William E. Becker and architect Bill Feinberg, a pair of energetic market researchers based in Teaneck, N.J., think they may have struck gold. Boomer gold. They believe that builders should make a U-turn in their thinking about soon-to-retire "nexers," a group of affluent baby boomers who refuse to humbly convalesce. They suggest that builders can open rich veins of profitable, relatively dense housing for this niche, using infill parcels near urban centers. The heart of their thesis: With a few small adjustments, age-restricted urban housing can be converted into exactly the product to suit the 30 million nexers who will buy homes in the coming years.

"We've found that baby boomers are not ready to retire," notes Becker. "They have all their toys, and they want to play with them. They married late, so they're still paying off debt. They have less money in the stock market, and a lot of them are still working, with kids in high school or college."

Becker and Feinberg recently looked at two focus groups, divided by income level: the first earning $150,000 to $200,000 a year (they call them Professionals), the second (a group they call Middle Americans) with earnings ranging from about $50,000 to $80,000 annually. All participants were between 43 and 54, still a few years shy of the traditional active adult golden years.

Terms such as active adult, however, raise the hackles of almost everyone in this pampered generation. Focus group participants said that such catchphrases as age restricted and age limited are an instant turnoff.

"These are people who grew up in the '60s," notes Becker. "They don't like restrictions saying you can't put a pool in or put a fence up. What they're asking is, 'What is this place giving me that I don't already have in my current lifestyle?'"

Nostalgia factor

Feinberg says he often hears from residents in active adult communities that they feel they had to "settle" for their new living conditions. But the graduating class of boomers--even those in the Middle America earnings class--have far more equity wealth than their parents, and they're not ready to settle just for shuffleboard and Beano.

What do they want? What they describe as a "slower paced life," free of congested highways, a place with a "small-town feeling, more like the town I grew up in."

On top of those longings, however, they want all of the perks of a luxury subdivision--pools, clubhouses, proximity to entertainment and restaurants--all in a diverse community without age restrictions.

They also have high expectations about living space.

"One thing that knocked us for a loop was that, on the one hand, they're saying they don't need this big house anymore," notes Feinberg, "but each of our focus groups wanted 2,500 square feet of floor space. And no cookie-cutter houses. That was a big thing. Elevations have to vary. They want different neighborhoods within the same community."

"They want a walkable street, with a convenience store nearby," Becker adds. "That means developers can't just put their retail in last, at one end of the community."

Happy middle ground

The more affluent Professionals focus group describes their next home purchase as a step down, away from their high-stress lifestyles. Less affluent Middle Americans, however, see their next house as a move-up, a reward for years of hard work. Conveniently, both groups' desires converge, as one tries to downsize and the other tries to seize the brass ring. Obviously there will be differences in what they can afford, but certain themes came up frequently in the focus meetings:

* End the maintenance. Nexers dislike repairing and maintaining their older homes. They would much rather focus on their hobbies and not have to battle against structural entropy.

* Consider children. Even with kids grown and in college, nexers want to live near their offspring, not move far away to resort areas. They want room for children when they come home to visit (or live).

* Trust in equity. Despite suffering major losses in their 401(k) investments, even Middle Americans don't seem to be especially concerned about the weakened U.S. economy. They view homes as the one stable investment, so they're still ready to buy if the product and location are right.

* Let them learn. Proximity to higher education institutions came up frequently in the groups. Nexers want to continue their education, now that they have the wealth and time to do so.

* No Retiring. Many nexers have no plans to retire anytime soon. They don't want to think that far ahead, and many don't see themselves ever retiring.

Sharing amenities

Of course, the type of single-family upscale homes (many respondents desire single-story floor plans) suggested by Feinberg and Becker's research will not work in every community and will not be within reach of every buyer. Even compact townhomes or row houses that meet the desires of this group of people will likely include price tags that start well above $300,000.

But builders can lower that price, Becker argues, by taking advantage of existing amenities: city-owned parks and pools, movie theaters, colleges, and small town centers.

"A clubhouse doesn't have to be the driving force of a new community," notes Feinberg.

"What they're really looking for," Becker says, "is a home where they can invite their peers over and have them say, 'Wow, what a hell of a deal you got on this place!'"

To learn more about the research of William Becker and Bill Feinberg, contact them at webatweb@aol.com.