Last weekend, several hundred hearty homeowners in northern New Jersey braved blustery winter conditions to learn about retirement, second-home, and investment opportunities in the South, where main selling features include the promise of warmer weather and lower property taxes.

The two-day Ideal Living Resort & Retirement Expo, held at the Hanover Marriott in Whippany, N.J., is one of 11 such events scheduled during the year in several cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic. The Whippany Expo included 30 exhibitors, most of which were developers of master-planned or resort communities in Florida, North and South Carolina, Delaware, and Tennessee.

A snow storm on Saturday curtailed attendance at the New Jersey event, but the expos typically attract between 1,500 and 1,800 people, says Dave Robertson, editor of Ideal Living magazine and president of its publisher RPI Media, which has been running expos since 1989. “Fifteen thousand baby boomers are retiring each week and that won’t peak until 2015. It’s the only growing segment” among home buyers, he points out.

RPI once ran 17 shows annually, but scaled back during the housing recession and has stopped exhibiting altogether in volatile or downward markets such as Southern California, Arizona, Detroit, and Cleveland. Robertson says that his company looks to exhibit in markets where household incomes exceed $250,000 and resales average $500,000 and are on the market for less than 30 days.

Its quarterly magazine gets distributed to about 150,000 households, and is dropped strategically into different markets two weeks prior to each expo. RPI sends out email blasts alerting households about upcoming expos. And expo attendees are offered “subsidized getaways,” visits to communities they’re interested in that exhibitors pay for in part or in full.

“We did five shows in 2011 and generated between 100 and 150 leads per show,” says Rosemarie Messina, vice president of sales and marketing for Daytona Beach, Fla.-based ICI Homes, which at the Whippany event was promoting two of its 28 communities in the Sunshine State: Amelia National in Fernadina Beach, and Plantation Bay in Ormond Beach. Messina worked the Whippany expo with Don Wilford, president of ICI’s North Florida division, who says that making these shows pay off “is all about the follow up.” Their expenses for the Whippany expo were around $7,500, Messina estimates.

Different buyers, different priorities

The Villages and The Minto Group also took booths at the Whippany event. Robertson says several other builders—including Lennar, Pulte, and K. Hovnanian—have participated in past shows. Oftentimes, builders are represented indirectly through developments such as Hampton Lake, a 4½-year-old 900-acre lakefront community in Bluffton, S.C., near Hilton Head, where David Weekley Homes and eight custom builders are active. Shannon Thompson, its sales executive, says Hampton Lakes does six expos per year. “It gives us exposure to markets that everyone seems to want to get out of,” she laughs.

Where people are looking to migrate, though, can vary from expo to expo. Jeanene Doran, a broker for Fairfield Homes and Glade Realty who was representing Fairfield Glade and Fairfield North, a golf course community in Tennessee, says that homeowners who live along the east coast are more likely to think of Florida first for retirement or second homes, whereas Tennessee is a much easier sell to homeowners living in Chicago and other Midwest cities.

Doran says that about 30% of the expo prospects Glade Realty invites to come down to the Fairfield resort accepts the invitation. But the consensus among exhibitors, and corroborated by Robertson and attendees interviewed, is that the vast majority of homeowners who walk these events are usually two or three years away from actually buying anything.

Ideal Living’s latest survey of its readership found that 59% of those polled say that “weather” is the main reason they want to relocate south. Another 52% seek “lower cost of living/taxes,” followed by recreation and a slower pace of life. (Ideal Living’s "Retirement Guide" includes market-by-market comparisons for climate, tax rates, cost of living, and social security benefits, as well as detailed breakdowns of resort and retirement communities in nine states.)

Robertson notes that double master suites are more in demand among buyers who want places where their children and grandchildren can stay when they visit. Other buyers want (or need) to live close to medical centers, churches, or universities. Some prefer communities that will satisfy their cultural and epicurean tastes.

The reasons people move, in fact, are as varied and complex as the homeowners themselves. “I don’t have the answers. You have the answers,” said Robertson during a seminar entitled “Choose Your Ideal Place.” For example, he noted that the expos are attracting more homeowners in their late 40s and early 50s who still work and for whom retirement isn’t a prerequisite for relocating. And when he started talking about homeowners finding “their inner place” and refered to certain geographies as “landscapes of the soul,” Robertson was simply articulating just how personal the decision to uproot can be.

“Lifestyle is a choice. Envision the way you want and deserve to live,” he told his audience.

A Taxing Problem

Given that property taxes in New Jersey rose by more than 70% between 1999 and 2011 to a statewide average of $4,341 per household, it wasn't surprising to hear homeowners wandering through the Whippany expo saying they’re considering moving to some place that won’t swallow their savings. “New Jersey is not a senior-friendly state, with the taxes and the cold weather,” says Doug Rapone, a 67-year-old retiree who was walking the show with his 66-year-old wife, Barbara. The Rapones live in a 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom house in Glenwood, N.J., and appear to be leaning toward moving to Florida, where Doug was born and where several friends have either moved or are planning to move.

But the Rapones won’t relocate as long as Doug’s 92-year-old mother is alive. And right now, they are living with their three grandchildren while their daughter settles into a new job. (Barbara insists that anyplace they retire to “has to accept grandchildren.”)

The Whippany expo was the first such event that Gary and Roseanne Werrell have attended, and it was obvious from talking to them that the experience was a bit overwhelming. The Werrells, who live in Cranford, N.J., are years from retirement, but if they did move it might be to either North or South Carolina. “We’d have to go down there before we did anything,” says Gary. But Roseanne is certain about one thing she wants: maintenance-free living.

Conversely, Joyce and Dennis Hildenbrand—a late 40s/early 50s couple without children, who own a 3,200-square-foot home in Morris Plains, N.J.—have been to several expos over the years. She’s a healthcare administrator and he’s an electrical engineer, and if they moved south they’d want a place that could accommodate home offices. Originally from Pittsburgh, they lived in Texas for 10 years before moving to New Jersey, so they’d prefer more sunshine anyplace they go. The couple also likes to fish, play golf, cycle, and travel, so a new community must accommodate their active lifestyle.

However, the Hildenbrands aren’t sure yet if they even want to move south; or if they do, whether they’d live in that house full time. “We’re trying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up,” quips Joyce.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

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