• Founded in 2007, 55places.com currently houses around 1,600 active adult community listings across the nation and captures about 25,000 unique visitors daily.
  • The company also offers an agent referral program and continues serving consumers past the search stage by operating as a brokerage (55 Places, LLC).
  • Active adult community buyers should be treated as a different kind of lead. Agents who serve this niche market must have patience, deep knowledge of the communities and the ability to sell "lifestyle."

His laptop may have been held together with duct tape, but Bill Ness had an idea that was perfectly intact.

In 2007, Ness’ experience in active adult community real estate sales and an entrepreneurial spirit culminated to fill a void he saw in the Illinois market — a central resource for people to discover and weigh the nation’s 55-plus communities by location.

As his brainchild 55places.com reaches nearly a decade of existence, it remains rooted in Chicagoland but has achieved national reach. The site currently houses around 1,600 active adult community listings across the nation searchable online and captures about 25,000 unique visitors daily.

Individuals who come to the site are generally reaching or at the retirement stage, still 100-percent independent and looking to explore their next step (perhaps a lifestyle change). On desktop or mobile, users can easily select their state of choice with a drop-down menu or by hovering over a map.

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In the site’s early stages, Ness found that “once someone made a determination about a community they wanted to live in, they needed to contact an agent about homes for sale,” and a subbrokerage referral program came to life.

Wrapping together portal and brokerage into one

The company earns revenue through its referral program (the founder declined to share the referral fee value) and continues serving consumers past the search stage by also operating as 55 Places, LLC. Licensed in Illinois, the brokerage handles any in-state leads from 55places.com, while the other requests are referred out.

Now, the company maintains 300 partner agents across the country at entities such as Coldwell Banker, Century 21 and Re/Max. Once a user lands on a community, they are directed to an agent’s IDX website to view specific homes.

As such, 55 Places has a lot of transactions that aren’t in its name, Ness added, but it holds onto about 3.5 percent slice of market share, including those sales that occur under its partner agent umbrella.

What started as a simple directory of communities has evolved over the years into one-stop (niche) shop with floor plans, community reviews and agent connections. Moreover, the site claims Google’s No. 1 organic search result space for “active adult communities.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 10.16.45 PM

Handpicked partner agents

In addition to providing leads, 55 Places offers training and coaching to its partner agents, along with a custom CRM system to keep track of their referrals.

However, the company is selective about the caliber and type of agent it’s willing to work with. A team of six sales managers recruits agents in certain markets that fit their criteria.

“It’s not as simple as just raising your hand and saying ‘I want to be in the program,'” Ness said.

They receive between 30 to 40 applications per week, and fewer than 5 percent are selected. Those who make the cut have strong knowledge about the communities they’re servicing and are willing to respond to customer inquiries by phone and email with immediacy.

“We work very hard to find the best, most responsive, hardest-working agents who are experts in these communities that we partner with,” said Danny Goodman, COO.

Experience isn’t the only factor at play, however. Partner agents are required to be flexible and patient with unconventional leads who sometimes start the search process 15 months to 2 years in advance. So someone with years under their belt who has certain stipulations — that clients sell their home before touring or need a prequalification letter to start — still may not be a good fit.

Generally, agents become involved in the process as soon as the person who’s looking has requested they do so. In other words, people can use the website as much as they want without contacting an agent, but they always have the option.

Some users want hand-holding early on, while “others might look at our website for days or weeks or months or years, and narrow down exactly what community they want,” Ness added.

Curating the collection of listings

55places.com does not charge any community in exchange for a spot on the site. The majority offer single-family homes, though some do fall into the condo spectrum.

The management team has physically walked through over 60 percent of the listed communities and seen the various models.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 7.24.22 PM“We want to be the most comprehensive resource for people to find, research and compare active adult communities around the country, regardless of whether someone has paid us to put that neighborhood on our site,” Ness said.  “We try to get every single active adult community or 55 plus communities that exists on our site.”

But they’re not always easy to find, so content managers gather information through a variety of methods, including online research, contacting HOAs, reaching out to builders and talking to residents and local agents.

What 55-plus clients want (not assisted living)

An active adult community is much like a regular neighborhood — the big difference is there’s generally a clubhouse. “It’s not a ‘ring the dinner bell kind of thing,” Ness said.

In a survey 55places conducted last month of more than 2,500 individuals, the company asked questions related to active adult community living. Some of the most popular amenity requests included indoor and outdoor pools, gated communities, parks and state of the art fitness centers.

Golf was only important to 20 percent of survey participants. When active adult communities started in the ’60s in Arizona, they were built for folks looking to retire, move South and spend their days leisurely hanging by the pool and playing golf, Ness added.

Now, it’s more about lifestyle.

“You find that a lot of people who like the concept of active adult communities because it offers a great social element and a great way to meet and interact with other people,” Ness said.

Ness and Goodman also offered up some advice for agents looking to work with this clientele: The community is often more important than the home for them, so take potential buyers to the clubhouse first, show them the amenities and have them meet a few residents before the house tour.

Otherwise, be prepared for a letdown. If clients have a hard time envisioning how exactly moving into a community will differ from their current situation, they’re not likely to budge. You’re working with an entirely different kind of lead.

“If [clients] see something that offers them a better opportunity than where they’re at, that’s when they make the decision that they wanna move,” Ness said. “And usually that revolves somewhere around the social elements, the lifestyle and the community — not just the home.”

Email Caroline Feeney.

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