but don’t call them retirees.

“They don’t want to be considered as people who are retiring,” said Chris, who spoke Thursday during a session at a real estate conference in San Francisco sponsored by the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at University of California, Berkeley.

She discussed baby boomers and the younger Generation X and Generation Y crowd during the “Retirement, Real Estate, Boomers and Gen-Xers” panel discussion.

“Boomers are going to mix work with play. They will reject a life of retirement. They will repeatedly cycle between periods of work and leisure,” she said. About half of them plan to buy a new home in their retirement years, she said, citing a survey by Merrill Lynch. “The challenge is marketing to 50-year-olds who think they are 30.”

Chris said that boomers and Gen-Xers represent the two largest components of the U.S. population, and the real estate industry must find a way to reach both groups of consumers. While boomers have a lot of money to spend, it is the younger generations that will likely drive a lot of change within the real estate industry, Chris noted.

Boomers are typically defined as the roughly 78 million people who were born from 1946-64 and Gen-Xers are commonly defined as people born from 1961-81, while the following generation is referred to as Generation Y.

One-third of the population is 18-34, Chris said, and they are very Internet savvy. “Their buying habits are different. They use the Internet efficiently and effectively. In real estate, that means it has become more of a consumer-driven and focused business, and as Realtors we’ve had to change.”

“Will the agent continue to be the most valuable part of the transaction? Right now consumers say that the relationship between the agent and consumer is the most important part of the real estate transaction. That may not be the case in the years to come,” she said.

Sites like Zillow.com have introduced new online tools and are creating consumer feedback systems in an effort to connect with consumers on the Internet, she said, and Prudential is working on a technology that will add instant messaging capability related to property listings.

“In our industry there are new — what some would say competitors or threats — to our business, and Zillow is one of them potentially,” she said, though her company has chosen to partner with Zillow and other technology companies in an effort to keep up with new technologies. There are new challenges to the network of multiple listing services that serve as a database for property listings information, she noted, and new technologies may one day make the old MLS system obsolete.

Chris cited the example of Trulia.com, a company that aggregates property listings information from many sources and presents the listings to the public. “In years gone by the only way that you could aggregate data for all of the listings was through the multiple listing service,” she said, though new technologies could make this function “truly redundant,” she said.

Thomas Davidoff, an assistant professor for the Fisher Center who also participated on the panel, said that the boomer crowd represents a potentially huge and untapped market for reverse-mortgage products, which allow aging homeowners to dip into their home equity. With these products, the bank takes back the loan amount or the minimum value of the home when the home is sold.

Davidoff said perhaps 1/10th of 1 percent of seniors participate in the reverse-mortgage market. “It’s a huge potential market and it’s a very small existing market. It suggests the opportunity for this thing is gigantic,” he said. “It seems like there are a very large number of retirees who would stand to gain from this.”

But some seniors shun debt, and “giving away home equity seems like the worst possible idea” for them, he said.

Davidoff also said there are proponents for a home-equity insurance market, where homeowners could hedge against dropping real estate values in their market area. “This seems like a home run, it seems like a big insurance market that ought to exist but doesn’t exist,” he said.

Mary Furlong, president of a company that helps businesses market to the boomer and senior markets who also spoke on the panel, said boomers are most worried about finances, healthcare and home. With rising real estate prices, more and more boomers are taking from their own reserves to help their children buy homes.

Boomers are buying houses near the beach, near the ocean, in downtown areas and near grandchildren, she said. “I think moving back to the cities is going to be a really big trend for boomers. It’s like a play — the first act is when you have kids, the second act is when you have a career, the third act may be 30 or 40 years (long),” she said.

Housing developers should find out where boomers travel for fun and build communities in those spots, she added. “One of the sweetest parts of the boomer market is the real estate market.”

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