A wave of unmarried, childless elderly people are likely to shape the future of housing. These “solo agers” must make big decisions about the course of their lives without input from loved ones. That includes their housing situations.

Lew Sichelman is a seasoned writer with 50 years of covering the housing and mortgage markets under his belt. His biweekly Inman column publishes on Tuesdays.

In just a tad more than 10 years, every single baby boomer will be older than 65, according to the latest Census Bureau projections. One in every 5 U.S. residents will be of retirement age. By 2035, seniors will outnumber people under 18.

There’s an important subset of older adults, and its one that gets very little attention. They’re called “elder orphans,” or unmarried seniors who have no children living nearby and, therefore, have no direct help from a spouse, child or significant other as they move through the aging process.

These “solo agers” must make big decisions about the course of their lives without input from loved ones. That includes their housing situations.

According to a new report, some 22 percent of Americans already over the age of 65 and have no nearby family support. And as the Census has pointed out, their number will only grow larger.

“This new wave has the potential to significantly impact the types of communities and housing the people of the near future want and need, foretelling important changes to how people will live for generations to come,” says the report “Predicting Housing Trends: How Solo Agers Will Impact Community Development.”

The study is from Immersion Active, a market solutions agency in Frederick, Maryland, specializing in connecting consumers with brands that bring values to their lives.

It’s intended to provide builders and developers with critical information about what elder orphans want from their homes and communities. But it is also important for real estate brokers and agents who will be selling these houses as they are built, as well as when they change hands from one occupant to the next.

As the report notes, “this population and its growth have major implications for the housing industry.”

For its survey, Immersion Active polled the 9,000-member Elder Orphan Facebook group, which self-identifies as individuals over the age of 55 who live without help from a spouse, partner or children.

Of the group, 79 percent are between 61 and 75, 86 percent live in urban or suburban settings, and 95 percent are female. Also, more than 60 percent are considering housing options other than single-family homes.

Take Sarah Peters, for example. A 68-year-old widow without children, according to the report, she chose a home where she can walk to the library, church and shopping. To avoid isolation, she went with a senior-friendly congregate living arrangement in which she has her own living quarters but shares meals, housekeeping services and some assistance with her fellow residences.

Or Katherine Connolly, who already lives in a high-rise but is thinking long-term about walkable communities “a little farther south” than her current Maryland residence. She told surveyors that she wants to drive less, so she wants to be within walking distance of what she needs. But she still wants a high-rise apartment for the security and neighborliness she says it offers.

The survey found that a staggering 87 percent of adults over 65 want to live in their own homes, whether it be their current one or a new one. And because they tend to plan ahead, this desire “puts them at the forefront of the senior housing tsunami, a wave of seniors looking for communities and houses that will allow them to age in place,” the survey found.

In that regard, 44 percent of the respondent believe their current residences will not suit their future needs, “making moving or renovating a necessity.” And that, the report adds, makes them one of the demographics most likely to make a housing change.

By almost a 2-to-1 margin, solo agers prefer to buy rather than rent. And they expect to spend anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 to make that happen. Also, more than 60 percent are willing to consider something beyond a traditional single-family house, townhouse, apartment or manufactured home.

Of the 60 percent who would be willing to look beyond traditional housing types, two-thirds said they would consider a communal or co-housing situation. As defined in the study, communal living is when two unromantic adults live together. Co-housing, on the other hand, is where many people live together in a community of small houses or apartments while sharing larger spaces with their neighbors.

While co-housing models tend to address health issues more directly than communal housing, solo agers are not necessarily about sharing expenses, the study points out. Rather, they are more concerned about having someone with whom to share their lives and keep watch on them as they keep watch on others.

Lew Sichelman is a seasoned writer with 50 years of covering the housing and mortgage markets under his belt. His biweekly Inman column publishes on Tuesdays.

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