Boomers Pioneer New Retirement Housing Trends
Policy + Politics

Boomers Pioneer New Retirement Housing Trends


Richard Hayman recently spent $120,000 and five-months remodeling his home in Potomac, Maryland. The project wasn’t about increasing the home’s aesthetic appeal or future resale value. Rather, the goal was to ensure Hayman and his wife could live comfortably in their house throughout retirement.

The 68-year-old and his wife, Carolyn, turned their original kitchen into a den that could someday accommodate a hospital bed; they also added a full bathroom to their first floor.

The couple wants to stay near their three children, seven grandchildren and lifelong friends. After crunching the numbers, Hayman believes the renovations were the least expensive way to meet those goals and still allow for a few weeks’ vacation now and then.

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Plus, the couple really loves their home. “They will carry us out of here, feet first,” Carolyn often proclaims.

The Haymans are hardly the only boomers to redefine retirement and to make moves now so they have control over how they live out a twilight that may span 30 years or more. They’re deciding what lifestyle they want and making changes to get it in a much more decisive way than their parents did.

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The sheer number of boomers who are starting to think about their housing options in retirement is driving changes in the real estate and renovation market. The youngest of the 76 million boomers have begun turning 50 this year – and 10,000 boomers a day will turn 65 from now through 2030.

They’re not all looking for the same solutions, of course: While some want to stay put, others are ready for new experiences in their golden years. “It’s great that we have all these possibilities,” says David J. Ekerdt, director of the Gerontology Center and a sociology professor at the University of Kansas.

While some boomers still yearn for year-round sunshine, millions have no interest in the snowbird lifestyle or in moving too far from their longtime communities. “There’s still this misperception that older people will move to Florida or Arizona,” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities for AARP.

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More than 60 percent of baby boomers want their home in retirement to be in the state where they currently live, while a third want to live within 20 miles of their children or grandchildren, according to a 2012 study by Pulte Group.

Aging in Place. For many, the desire to age in place stems from the difficulty boomers have had in caring for their own elderly parents who lived far away. Such long-distance relationships have left many adult children feeling “stressed and powerless,” says Elaine Wethington, a sociology professor who directs the Translational Research on Aging Center at Cornell University. By remaining close to their own kids, boomers are hoping to make things easier as they age.

Nearly a quarter of remodelers surveyed last year were undertaking the work so that boomers could stay put, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The most popular projects included the addition of grab bars, higher toilets, and non-slip floors. “People are starting to plan ahead,” says Steve Melman, director of economic services for the NAHB.

While today’s boomers certainly act younger than their parents did at their age, they’re also keenly aware that they’re getting older. Many, like the Haymans, are turning to universal design, an architectural concept that involves creating and updating homes and businesses to make them accessible to older people.

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It’s not only about traditional, institutional details like grab rails and ramps; it’s about more subtle design changes like door handles (instead of knobs), raised dishwashers, and lowered light switches and thermostats.

Downtown Living. Not everyone’s dream retirement concerns maintaining the family house. For many – especially those living in exurbs or isolated communities – it’s  about moving to an area that offers more social and recreational activities that will keep them active and engaged, which is key to a long and successful retirement.

One way to do that is to downsize into smaller apartments or condos in thriving cities that offer a vibrant cultural scene and easy access to activities and transportation. “The demand is beginning to be there,” says Sandra Timmerman, founder of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, adding that many in this generation aren’t interested in being “in the middle of nowhere,” nor do they want to be isolated in 55-plus housing, “ghettoized” with just their peers.

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Moving into smaller living spaces helps boomers offset the increased cost of living that often accompanies a big-city residence.

Back to School. For those wanting to remain intellectually engaged and culturally active but who don’t want the hustle and bustle of city life, college towns have a growing allure. Retirees are increasingly enjoying such communities for their easy access to shopping, world-class health facilities, and opportunity for lifelong learning.

Larry Dunn, 64, and his wife, Arlene, 71, moved to a retirement community near Oberlin College in Ohio last fall from their home in rural Northwest Indiana. Before moving, the Dunns had to drive two hours to Chicago for cultural events. Now, they’re just a mile from campus and have enjoyed a concert by Yo-Yo Ma as well as operas and faculty recitals. They’re also taking advantage of the school’s academic offerings. Larry signed up for a class in music criticism, while Arlene is auditing a class on African American music. Larry Dunn said the cultural environment is personally enriching and draws a range of interesting people.

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