The seniors market is one of the faster-growing niches in real estate. Although Realtors and residential builders have recognized the potential of the market for almost a decade, momentum has built gradually.

"The older-adult-market niche is now growing at twice the rate of the general population," says Carmen Lostetter, author of the book Senior Housing Specialist: A Guide to Working With Seniors.

"Mature adults are already the largest group of property owners in the country," she says. "Their specialized needs are becoming more recognized by the business community."

According to the 2000 Census, of the 99.5 million private homes in the United States, more than a third were owned by people 55 and older. The median age of all homeowners is now 46. People in the 45-to-54 bracket, starting to think about retirement, own 19 percent of those 99.5 million houses.

Real estate "has always been a niche business," says John Tuccillo, a real estate industry consultant, economist and author. “The first-time-buyer market, in particular, has been a popular road to success. By now, with demographic shifts concentrating the population of the United States in older age brackets, the 'last-time' home buyer may become the fastest-growing market segment and a new niche for the professional."

The focus on baby-boomer buyers is easily justified.

"The boomers have dominated the culture and economy of this country since they came into existence, and have changed the fundamentals in every phase of life," says Tuccillo.

This is also the wealthiest generation of seniors the country has produced. "They are people of substantial means, and there are a lot of them," he said.

"This group controls 80 percent of the money in the nation's savings-and-loans," says Jill Corliss, president and CEO of the Senior Advantage Real Estate Council, which certifies real estate agents who deal with the seniors market.

"They also represent $66 of every $100 invested in the stock market at this time," says Corliss, who co-founded the council with her late husband, Tim.

Thanks to improved health care, this group is going to be around for a while.

William D. Novelli, executive director and chief executive officer of AARP, says, "People turning 50 today have half of their adult lives ahead of them. They are beginning to use that milestone to question what they want to do with the rest of their lives, instead of viewing it as a time of decline."

Although boomers, in Tuccillo's words, "know what's best for them and what's best for you," they seem to be poorly prepared to enter this next phase of life.

When real estate agents and brokers deal with older clients, they need to talk about "tax laws, reverse mortgages, and using the equity that people accumulate when they stay in their homes 20 to 30 years," Lostetter says.

In this way, agents "are not salespeople but consultants," says Julie Garton-Good, a real estate industry consultant and author. "A successful agent tells, but not sells, and guides, but doesn't decide."

Real estate agents also need to know the differences between the generations and how to market to those differences. "It has been suggested that the same five types have existed from biblical times," she says, "but these days, we attach different names to these groups."

According to Lostetter, these groups are: the GI Generation (born 1901-24); the Silent Generation (1925-45); the Baby Boomers (1946-64); Generation X (1965-81); and the Echo Boomers (1982-2001).

A growing number of people in the three older generations are tapping into the equity built up in their homes through reverse-mortgage programs.

"The home is the biggest asset for most people," says Joyce Bea-Sterling of Financial Freedom Senior Funding Corp. in Irvine, Calif. "A reverse mortgage allows people 62 years and older the chance to convert their home equity into cash without having to make a monthly payment.

"Many people on fixed incomes wouldn't qualify for a conventional loan, but the reverse mortgage has no income requirement, and you can do it without leaving home," Bea-Sterling says.

The problem is that, to many older ears, "the reverse mortgage sounds too good to be true" and it seems as if there might be a catch that will leave people out in the street.

The size of a reverse mortgage depends on the applicant's age, the type of mortgage sought, the value of the home, and the interest rate, she says.

As long as the reverse mortgage is outstanding, there are no monthly payments. The loan matures when the borrower no longer occupies the house as a primary residence, which occurs when the house is sold, if the owner moves or dies.

The money can be used for just about anything, Bea-Sterling says.

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