Mollie Carmichael is certain about one thing when it comes to the near-term future of master plan communities.

“Water is the new golf,” says Carmichael, a principal at Zonda who has researched and compiled a list of the top master plan communities in the country that provides a window into upcoming waves of development.

The features that make the top communities desirable to home buyers may change from year to year, but demographics suggest big changes are set to sweep through the segment. Baby boomers want a community that gives them opportunities to remain active, while older millennials are looking to step into larger homes in communities that offer a range of amenities that keep their children away from screens.

“We are at the cusp of a major shift,” she says. “No matter what the market conditions look like, we are at the start of a perfect storm—in a good way. You have 80 million millennials and 72 million boomers all approaching the ‘move and buy’ stage. It’s a great spot to be in.”

Here are the top five communities by sales in 2021—and what builders can learn from their success.

1. The Villages, Florida
Developer: Villages of Lake Sumter
2021 starts: 2,462
Price range: $169,549 to $1.3 million

The largest active-adult community in the country has pulled off a neat trick. It’s managed to create a coastal feel in Central Florida (at Central Florida prices). Like all good coastal towns, The Villages has a busy main street that draws residents out and gets them mingling and socializing.

“They have that main street concept every good beach town has,” Carmichael says. “But the real secret aside from the water and golf is every single day at 3 p.m. there is live music in their town squares. It’s genius—everyone has a beer and eats and hangs out. It’s the only master plan I’ve ever visited where everyone is smiling in the street.”

Courtesy John Unrue

2. Lakewood Ranch, Florida
Developer: Schroeder Manatee Ranch, Inc., Del Webb, Kolter Homes
2021 starts: 1,822
Price range: $300,000s to more $1 million

Lakewood Ranch reflects a broader theme in the industry—large developers selling multiple villages at the same time.

“What you get here is a variety of villages behind a gate to choose from,” Carmichael says. “The most important thing is that it’s waterside—we're definitely seeing a lot more water. It’s well located, it’s near an airport. There are mini plans within a plan with lots of different choices so you can choose what’s best for you. The village is really more of a town.”

3. Summerlin, Nevada
Developer: The Howard Hughes Corp.
2021 starts: 1,234
Price range: $375,950 to $1.6 million

Sometimes success isn’t as complicated as it seems. At Summerlin, one of the most valued features is the lush green landscape that surrounds the homes. That’s relatively normal in most of the country, but it is pretty novel in the Las Vegas desert.

“It’s not just one village, there are many to choose from with a wide variety of product,” she says. “It has phenomenal schools and retail and great segmentation like active-adult but also good segmentation in price. They have four kinds of master plans by price offerings, and the builders are influencing the product offering."

Courtesy Brookfield Residential

4. Ontario Ranch, California
Developer: Multiple developers
2021 starts: 1,022
Price range: $400,000 to $1 million

There aren’t too many homes near Los Angeles that would be considered “affordable,” but Ontario Ranch—just next to the Ontario International Airport—offers a rare break in prices. The entire development is built on former dairy lands but is now an urbanized hub with small villages under one master plan.

“There are a lot of affordable opportunities you could never find in the coastal market,” Carmichael says. “It’s literally the only place you can go to afford a home. They are selling like wildfire because there are no other choices. They only have small amenities, nothing super creative, but the cleverness is around choice of single-family detached for those who work in Orange Country or Los Angeles.”

5. Cane Bay Plantation, South Carolina
Developer: Gramling Brothers Real Estate and Development
2021 starts: 990
Price range: $288,150 to $500,990

Most communities offer swimming pools and fitness facilities, but at Cane Bay the builders decided to go with a slightly different plan. While water is still a core feature of this community, it’s handed control of its fitness programming to one of the country’s leading health and wellness organizations.

“It’s pretty clever,” Carmichael says. “Instead of doing a huge club amenity built around a central feature, they’ve built around a spectacular YMCA. The community center is 54,000 square feet. There’s aquatics, tennis, baseball, and sports fields. And it’s all managed by the Y—not the developer.”