As baby boomers age, a growing potential client base for adult-only residential communities

Where do baby boomers and empty nesters want to live?

The busted furnace Tom and Caren Cranston came home to after vacation was the last straw.

Their 1930s home, with its constant repairs and maintenance, simply did not fit with the lifestyle of leisure and travel the Cranstons, both 69, envisioned for themselves in retirement.

Earlier this year they sold their Towson home and put the proceeds, plus a small short-term loan, toward purchasing a brand new, 2,000-square-foot house in the area's latest gated community, designed for people age 55 and older.

Stoneleigh Summit, a 36-home community developed by MacKenzie Communities and built by Ryan Homes in Towson's Stoneleigh area, offered everything the Cranstons wanted — a house without a constant to-do list, plenty of space for visitors, plus a homeowner's association to take care of the yard.

Age-restricted residential communities — often favored by municipalities because they don't strain school systems —target empty nesters and seniors who want to downsize and take advantage of on-site amenities. And with an aging baby boomer generation, the potential client base for this type of home is bigger than ever.

By 2024, there will be about 56 million 55-plus households, accounting for nearly 45 percent of all households in the country, according to data by the National Association of Home Builders.

But to win over this key homeowner demographic, developers and managers of "active adult" communities need to key into their potential residents' wants, and make sure their properties are chock-full of the amenities and design elements older homebuyers are seeking. Many empty nesters aren't necessarily looking to live in a senior community, and with plenty of mixed-use developments cropping up, active adult communities face stiff competition for residents.

"The point here is they're all over," said Paul Emrath, a vice president of survey and housing policy research at the National Association of Home Builders, of 55-plus homeowners. "It's not a challenge of trying to find the households who are potential customers — it's that you need to offer them what they want."

A survey by the home builders association found that homeowners want many of the same things, regardless of their age. Outdoor recreation, nearby retail and an exercise room are all top wish-list amenities. But among older generations, the need for playgrounds is replaced with a desire for outdoor maintenance service.

Stoneleigh Summit's promise to keep residents' yards manicured and take care of snow in the winter was a major selling point for the Cranstons.

The Cranstons weren't looking for a senior community, but they just couldn't say no to a new-build home, tailored to their taste, and without constant worry of what would break next.

"It was just a lot of maintenance," Tom Cranston said of their old home. "It's very nice to leave all that behind."

Stoneleigh Summit's properties, which start at $510,000, are designed so that residents could live on just the first floor, without climbing stairs. The master bedroom, a full bathroom and kitchen are all on the first floor. Extra bedrooms are upstairs and the basement can be finished to serve as a game room.

While the potential customer base for properties like Stoneleigh Summit is growing, most developments that target older adults aren't being built purely out of market demand, Emrath said.

Rather, developers settle for an age-restricted community after getting pushback from neighborhoods and municipal boards worried that new homes for families will lead to overcrowding at schools and too much traffic. Agreeing to restrict the age to 55 and older — no kids to send to school and fewer driving-age residents per home — is often a compromise, Emrath said.

That was the case for Stoneleigh Summit.

The 13.8-acre property was originally owned by the Country Club of Maryland, which wanted to develop it into 56 single-family homes in the early 2000s, but in response to neighborhood backlash, the plan was later changed to 36 semi-attached homes for the 55-plus market.

MacKenzie bought the property and plan in 2008, in part because the idea of building an "active adult" community, as such developments are called, appealed to the company, said Robb Aumiller, president of MacKenzie Communities, the residential development division of Lutherville-based MacKenzie Companies.

"It was interesting to us because we had an opportunity to build and design houses that specifically catered to that empty nester, active adult buyer," Aumiller said. "We thought we could do something unique."

The homes have been on the market for about a year, and 18 have been sold. Aumiller expects to sell the remaining dozen over the next year. Ryan Homes, based in Reston, Va., builds homes as they are sold, so that homeowners can customize cabinets, countertops, floors and other features.

That's not to say some communities aren't designed for older adults from their inception. Caruso Homes designed Symphony Village in the Eastern Shore town of Centreville as a place for seniors who wanted to retire to the beach — or close to it, at least.

Crofton-based Caruso chose Centreville because developers thought its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge would appeal to seniors who still want to be close to family in the Baltimore-Washington region, said Tom Baldwin, Caruso's vice president of sales and marketing.

"We wanted to brand it as a 55-or-better, resort-style community," Baldwin said.

Caruso this month finished the last of Symphony Village's 395 homes — all detached, single-story residences.

Meanwhile, empty nesters' tastes may be changing.

Not all seniors want to live in a community surrounded by people their own age.

"The notion of going to a retirement spot is just not as desirable as it perhaps used to be," said Ryan Frederick, founder and CEO of residential development firm Smart Living 360. "There's this notion of being around people of all ages, finding ways to continue work, using your energy at all stages of life."

Earlier this year, Smart Living 360 opened its first property, The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville. The 46-unit apartment community is connected to the Congressional Plaza shopping center, bringing groceries, restaurants and entertainment within walking distance.

Frederick said he thinks properties like The Stories, that bring amenities close to residents, will appeal to empty nesters who are ready to downsize, but still want active social lives.

He estimated that about a quarter of The Stories' tenants are seniors.

At the Cranstons' new home in Towson, Tom and Caren are getting used to the kid-free zone they weren't looking for — and the quiet that comes with it.

"Rarely does a night go by you don't see a fox, or raccoon or deer," Tom said. "The other night it was a redtail hawk."

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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