By Pat Curry. Every day, volume builders look for ways to cut costs and still create an attractive community. But when it comes to building active adult communities, the prevailing wisdom these days dictates: Don't hold back on the amenities. From site selection, entry design, and signage to clubhouse design and model merchandising, you need to pour on the upgrades because these buyers want them -- and can afford to buy them.
"[Active adult buyers] are not moving down," says architect Gary Snider from the Boston office of Bloodgood Sharp Buster. "They're moving up in quality. Most are downsizing. They no longer want a trophy house; they want a trophy community."
And master suites merchandised to make it feel like a spa, adds Soni Christensen, president of Design East Interiors.
Snider's and Christensen's observations were among a number of fine points presented at a panel discussion at the International Builders' Show on what's working for active adult community developers. If there's a secret to building a successful small- to mid-sized active adult community, this was the crew to talk about it.
Snider and Christensen were joined by marketing pro Rich Carlson, of Carlson Communications. All three had a hand in Carriage Hill, the Southborough, Mass., development that took top honors in this year's National Council on Seniors' Housing design awards. Carriage Hill took the gold for best small active adult community, best community center interior design, and model merchandising for units bigger than 2,100 square feet -- among others. Rounding out the panel was top New England active adult builder, Ron Bonvie, president of DJG Construction and developer of the Southport community on Cape Cod.
Look in Your Back Yard
The process begins, of course, with a dynamite location. When Del Webb successfully developed Sun City Huntley, in suburban Chicago, Bonvie says builders nationwide realized they could tap into the active adult market.
"It's not a question of climate, but of proximity to children," he says. "When that property went over very well, builders thought it would go over well anywhere in the country."
Bonvie says he looks for sites within 60 to 90 minutes of a major metropolitan area, convenient to health care, recreation, shopping, and a major thoroughfare. He chose Cape Cod for Southport, a 250-acre golf community that will build out at 750 units, because it met one of the driving factors behind an active adult purchase. Whether the mountains, the beach, the golf course, or the lake, one of their top desires is a view. At Carriage Hill, developer/builder Oakwood Construction designed a luxury community on a hilltop, from which every unit has a stunning view.
Bonvie stresses the importance of assembling an experienced team to make the project a success. That includes demographics and marketing specialists, an architect and an engineer with active adult backgrounds, and an attorney with local entitlement knowledge, and preferably with local political contacts.
The initial studies should include focus groups to determine local needs and wants, Bonvie says. Area brokers, selected media, and community leaders should be invited to luncheons and information-gathering sessions in order to share the progress of the development.
Every aspect of the overall design should contribute to the community's theme, whether it's formal or casual. Entry signage is the first chance to communicate that theme to the buyer, Snider says. From there, the theme should continue with site features, such as lighting, fencing, road signage, and landscaping. The goal is to create an "instant, finished community."
These are not buyers who look at a development with a thought of how wonderful it will be in 20 years. It needs to be wonderful now. As a result, Snider emphasizes the need for mature landscaping in an active adult community.
"It is not a job cost," he says. "It's an investment that will pay dividends. These are people in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s. If they drive down a street that looks like a house they bought in their 20s and 30s, that will turn them off. Take 10 percent out of the interiors budget and pump up the landscaping. This is not a two-tree and five-bush environment."
It's also not a shuffleboard court and porch rockers environment. Bonvie's clubhouse formula is 20 to 30 square feet per unit, with a monthly operating cost of $15 per unit. At Southport, that translates into a $6 million, 3,200-square-foot showplace with a fitness center, sports lounge, 600-seat grand ballroom and theater, computer center, library, indoor and outdoor pools, billiards and dart room, and yes, shuffleboard courts. The staff includes a full-time activities director to plan social, cultural, and recreational activities.
Featuring just 62 units on the 60-acre site, Carriage Hill boasts a 6,000-square-foot, $1 million clubhouse. Unit pricing starts at $620,000.
"We had a significant site to take advantage of," Snider says. "We had a level of finish from the front door of the community to the millwork details for the home. That's what this client did so well. The level of finish at Carriage Hill, from front entry to the land plan to the landscaping to the architecture, is significant all the way through."
Regardless of the price point of an active adult community, Snider says the clubhouse needs to be a focal point, offering both intimate lounges and social spaces. If you don't have a golf course or a pool, at the very least build walking trails and bike paths. If possible, Bonvie says, build the clubhouse first. "It will pay you back tenfold," he says. "People want to see, feel, and touch."
Show and Sell
Once the models are built, Christensen says, load them with upgrades. Her surveys found that 80 percent of buyers would give up lot size or house size rather than give up amenities and upgrades.
"They're spending an extra 30 percent on upgrades," she says. "You need high-end cabinet choices, glass doors, crown moldings, stone or Corian countertops, and ceramic backsplashes."
They want extra-deep sinks, commercial-grade appliances, and even unique drawer pulls in the kitchen. The master suites need his and hers walk-in closets, a separate shower stall, and merchandising that makes it feel like a spa. Highlight formal and casual spaces and stress flexibility; the second bedroom can be used as a home office or a hobby room, for example.
In the midst of all that luxury, she says, don't forget that your buyers are grandparents. Make sure there's something that suggests the presence of children: a couple of stuffed animals in the bedroom or some Dr. Seuss books on a coffee table.
If there's one rule from start to finish, it's this: never, ever use the word old or mention a senior discount.
"The active adult is America's adult teen-ager," Christensen says. "They're young, active, strong, and they want a resort community."