Builders looking to attract buyers who are 55 years and older should think high tech and low maintenance when designing their homes and planning their communities, according to a new study by the National Association of Home Builders and the Met Life Mature Market Institute.

Those are the items that most of the more than 1,500 consumers in that age group surveyed said they would like to have in their homes and might not have in the homes they own now.

In addition to surveying would-be consumers desires last January, researchers for the recently released second part of the "Housing: Builders, Buyers, and Beyond" study also polled builders of age-targeted homes to determine what features they are including in their homes. Then they analyzed the gap between what buyers want and what they are being offered.

For instance, many of the 55-plus consumers surveyed said they would like services that they don’t have in the communities they live in now, such as home repair, transportation, house cleaning, home-delivered meals, and personal care.

Yet only 19% of builders surveyed said they are supplying those kinds of offerings in their communities now, said John Migliaccio, director of research for the Met Life Mature Market Institute during a press conference announcing the survey results. NAHB's chief economist David Crowe also presented.

“They wanted many more (convenience) offerings in the homes they planned to buy than where they live now,” said Migliaccio. Since those are services, rather than products, Migliaccio said it is understandable why builders might not think to provide those in their communities.

On the other hand, a low-maintenance home is something that consumers want and builders can easily offer.

Technology was another big desire among the boomer consumers surveyed in the study. That’s a change from 10 years ago, according to Steven Bomberger, owner of Benchmark Homes, a successful builder of 55-plus homes in Delaware, who also spoke during the press conference.

“Ten years ago they didn’t know how to program their VCR,” Bomberger said. “Now they want computers and structured wiring and programmable thermostats and security systems.”

The survey results backed up Bomberger's observations. Of those surveyed, 83% said they wanted high-speed Internet connections, 55% wanted home security systems, 53% wanted low-voltage wiring for electronic signals, and 55% wanted energy management systems.

While consumers said they were interested in cutting energy costs and are willing to pay some extra for it, they exhibited lackluster interest in “green” features that lessened environmental impacts. They also didn't seem to be actively interested in universal design elements that would enable them to live comfortably in their homes for longer. A downstairs master bedroom in a two-story home seemed to be the only universal design element in which consumers were truly interested.

Builders, on the other hand, said they are putting more green features as well as universal design elements in their homes. "Builders have been getting the message of incorporating universal design and accessibility features,” said Migliaccio." The majority are providing lever handle doorknobs, wider doorways, wider hallways, separate showers and baths.”

“Despite their clear role in enhancing near-term livability in a home, they (buyers) haven’t gotten the point that it’s important for them,” Migliaccio said. But buyers who do buy homes with universal design features say later that they are quite happy with them, he added. “In some ways they don’t know what they are missing,” Migliaccio explained.

That’s because most 55-plus buyers are healthy and mobile and don’t want to be reminded that one day they won’t be, suggested Bomberger. “It scares them and makes them hesitant,” he said.

Convincing those 55-plus to move at all might be the biggest hurdle for builders of age-targeted communities. Most (78%) survey respondents said they have no plans to buy a new home at all and 63% said they plan to stay in their current home indefinitely. And, if they do buy a new home, it’s not likely to be far away from where they live now and is likely to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

Despite the desire for services in a new community and a lower maintenance, higher tech house, the house that boomer respondents said that they would want to buy would be is pretty much what they have now--a single-family detached home in the suburbs with three bedrooms, two-plus bathrooms, roughly 1,900 square feet, and a two-car garage.

But there’s a big gap between what they say they would pay for a new home and what builders are charging for them. The median amount consumers surveyed expected to pay for a new home was $189,426 while builders said their product was priced roughly $100,000 more, at roughly $300,000.

Researchers said that is understandable since consumers were asked what they expected to pay and that is often less than what they end up paying once they realize shop around and get a sense of true prices.

Still, given the current recession, 55-plus buyers are opting to sacrifice some features they would have indulged in before the downturn, said Bomberger, the Delaware builder. “As long as five years ago most of the purchasers in our market thought our product was too small and they couldn’t envision living there,” said Bomberger. “Now people are looking at smaller as better."

He added: “They are not spending as much on the glamour and glitz and luxury. Gone is the marble, gone are the big Jacuzzi tubs, gone are the custom kitchens. They are being more practical. These buyers are smart. They have been through down times before, and they are watching their spending.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor at BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines