In building housing for seniors, many of the successful developers focus on creating livable environments while being sensitive to residents' physical needs. While the words youthfulness and vitality were not words traditionally applied to people 55 and over, improvements in health care have changed the meaning of middle age, resulting in active adult as a replacement term for retirement in describing these communities.
A lot of what over-55 buyers want in community amenities are determined by income.
In her analysis of the results of a builders association 2001 survey of the active-adult market, consultant Margaret Wylde of the ProMatura Group in Oxford, Miss., said that having a clubhouse and exercise room, for example, "influences a slightly greater proportion of 55+ households with $30,000 or more annual income than those households with less than $30,000."
An arts-and-crafts room influences a greater proportion of homebuyers with lower incomes, Wylde said. The six top amenities, according to the survey, are walking and jogging trails, outdoor spaces, public transportation, open space, a lake, and an outdoor pool.
Youthful pursuits are also reflected in the number of so-called retired boomers who are dusting off their resumes and heading back to work.
A study by Pulte Homes, which acquired Del Webb, the venerable builder of retirement communities, found that almost half of retired boomers plan to return to work. The key reasons are financial concerns and the need to stay active, said Paul Bessler, vice president of market research.
Baby boomers, therefore, are making the active-adult market younger. Even if boomers move into active-adult housing before turning 55, they do not dramatically alter their lives.
They continue to work by consulting or telecommuting. They also tend to remain in the areas in which they had been living.
Wylde said the over-55 market cannot be looked at as a homogeneous group, so sweeping generalizations cannot be made about them, even of the 1,000 buyers participating in the builders' survey.
"There are major differences among the segments," she said. "Whereas the younger ones seem to be willing to live in the boondocks, the older ones are much more likely to move closer in to urban areas."
If you define active adults as people who want to live in an age-restricted community, "then you'll find that 'age-restricted' is a very small part of the market," said William Bone, chief executive officer of Sunrise Colony Co. in Palm Springs, Calif.
"The market is segmented," he said. "It is not a one-size-fits-all, and any large builders that limit themselves to one segment will lose out."
However, smaller builders will find segments to build to and probably will do well as the baby-boomer population begins searching more actively for housing, observers say.
"Baby boomers are creating the critical mass behind the trends, much as their generation redefined consumerism," said Cheri Meyn, president of Genesis Marketing Group, of Englewood, Colo.
Retirement communities are getting smaller. In the 1960s, they ranged from 3,000 to 24,000 units. In the 1980s, when the boom really began, they averaged about 4,500 units. In the 1990s, the most prolific decade for active-adult development, the size is about 2,400 units and lower.
For example, Del Webb Co.'s Sun City in Arizona, which opened Jan. 1, 1960, had 26,000 units when it was completed in the mid-1970s. Subsequent versions of Sun City have fewer units.
A growing number of them are just parts of larger developments of single-family and upper-end housing, so-called intergenerational communities. In fact, only 10 percent of the nation's seniors live in age-restricted communities, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
No matter where they decide to live, many baby boomers apparently believe that money really can buy happiness. Despite concerns about Social Security -- respondents to the Del Webb poll said saving the system should come before income-tax cuts -- boomers do not view retirement with dread.
The Del Webb study found that 91 percent of boomers expected to be happy in retirement. Their attitude about retirement was directly linked to their level of income, though. The higher the household income, the greater the expectation for happiness in retirement.
Any number of surveys have indicated that nearly half of all boomers will move from the homes they are living in when they retire.
Boomers are still uncertain about how much money they will need to finance retirement. Of the 700 surveyed who ventured a guess, less than half said $500,000 or more, while 17 percent suggested they would need at least $1 million. The median income of those surveyed was about $30,000.