Minor setback: Houses at Somerset are pulled close to the street (14 feet from the curb) to encourage neighborly interaction. The Hamilton plan (shown here) features a wide front porch and rear-loaded garage.
Dan Carmody Minor setback: Houses at Somerset are pulled close to the street (14 feet from the curb) to encourage neighborly interaction. The Hamilton plan (shown here) features a wide front porch and rear-loaded garage.

Steve Romeyn knows what empty-nesters want, and it’s not just because he is one himself. Previously in his career, the Atlanta-based builder and designer developed active adult products for John Wieland Homes and Colony Homes, and then he ran a franchise for Epcon Communities.

Now he’s parlaying the full force of that experience into Windsong Properties, a local venture specializing in age-qualified communities in the Atlanta suburbs. And it’s paying off. In Somerset, the 20-acre neighborhood Romeyn and business partner Mark Carruth launched in August 2007, 15 of the 23 homes built to date were sold in the first 12 months. Another six homes sold between mid-August and mid-September of last year. The average buyer is 65 years old.

“It helps that we’ve started with a target market that has liquid assets,” Romeyn says. “We wouldn’t be selling if people couldn’t possibly afford to carry a second house if they had to.”

Furthermore, many buyers have reasons to move right away that supersede market conditions. “What we’re offering becomes especially compelling to them when life changes come up. We’re hearing, ‘My husband is having knee surgery next month’ or ‘My wife fell down the stairs.’”

Somerset’s answer to those life changes is a picturesque neighborhood of detached, single-story homes that are certified as both EarthCraft (green) and EasyLiving Homes (universally designed) dwellings. All homes feature wide, no-step doorways with options for exterior ramps, lever handles, abundant natural lighting (via windows, skylights, and sun tunnels), and other senior-friendly features. Accessible? Yes. Institutional? Hardly.

With their wide porches and traditional architecture, the homes exude a familiarity that is comforting. This is a big deal for buyers who are undergoing the self-imposed shock of cutting their living and yard space in half, Romeyn says. The largest floor plan in Somerset is 2,750 square feet on a half-acre lot, but all of the residences have proportionately more storage space than the average ­single-family home, recognizing that boomer buyers typically come loaded with decades’ worth of stuff. Kitchens have oversized pantries; garages are expanded to accommodate extra shelving or workbenches; and attics are accessible via fixed stairs. Many buyers have opted to finish their attics into playrooms or home offices, he says.

Courtly Love: A secluded courtyard garden in the lap of each home (Drayton interior and floor plan shown here) provides a private fresh-air retreat while bringing natural light inside.
Dan Carmody Courtly Love: A secluded courtyard garden in the lap of each home (Drayton interior and floor plan shown here) provides a private fresh-air retreat while bringing natural light inside.

And that’s just the beginning where customization is concerned. “Our buyers have owned lots of houses in their lifetimes,” Romeyn points out. “They have serious opinions about what they want, and we do our best to accommodate them whether it’s a pool, a spa, or a bonus room. We just did a temperature-controlled wine room for someone. It has its own cooling system, and the walls are super insulated.”

Managing such demands, he says, is made easier with an integrated construction management system that aggregates sales, purchasing, and warranty terms in a shared database.

“We can take a special request and run it through our process very quickly so it becomes part of the contract. We never end up with any arguments at the end ­because everybody knows in real time where we are cost-wise,” he says. “Even though we are a small company, we have systems that usually would only be found in larger building companies.”

The houses at Somerset are just 12 feet apart, but courtyard configurations give each residence its own private outdoor space while channeling more natural light into the interiors. Homes in the center of the site plan feature alley-loaded rear garages, while those around the perimeter are front-loaded. “Alleys are not particularly good when you’re working with rolling land, but we’ve made it work and people really like it,” says builder Steve Romeyn. “As a result, we’ve found that more people are willing to buy. And in this market, we are not trying to maximize price; we’re trying to maximize sales.”
The houses at Somerset are just 12 feet apart, but courtyard configurations give each residence its own private outdoor space while channeling more natural light into the interiors. Homes in the center of the site plan feature alley-loaded rear garages, while those around the perimeter are front-loaded. “Alleys are not particularly good when you’re working with rolling land, but we’ve made it work and people really like it,” says builder Steve Romeyn. “As a result, we’ve found that more people are willing to buy. And in this market, we are not trying to maximize price; we’re trying to maximize sales.”

Windsong has further entrenched itself in buyers’ good graces by offering $15,000 to $20,000 worth of free upgrades on every new home. “We are not discounting the houses themselves,” Romeyn notes. “If you do that, your ­present buyers are not happy with you. Perhaps they won’t give you referrals, but the bigger issue is you need their ­endorsements when potential buyers walk through the neighborhood ... and in our case, that happens a lot.”

So far so good. While many small builders have come to equate spec homes with a kiss of death, Windsong has found that having a couple on hand is actually good for business. “It’s true that in today’s market, fewer people are willing to contract to build a house in anticipation of selling their old house,” Romeyn says. “But when they do sell their old house, then suddenly they need something right away.”

Location: Woodstock, Ga.

Community: Somerset

Total acreage: 20

Date opened for sale: August 2007

Product: Single-family detached ranch homes ranging from 2,200 square feet to 2,750 square feet

Price range: $337,000 to $425,000

Total number of units at build-out: 58

Sales to date: 21

Builder/Developer: Windsong Properties, Woodstock

Architects: Romeyn Designs, Woodstock (plans); Woodward Architecture, Woodstock (elevations)

Landscape architect: Baker Land Design, Duluth, Ga.

Interior designer: Dena Carruth, Woodstock

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.