Investors have scattered. Baby boomers are postponing their plans for retirement. The economy remains uncertain. And real estate is no longer the sure investment bet it once was.

Given these uncertainties, builders that market active-adult and retirement homes and communities need to have a much better handle on who their customer is and what that customer wants. Three experts on 50-plus consumers told an audience at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday that they are shooting at a much smaller target than before, and these consumers’ preferences aren’t as predictable as they once might have been.

“You almost have to be a life counselor to sell this product these days,” says John Schleimer, a consultant with NorCal Market Perspectives, who moderated the panel discussion.

A recent Pew Center study found that 80% of boomers are pessimistic about the U.S. economy. With good reason, as homeowners 50 or older account for 30% of all foreclosures, according to a September 2009 AARP study. Consequently, as many as three fifths of all boomers are now postponing when they will retire. “The ‘Buy Now’ market is history,” says Bill Houghton, a real estate and marketing consultant who is currently working with The Landings Company, a developer in Savannah, Ga., specializing in retirement communities. He also notes that financial and “lifestyle” investors have been shunning retirement homes.

Still, the medium age when people start thinking about purchasing a second home is 47. “So it’s important to be proactive” and invest in marketing, says Houghton, especially when there are fewer customers to attract. “The pie has shrunk but there’s still buyers out there,” says Dave Robertson of RPI Media in Wilmington, N.C., a consultant and publisher of Ideal Living magazine.

Robertson is a big supporter of focusing on that 10% of older consumers who say they are willing to purchase a house. He’s also buoyed by demographic data that show the baby-boomer fueled retiree market will peak in 2015 but remain steady through 2020.

Robertson shared research from The Harrison Group, which does a monthly “wealth” survey with 3,400 American Express cardholders. It shows that 30% of respondents 55 through 65 intend to purchase a house. He compared that with data from a 2009 NAHB/MetLife survey that showed 63% of respondents intended to age in place. From these numbers, he concludes that only about 5% of the total 55-plus home buying market are prospects for relocation and home purchase in a market other than the one they live in currently.

In the AMEX wealth survey, 38% of those polled said they wanted to buy a smaller home. And the most popular amenity for these buyers—83%—was walking trails.

Robertson breaks down the retirement market into three cohorts: budget buyers looking for a house in the $150,000 to $275,000 range; mid-market buyers shopping for homes priced between $275,000 and $650,000; and luxury buyers—representing only about 10% of prospects—looking to spend between $650,000 to $1.5 million. As a sign of the times, he points out that the luxury buyer segment spanned to $3.5 million only a few years ago.

To target retirement-home buyers, Robertson recommends that builders and developers should focus on marketing the benefits to the buyer’s lifestyle, instead of any specific feature. “[Buyers] will be looking at six to 10 communities before they buy, so get to them before they come,” he says. Interestingly, he’s found that older buyers still prefer print and direct-mail marketing instead of e- mail and social media pitches.

That pitch, though, must be tailored to specific markets and buyers, says Margaret Wylde of ProMatura Group in Oxford, Miss., a leading expert on mature home buyers.

Her research shows that while the number of people ages 55-70 who are willing to buy a house rose to 16% in 2010 from 14% in 2004, the number who say they are “very unlikely” to buy also shot up, to 31% from 3%. “This is your market,” she says.

Wylde cautions her audience against commoditizing their houses and communities by relying too heavily on “generic” national research for spotting trends. Last year, her company did two surveys which found that certain buyers who initially preferred to purchase single-family detached homes could be persuaded to purchase duplexes when more extensive information about the products’ prices, sizes and amenities were provided to them. They were willing to pay more for amenities, as long as they matched what they were looking for.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.