Buyers' flexible lifestyles are treating builders to a booming second-home market.

By Jan Mitchell

John and Beverly Duval of York, Pa., love spending winters at Del Webb's Sun City Grand in Surprise, Ariz. But while they're soaking up the sun, they miss their kids and grandkids on the East Coast. So 74-year-old John, a former Army chaplain, and Beverly, a 60-year-old retired government analyst, call two places home.

The Duvals are part of a burgeoning cohort enjoying a "lock and leave" lifestyle. Buying everything from log homes to luxury lofts, the group has been blessed with healthy stock portfolios. Pre-retirement boomers and mature adults like the Duvals are leading the way, but young, active families are also escaping to second homes.

They are fueling sales in places like Pinecrest Lake Golf and Country Club, a luxury 900-unit, single-family resort community in Pocono Pines, Pa. The community attracts professionals from Manhattan, Philadelphia, and New Jersey who want a weekend escape. Gabe Pasquale, chief marketing officer for developer Spectrum Skanska of Valhalla, N.Y., a partner in the joint venture, says that Pinecrest Lake's target buyers are mature adults and families with children looking for a country club lifestyle. Pinecrest draws them with multi-age on-site amenities like a pool complex with a water slide, an 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, cross-country skiing, an ice skating pond, and a 77-acre lake with a sandy beach.

The second-home market isn't the exclusive domain of well-heeled buyers. Tampa, Fla. based Jim Walter Homes targets lower- to middle-income vacation-home buyers. Four of its 35 models are designed as leisure homes. Walter builds them mostly in the Georgia and North Carolina mountains.

Growing market

It's not certain how many homes are built or used specifically as secondary homes (see Second-Home Stats sidebar), but this much is true: The market will grow, and technology will help boost its numbers. Paul Bessler, vice president of market research and database management for Phoenix-based Del Webb, believes the proportion of people who split their time between two residences will increase.

Mary Flood, vice president of sales and marketing for Honolulu-based Schuler Homes, says the Internet is fueling sales of Hawaiian vacation homes to buyers from the mainland. Interest is particularly strong for homes on Maui and the Big Island, she adds. "We are getting a lot of inquiries through the Internet, both from our own Web site [] and through portals such as and As time goes on, I think mainland interest in [Hawaiian] vacation homes will be even greater," she says.

Phoenix and Florida have traditionally been hot markets for dual-home ownership, but buyers are opting for less obvious destinations, as well. Located near Chicago, Del Webb's Sun City Huntley provides a vacation venue for Midwesterners who don't want to stray far from family and friends. Another migratory trend is the move away from Florida--what Bessler calls "reverse migration." Retirees from New York who originally moved south are buying seasonal homes in places like Sun City Hilton Head so they can stay closer to their families. Floridians also escape summer mugginess for the North Carolina mountains. Not surprisingly, many dot-com folks from Seattle and San Jose, Calif., head to Hawaii, while Southern Californians flee to the Sierras.

Buyers at the 32-unit Timbers Townhomes community in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., are extremely brand-responsive, says Dana Severey, vice president of Intrawest. "These buyers respond to Starbucks, Rolex, and BMW. They will pay a premium for quality, and have a very high level of expectation," he says. The

Vancouver, British Columbia based firm developed the condo project and has sold all but three units at an average home price of $900,000.

Severey's buyers want recreational amenities. They want to create memories for their families. The median age of Timbers Townhomes' buyers is 47, but by most accounts, this age group isn't thinking or acting older.

Michael R. Greenberg, a senior vice president at Watermark Communities (WCI), echoes this finding. Half the Bonita Springs, Fla. based firm's home buyers own two or more homes, he says, and nearly half of those dual-home owners are baby boomers who still are working.

Timbers Townhomes answers these buyers' desire for an active lifestyle--and helps maintain a steady stream of buyer traffic--with multi-season activities like golf and skiing. But buyers also want to socialize, says Severey. "We find that pedestrian-oriented villages are an absolute key to attracting people throughout the year," he says. After an exhausting day of skiing, golfing, or tennis, residents don't want to return to their condos. Instead, they want themed restaurants and retail.

Second-home buyers also want security. Gated communities are especially important when residents are gone part of the year, but that doesn't mean they want to be closed off from the world. Activities that allow them to meet their neighbors are big plusses. Greenberg says many of WCI's communities offer continuing education, investment clubs, and community volunteerism.

Marketing tips

Moving a second-home community takes a lot of marketing muscle, says Elise Platt, president of E.A. Platt & Co., a real estate marketing consulting firm in New York. "It's a very hard marketing effort unless you have large marketing dollars, because your reach is so wide," she says. That's when a heavy referral base comes in handy. Pinecrest Lake enjoys at least a 50 percent referral ratio, says Platt, who oversees the community's marketing efforts.

Another important means of luring wide-ranging buyers, of course, is the Internet. "We are seeing more qualified traffic now because buyers [over 45] are Internet-friendly," says Greenberg. He points out that WCI's Web site gets a significant amount of user sessions, so prospects who visit the developer's communities are already highly informed. As a result, it takes customers significantly less time to make purchasing decisions. More than 43 percent of WCI's buyers buy less than six months after their first contact with the firm.

WCI also advertises in national lifestyle periodicals like golfing and boating magazines and Modern Maturity. If an ad brings in a prospect, that prospect gets entered into an extensive data bank "until they buy or die," says Greenberg.

Without spending a lot of money, Schuler Homes has successfully marketed Hawaiian golf course and vacation communities like the Classics at Waikele on Oahu and The Island at Maui Lani on Maui. Schuler advertises in free glossy magazines like Homes and Land, and runs ads on local cable TV channels aimed at hotel guests. And last year, Schuler got as many as 15 percent of its buyers from the Internet. "Print ads still bring people in the door, but these other media are a little more target-market oriented," says Flood. This spring, Schuler will unveil Puako, a Kauai golf course community of homes priced from $250,000 to $350,000. Future marketing plans include hooking up with to bring in even more Internet inquiries.

Pinecrest Lake's ads have appeared in major newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but print ads in New Jersey's Record have been more successful. Golf shows and Realtor relocation groups also prove fruitful. So does Pinecrest Lake's merchandising effort. Lita Dirks, president of Denver-based Lita Dirks and Co., the model-home merchandiser for the project, says the feeling of getting away is key to these buyers. "People escape to a second home to get away from the big city, so use more casual art and materials than you would in a primary home," she advises.

At Pinecrest, Dirks capitalized on the Poconos' antique-shopping opportunities by sprinkling the models with locally bought antiques. A distressed door became the perfect adornment for a master bedroom suite, and antique picnic baskets graced the suite's shelves. Hunter green cabinets in the kitchen and a wall of windows married the outdoors with the interior. Accessories from local artisans provided a final touch. Platt says the creative effort was a real switch from the area's typically dreary model homes. It paid off--word of mouth about the models brought in heavy traffic.

How does a builder or developer ensure profitability? Del Webb's Bessler stresses knowing the market. "We spend a tremendous amount of time and effort doing research to understand the buyer. If you miss by a little, you miss by a lot," he says. Instead of the baby boomer market, Del Webb studies what it calls the "zoomers"--the 48- to 55-year-old market. And Bessler points out that all 55-year-olds are not the same. That's why smart builders offer a range of features and amenities to suit the broadest spectrum of their target market.

After all, says Dirks, "A second home is everybody's dream. You need to make sure you are marketing it in a way that will sell that dream."

Stylish Seconds

You might think second homes would be smaller than primary homes. Not so. "We are seeing a trend from smaller to larger homes even among childless buyers, because they are going to spend more time there and will be entertaining more," says Michael R. Greenberg, a senior vice president at WCI Homes in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Keep in mind these pointers when you're designing vacation and seasonal homes.

Technology counts. Many second-home buyers still want to communicate with their businesses, so provide high-tech features like structured wiring, high-speed Internet access, and security systems that let residents monitor their homes while they're away. And provide a home office--maybe even two.

Sleepover space is a must. Second-home buyers want space to entertain and accommodate overnight guests, so WCI designs some secondary bedrooms as master suites. In some of its communities, Phoenix-based Del Webb offers a separate "casita," which can serve as a guest home or in-law quarters.

Outdoor living is big. Give second-home buyers outdoor barbecue pits, fountains, and spas. Backyard fireplaces are popular, even in Florida.

Open floor plans are preferred. Beverly Duval, a dual resident of Pennsylvania and Arizona, says she and her husband prefer a single-level plan featuring a kitchen that opens to a family room and a split master bedroom that gives them more privacy from guests.

Views are king. "Take a lot of care when addressing the view shed," Greenberg advises. "If a homesite isn't located on the water or a golf course, we create man-made, Disney-like features like lush landscapes and waterfalls residents can see from the rear of their homes."

Second-Home Stats

Just how many second homes are there? The U.S. Census Bureau's Housing Vacancy Survey puts the number at 6.3 million. That figure represents about 5 percent of all U.S. housing units. (For the entire survey, see

However, NAHB research economist Rose Gutierrez says the data aren't entirely accurate. For one thing, Census Bureau interviewers can't narrow down the intended use of vacant units. Are they on the market, rented or sold, awaiting occupancy, or vacant year-round? Permit-data tracking also is inadequate. Manufactured homes are a popular option for many second- and vacation-home buyers, yet they are excluded from permit data.

That's why Gutierrez is reluctant to draw conclusions about the Census Bureau's figures. "The data have their limitations, and these are not hard numbers," she says. She advises anyone who's tracking trends to take another look at the Housing Vacancy Survey when the decennial figures come out in mid-2001.

Even some builders have a hard time nailing down their buyers' intentions. Says Mike Roberts, COO of Jim Walter Homes, "Identifying how many buyers are buying prime shelter vs. secondary is hard." The Tampa, Fla.- based builder is beginning to do extensive research to better understand its second-home market.

Jan Mitchell is a freelance writer in Pleasanton, Calif.

[BIG BUILDER Magazine, March 2001]