Newly retired, the New York City couple moved to an age-restricted Jersey Shore community looking for a new life. What they found were constant reminders of death.
“I would sit on my balcony and tears would run down my cheeks,” the normally taciturn man explains during a focus group on what older home buyers are seeking. “There were no signs of life, just the ambulances coming and taking people away. I thought, ‘This is where I’ve come to die.’”
Depressed and disappointed, the couple decided to take The Villages up on a cheap offer to visit the mega-successful retirement community in Central Florida. They were cynical about the community’s video featuring smiling, happy residents of “Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown.” But they needed a break and Florida beckoned. They visited and decided to stay.
“Long story short, when we moved in we got our life back,” the couple told Mollie Carmichael, a principal at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, who was conducting a focus group at The Villages to find out what older buyers want in a community. “He has a new gang of friends, she has a new gang of friends, and they are busy every day of the week,” Carmichael explains. “I hear this all the time, not just at The Villages. It’s the difference between retiring in a place with social infrastructure and one without.”
Veteran home builder and community developer George E. Casey adds, “There is a high value in the elimination of loneliness. It’s true for everybody.”
So for baby boomer buyers who are hurtling toward the last stages of their lives with a fear of loneliness, their children out of the nest, and the prospect of leisure time around the corner, the idea of moving somewhere with a vibrant community—where they can imagine living, not dying—might be the surest way to sell them a house. And you want to sell houses to boomers. Here’s why:
—There are a lot of them: 77.8 million people in the generation with an average of 10,000 turning 65 every day for the next 19 years.
—They are relatively wealthy, with more than 40 percent (18.3 million) making more than $75,000 a year.
But thoughts of buying a home do not always translate to actions, especially if you have a house to sell that is filled with emotional memories and that you’re likely to get less money for than you had hoped five years ago. Add to those barriers the fact that most boomers picture themselves growing older in their current home, according to a recent Civano/American LIVES study.
They might be thinking about downsizing or moving to a new area for the next part of their lives, but “they are discovering that there are not a lot of reasons to do it,” says Brooke Warrick, author of the study. “The easiest decision to make within this population is no decision at all.”
At the same time, Warrick says, boomers are dealing with major life changes: the children leaving, the economic downturn, and a house that may be too big, expensive to operate, and a pain to maintain. “Those things make them restless,” he says.
And the one thing that might tip restless boomer buyers toward moving is the prospect of moving to a community where their lives will be better in some way.
Seeding community beyond the clubhouse
Creating a sense of community in a new development that will attract boomers, and other age buyers, too, is more of an art than a science, says Casey, currently CEO of Bensalem, Pa.–based Orleans Homes. In his career, Casey has been on the ground floor of the creation of successful large master-planned communities around the country.
“You are doing social engineering as much as you are doing physical engineering,” he says. “The physical facilities are only half the effort,” and while those set the stage for community, a stage needs actors and good community developers know how to get residents to interact and facilitate bonds. Casey calls it “creating affinity groups” of people with similar interests.
Walking trails in a development can create a moving affinity group, as can dog parks. The more places where people can interact, the more bonds are formed, and a sense of community develops.
Builders also can foster affinity groups by creating activities that bring residents out of their homes. Casey mentioned a community where the developer held front porch parties in neighborhoods. Once a week, one person would volunteer their front porch for a party and neighbors would bring food and drink.
Planting parties are another technique. The developer, who would be planting annuals anyway, gives them to residents to plant wherever they think the community needs beautifying. Casey refers to such programs as “social venture capital.” He says, “Your goal is to get something started and then it can run on its own.”
While working at Weston, an Arvida community in South Florida, Casey said a group came to the developer asking to have an event that celebrated dogs. The developer donated $3,000 to get the first event going, and donated another $2,000 the second year. By the third year, the community group managed to find their own sponsors among local pet stores and veterinarians.
Tapping into the community outside the neighborhood
Don’t overlook resources outside the new development to foster community, Casey says. Boomers, already the most educated generation in U.S. history, are keen to go back to school. So, some developers create alliances with local higher educational institutions that allow residents to audit courses or attend classes within the community, creating another way for residents to interact.
Churches often are helpful in creating community within a new development. In the early years at Weston, the developers invited the leaders of all the nearby religious groups together for regular lunches. The group of 20 included Baptists, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims. The group gave sales agents contact information for the religious leaders, which they then passed on to home buyers. The Baptist church and Jewish temple—next door to one another—worked out a joint parking agreement since they worship on different days of the week. The Baptists also ran a day care on Saturday for their Jewish neighbors.
Newland Communities, which builds large master planned communities around the country that successfully attract boomer buyers as well as those in other age groups, has begun to capitalize on resources outside their developments to help create a sense of community faster.
Newland recently opened a coffee shop that serves custom roasted brew in its sales center at Tehaleh in Washington state. The shop, which has a deck with an outdoor fireplace and live music on some evenings, attracted a local moms’ group as well as students and other nearby residents before the model homes opened. That means shoppers who stop at the café to rest after touring model homes will bump into local residents, often the best ambassadors for the neighborhood or greater community. “We show community from day one from the perspective of those who live there,” says Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, Newland’s chief marketing officer.
Rick Andreen, president of active adult communities for Shea Homes, says creating a sense of community in a new development is an art form. “It’s nuance, it is not just about building amenities,” he says, echoing Casey’s sentiments. “The single largest mistake that most developers make is that they think it’s all about the amenity budget,” Andreen says. “It’s not. That’s part of it. But you have to have an environment that is conducive to people meeting each other.”
Providing highly attentive customer service to buyers and residents is another must, Andreen adds. “It’s the difference between going to Disneyland and some other amusement park,” he says. “You have to exceed people’s expectations and make them smile.”
Shea’s active adult communities are well-known for their creative activities. One development, built around a working vineyard, holds an annual grape pressing event for residents to help make wine from the year’s crop.
Darth Vader versus the Good Fairy
Andreen warns that, without careful planning, the tenderly tended sense of fun and community in a development can disappear after all the homes are sold and stingy homeowners associations start eliminating the little things that make the atmosphere right—the candy dish at the front counter, for instance. Shea keeps that from happening by splitting off the homeowners association, to be run by residents, from the group that operates the clubs and other amenities. In Shea’s case it has created a separate management company experienced in resort management for that purpose.
Casey agrees that it makes sense to separate the homeowners association, with its duties to collect dues and enforce rules, from the social side of a community. “It’s the difference between Darth Vader and the Good Fairy,” he notes.
Creating a purposeful life
But baby boomers are looking for more than just social fun in their new neighborhoods, according to Warrick’s survey. Now that their children are reared and their working life is waning or over, they are harking back to self-actualizing life missions they might have abandoned in their youth. They want to make a difference in the world. They seek purpose.
“It’s not just about being on The Love Boat,” says Jim Karras, vice president of communities for PulteGroup, which operates the Del Webb active adult developments. “They want to give back. They recognize how fortunate they have been in their life.”
In Warrick’s survey, a significant number of boomers said they want, or might want, to live in a community that attracts people who enjoy searching for purpose in the second half of life—a community that offers opportunities to connect with people who are engaged in making a change in the world.
“It turns out they had these altruistic notions and they kind of had to park them during the years their kids were growing up,” Warrick says. But now, relieved of the responsibilities of paid jobs and child rearing, and full of skills and knowledge gained over decades, boomers are becoming formidable volunteers and organizers of fundraisers.
Consider the yearly garage sale held by residents of Rogue Valley Manor, a continuing care retirement community in Medford, Ore., just north of the California line. The community has housing for seniors ranging from independent living cottages to a full-service nursing home.
It takes 300 resident volunteers working year-round to organize and run the sale. Some work picking up donated items throughout the community from residents who are downsizing. Other volunteers sort through the donations and prepare them for storage in a large warehouse that the group rents to hold the goods until the four-day sale in June, when everything is moved to a local armory. Last year the event netted $150,000 that went to the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation, which uses the money for a variety of charitable causes. “Some of the funds are especially earmarked to help residents who outlive their money,” says Bill Jacobs, a retired executive who is the event’s co-chairman.
“The essence of it is an incredible sense of teamwork,” Jacobs adds. “Everybody loves working together on this project. You have a retired pastor, a college professor, an education administrator, a superintendent of schools, doctors, all kinds of people pitching in, hauling boxes, and putting on aprons.”
It was activities such as the garage sale that helped persuade Jacobs and his wife to move out of their sizable home on a large lot outside of town to buy into the community.
“You have the feeling that in your declining years that if you could enter into a community where you wouldn’t just be going stale, that you would be stimulated by the social interaction and the opportunity to meet people in your own age group who are fun to be with and who you would have a lot in common with,” he says. “We thought it would be a quieter place over here. It’s been the opposite.”