Sun City, the nation’s first grand-scale retirement community, opened near Phoenix in 1960 offering modestly priced homes and a lifestyle that most retirees could not previously have attained.
“They had 100,000 people show up in the middle of the desert for opening weekend,” said David Kalosis, a senior vice president of John Burns Real Estate Consulting. “That goes to show you what America was missing at the time. It wasn’t about the home. It was about the lifestyle.”
Fast-forward to 2014. Developers and builders are updating that concept for a more demanding group of consumers: baby boomers. For them, builders and developers say, outdoor activities and interpersonal connections are more important than ever.
So-called active adult communities for residents age 55 and up focus on fitness and health and are frequently established in outlying suburban areas or within master-planned communities. They’re close to job centers, since many boomers still work or want to be near their kids with jobs. And they feature outdoor spaces for socializing and often have lifestyle directors on-site to coordinate scores of clubs and activities.
Cards and shuffleboard are still options, but the primary focus is on connecting with nature and neighbors.
“The outdoor pavilions, dog parks, those are the things that have the greatest appeal,” Kalosis said.
Builders and developers are finding opportunities in the 10,000 baby boomers who turn 60 each day.
“That’s a huge number of people that are making these lifestyle and life-stage choices,” he said.
Drawing a crowd
Last weekend, more than 1,800 people showed up in Montgomery County for the grand opening of Bonterra, a 55-and-up community from Taylor Morrison in the Woodforest master-planned community north of The Woodlands. Just nine model homes are there now, but plans call for 700 to be built over time. They start at about $230,000.
On tap is a 10,000-square-foot amenity center, which is expected to be completed in about a year. Plans call for bocce ball and pickle ball courts, fitness and aquatics programs and an on-site lifestyle director.
In Richmond, 30 miles southwest of Houston, Del Webb’s 500-acre Sweetgrass development features a 28,000-square-foot lake house with an indoor spa and pool, dedicated aerobics center and fitness canter, three arts and crafts rooms and a billiards room. The community partners with the YMCA to provide fitness classes. Line dancing and yoga are among the offerings. More than 100 clubs cater to an array of interests.
Those amenities appealed to Joyce and Mike Stemmer, ages 66 and 67, respectively. The couple, who recently retired from their residential real estate company, recently bought a new 1,600-square-foot house in Sweetgrass and moved from Galveston.
“This was the last place we thought we’d end up,” Joyce Stemmer said. “When you think 55-plus, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, you’ve got grab bars in all the tubs, and wheelchair ramps.’ ”
Instead, homes in Sweetgrass typically have two bedrooms and an additional study, with up to 2,700 square feet of space, much of it devoted to kitchens and great rooms. Buyers have an option to add a three-car garage. They range in price from $150,000 to more than $300,000.
The Stemmers liked the feel when they drove into the neighborhood, with lush green spaces, and biking and walking trails, which they use nightly. They also shopped in the Village at Tuscan Lake in League City but wanted to be more inland.
“We like the idea of being in a neighborhood where people are our own age,” Stemmer said. “We’ve been wanting to try pickle ball. It’s kind of like tennis, but you play with a big paddle.”
The couple is part of a trend.
“What we see in the active adult communities popping up around the country, they are smaller in size, and the amenities have been redefined for today’s retirees,” said Martha Moyer Wagoner, principal of Master Planned Communications, who was involved with marketing Del Webb’s Sun City brand across the country. “They are more interested in learning. The fitness offerings are different. It’s Zumba versus an old-fashioned calisthenics class. It’s tai chi. It’s yoga. Weight training is very popular.”
Closer to family
Other factors are drawing homebuyers 55 and older to these types of developments, and to Houston in particular.
Tanya Rizzo, general sales manager at Sweetgrass, said the pace of sales there has accelerated to 20 per month, up from about 15 a month last year and 10 a month when the community first opened in 2011. The neighborhood has sold about 500 houses out of a planned 1,500.
“With the booming employment in Houston, that’s bringing a lot of new jobs to the market with a lot of buyers age 55 or better either staying in Houston because they want to be closer to kids and grandkids or moving back to Houston to be closer to family,” Rizzo said.
Kalosis said cities like Houston, Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., are popular for active-adult communities because they’re close to job centers not only for older residents to work but to be near their families.
Taylor Morrison, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based homebuilder in Bonterra, is increasingly active, with communities in Florida and Colorado and more coming in Texas.
The company relies on focus groups and experiences from other communities to design and develop house plans.
At Bonterra, houses were designed with minimal hallways to maximize space and elevated ceilings of varying heights throughout. There are “drop stations” near the entry for purses and keys and such belongings. In the kitchen, none of the 42-inch cabinets is higher than 8 feet. Doors are 36 inches wide so a wheelchair could fit through, and master bathrooms have oversized walk-in showers.
“They put a lot of thought into the potential needs of really elderly seniors in the home design,” said Tom Allen, a real estate agent with Century 21 Olympian who has a lot of seniors as clients. “In the kitchens, those islands were far enough away from the wall cabinetry that you could easily, say, get in there with a walker or a cane or a Hoveround.”
“As people move in there, they are going to continue to age,” Allen said. “They may or may not continue to be that active.”
Sees need on west side
Michael Gealt, a real estate agent who specializes in three age-restricted communities, thinks more are needed on the west side. There’s a waiting list with 30 names on it for one of these neighborhoods, Heritage Grand in Cinco Ranch, where sales range from $180,000 to $379,000.
“It’s a booming marketplace,” Gealt said, citing Inner Loop-style dynamics in the 650-home community, which was completed about four years ago.
“Most of the homes sell the morning they come on, they usually have multiple offers. They often sell for more than list,” Gealt said. “It’s frustrating for buyers.”
With an early heads up on a house that was about to go on the market, Liz Jok last year bought a house in Heritage Grand on her parents’ behalf.
Jok, who moved to Houston 13 years ago for her husband’s job in the oil and gas industry, liked that the neighborhood was gated, packed with planned activities and close to health care providers. She lives in nearby Seven Meadows.
“My mom would drive 30 minutes to paint with friends in Indiana,” Jok said. “But in Heritage Grand, it’s right there in the neighborhood.”
Her parents, Charles and Carolyn Clark, 71 and 70, respectively, sold their ranch home of 50 years in Muncie, Ind. They found a two-bedroom, two-bath house with a small backyard where they’ve planted a butterfly garden. They go to the clubhouse several times a week for various activities and will be going with neighbors on a trip to a casino.
“We usually see one of our kids every day. We go to their house and visit,” Carolyn Clark said. “That was the highlight of why we wanted to come here, and our grandchildren.”
Clark added, “We go to the clubhouse and play cards and play dominoes and walk the dogs. A lot of people have dogs here. You walk the dog and get introduced to people that way.”
Room for growth
Other age-restricted communities in the Houston area include CountryPlace, developed in the early 1980s in Pearland, Bellavita at Green Tee in Pearland, Windsor Lakes and Windsor Hills in The Woodlands and The Heritage at Towne Lake in the Cypress area.
The real estate advisory firm RCLCO says places like Arizona and central Florida have far more active adult communities than Texas, suggesting there’s more room for growth.
“There is a lot of interest in these communities currently, both from consumers, and from builders and developers due to the very favorable demographics of the 55& market,” RCLCO managing director Gregg Logan said in an email.
“The best active adult communities provide tangible value to their customers, allowing them to enjoy an amenity-rich environment at a moderate cost. Important design components include single-story living and sustainable materials that will reduce maintenance and operational costs. For households on fixed incomes, reducing or locking in costs are very important considerations.”