Boomers Set to Shake Up Housing Market, Again

As the nation's 78 million baby boomers near retirement, their housing needs have changed dramatically. What they want is different from generations past, and only a few homebuilders seem ready to meet the challenges required of the next phase of "boomer housing."

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An ad placed by a Baby Boomer looking for a new home might read something like this: Seeking smaller but not small home, with lots of amenities, preferably single story. More than 78 million people strong, the Baby Boom generation has long been a driving force in the housing industry. Now, as the leading edge of the group nears retirement age, it's reshaping the housing market while developers try to adapt.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: In the 1970s, in was a jump in rental housing. The 1980s, first time home buying. In the 1990s, it was time to trade up, maybe even build a huge McMansion. That's been the typical housing story for many Baby Boomers who range from 42 to 60 years old. Now the oldest are about to shake up the housing market again. That's what Frank Anton found out after his housing media group, Handley Wood, surveyed about 2,000 older homeowners.

Mr. FRANK ANTON (Chief Executive Officer, Hanley Wood LLC): What this survey indicates is that 75 or 80 percent of the Boomers really intend to move somewhere. They do not plan to stay put. And because of these plans, if they carry them out, the Boomers should continue to drive huge amounts of housing activities over the next 10 to 15 years.

CORLEY: Perhaps in anticipation, there's been lots of high-rise condo building in a number of cities, as developers try to draw empty nesters - people no longer raising children - back into urban areas. The Hanley Wood survey suggests that most Baby Boomers want to stay close to where they now live, in the suburbs. And they aren't interested much in communities where everyone is around the same age.

Mr. ANTON: These Boomers are saying I don't want any part of that. I want to live someplace where there's diversity, where there are younger people and older people. And the housing units, I don't think the builders are sensitive, tuned into this at all. They're still thinking of retirement communities.

CORLEY: The phrase retirement community is becoming somewhat of a taboo in the housing industry. Instead, active adult communities, replete with walking trails, fitness centers, swimming pools and single level ranch style homes are popping up across the country. Many are age restricted; homeowners must be at least 55 years old.

Timothy McCarthy, managing director of Traditions of America, has built about a dozen developments along the East Coast.

Mr. TIMOTHY MCCARTHY (Managing Director, Traditions of America): I really try to avoid stereotyping what this group of consumers wants.

CORLEY: McCarthy says because there are 67 million people who are now 55 or older, their housing needs are diverse. But he says it's easier for builders to create age-restricted housing, ever since the federal government set clear parameters for such developments.

Mr. MCCARTHY: What's happening across America is local. Municipalities are focusing on that legislation, saying, okay, we need some residential developments in our local communities and we definitely have folks over 55 years of age who are interested in new housing.

CORLEY: Meantime, other homebuilders say land is still at a premium and it's more cost effective to build two-story houses.

(Soundbite of construction)

CORLEY: About an hour and a half northwest of Chicago, Woodstock, Illinois is one of the latest communities trading in farmland for new houses. A backhoe is loading a pile of dirt into a dump truck.

Ms. JEAN JOSLYN (Oak Harbor Development, LLC): What they're doing right now with the dirt moving is making the berm along McConnell Road where we'll be planting more trees.

CORLEY: Jean Joslyn is showing off one of the two developments she and her husband are building. This one is called The Maples at Woodstock; 36 single-story ranch style, two and three bedroom condos that, though attached, look like single family homes. There are lots of windows, walk-in closets, cathedral ceilings, fireplaces; they are also handicapped accessible.

Ms. JOSLYN: Which means they're built with the wider doors and the ability to add grab bars and, you know, roll-in showers, etc.

CORLEY: This development targets older home buyers but doesn't have age restrictions. And Joslyn says more and more Baby Boomers are starting to move in alongside young professionals who don't want to worry about maintenance.

Ms. ANNE WERING(ph) (Resident, The Maples at Woodstock): It's going to be a quick tour.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

CORLEY: Anne Wering has lived at The Maples for about six months. She's 57, a former flight attendant and artist who now runs her own yoga studio. This house, with its two bedrooms and two baths, is about half the size of her former home, and Wering, an empty nester, loves it, especially because it's all on one floor.

Ms. WERING: Stairs become an issue.

CORLEY: But with no stairs and lots of other conveniences, Wering says it definitely will be home for a long time.

Ms. WERING: Absolutely, especially when I retire, because it's easy to keep up and it's easy to leave.

CORLEY: Two important factors that developers must keep in mind if they want to attract a still potentially lucrative market for homebuilders - millions of Baby Boomers who may be looking for new homes.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

SEABROOK: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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