Designing for and selling to the 55-plus homebuyer
What custom builders should do to attract the 55-plus homebuyer.
Everyone seems interested in how baby boomers behave and how they spend their money. Boomer home buyers have motivation to buy — if you have the product they want. And their numbers are increasing in the retirement age housing market, so the pool of potential buyers will increase for years to come. How can custom builders meet the needs of the baby boomer-plus market? The key is to make older buyers believe you understand them and can give them what they want — and you have to know how to sell them these design features.
Because boomers have been studied so much, some broad generalizations have been made about them. They tend to reject the status quo, want do things their own way and take risks. They love to personalize. They aren't particularly drawn to a lot in a subdivision that's a cookie cutter of the house next door.
"The more conservative client would consult friends or get more input from us when we say that's going to look crazy, but it's up to you," says Kevin Estes, president of Estes Builders in Sequim, Wash. "The boomer says, 'This looks crazy to 90 percent of people, but I like it.'"
Boomers are generally more active, participate in more sports and fitness activities, travel a lot and continue to work past retirement age. Walking trails and fitness centers are popular in active adult communities.
"Fitness rooms are a big deal," says Jane O'Conner, publisher of Mature Living Choices. "Boomers love and work at the fitness they enjoy, whether they're runners, yoga people or stair treaders."
If older home buyers are at all interested in selling their old home and buying a new one, it's because they want something that's missing, or something they've longed for — perhaps a dream home — that they feel they deserve.
"It's all about lifestyle for these folks," says O'Conner, who is also president and CEO of 55 Plus, a company that consults with developers, home builders and real-estate companies that focus on the 50-plus market segment. "It is an elective purchase to reflect the lifestyle that they want to live. Their present home may be too large for them or too outdated and they want something more modern."
Boomers often find themselves "sandwiched" between kids young enough to be living at home and older parents who may soon come to live with them. Family ties are close in this age group, and many would prefer taking their parents in to putting them into a retirement or assisted-living home. They are also close to their adult children and want space for them to come over with the grandkids and spend the night. The homes they seek need to accommodate these varying life situations.
The differences between the boomers and "Ike" generation — the group that grew up before them during the Eisenhower years — can be subtle on the fringes. Though the Ike generation is less flashy and more traditional, many older boomers and younger Ikers behave similarly.
Though active, somewhere in the back of baby boomers' minds is the thought that they are getting older and will eventually be less mobile. If they are going to invest in a new home, they'd like one that would facilitate their "aging in place." Whether they are familiar with universal design or not, many boomers are looking for homes with elements of it — features that are adaptable to the changing needs of the home's inhabitants.
The term universal fits because it's designed not just for the elderly or disabled. Younger buyers will find these homes as comfortable and useful as anyone else. There are stepless entrances and wide front door entries giving easy access to someone with a wheelchair — or a young mom coming home with her hands full of groceries. Many have single stories (eliminating the need for stairs) or multiple stories with a first-floor master bedroom or an elevator to navigate multiple floors. Open floor plans are a big component.
"With universal design, you don't want thresholds or barriers," says O'Conner. "You don't have differentiations in colors on the floor. It's difficult to see color differences as well when you age, so a floor may look like it has different planes. And an open floor makes you feel like you're in a more spacious, dramatic setting because higher ceilings and larger windows letting in lots of light. This makes people feel good and wards off depression."
Easy Living Home is a trademark used by Georgia builders to indicate compliance with a voluntary program in which builders commit to building to certain universal design standards. Roy Wendt was the first Easy Living builder in Georgia. His company, Snellvile, Ga.-based Wendt Builders, was one of five builders honored last year with the inaugural Livable Communities Awards, sponsored by AARP and NAHB.
"When we talk to our buyers and they walk our houses, they say, 'There were no steps here. We noticed that," says Wendt. "And there are wider doorways. And the toilets were higher.' It's one of last things you'd think people would notice. But the marketing and salespeople don't have to bring it to their attention."
O'Conner says the rooms to focus on for the boomer-plus crowd are the kitchen and the master bedroom and bathroom.
Boomers, like many home buyers, like open kitchen plans where they can cook, have helpers in the kitchen and see their guests. It allots space for a big dining room table that will seat the extended family for holiday dinners. "The kitchen is a big deal," Nagle says. "They want the roll-out cabinets and all the fancy stuff. The great room is an important part of the deal."
They want marble and granite counter tops, and large kitchen islands. The 55-plus crowd wants high-end appliances — Viking, Sub-Zero, Wolf and GE Profile.
"Some of them are even getting into some of the European appliances because it's a show kitchen," says. O'Conner. "It reflects who they are, their status, their ego and their style of living.
Other options include multiple sinks and pot fillers over the stove so owners don't have to carry pots from sink to stove.
Boomers want more than a master bedroom — they want a retreat. They want lots of closet and storage space — his and her walk-ins if at all possible. Recessed, tray ceilings are popular. Sitting areas give added space to get away, read a book or relax in a big overstuffed chair and watch TV.
When you consider the master bathroom, think accessible spa.
"We're looking at soaking tubs, not necessarily the whirlpool tubs or Jacuzzi any more," says O'Conner. "The bathtub is no longer for hygiene; it's for relaxation.
But when you reach a certain age, it can be difficult to get in and out of a tub easily. It's easier to use the shower for daily washing. Showers that are barrier free — with nothing to step over — are very important for the less mobile and wheelchair bound. But they can still get pampered here.
"We're looking at oversized showers with seats — which are very important — of tile or marble," says O'Conner. "We're also seeing multiple shower heads and body sprays. We are seeing luxury showers, even steam showers."
For a variety of reasons — everything from snoring to dementia — older couples don't necessarily share a bedroom, or at least not throughout the night. Although this isn't a detail that needs to be discussed with your buyer, make sure they are aware of the options they can have in their home.
Multi-purpose spaces — a loft, an extra bedroom or even double master suites — may provide a separate space for a spouse to go. A flex space may also come in handy for an aging parent who comes to live with the boomer, or grandkids who visit and spend the night. You could even add a designated in-law suite upstairs, downstairs or as a separate annex with a private entrance.
Boomers may want office space in their new home, and couples often want separate spaces. Offering a tech center in the kitchen or an alcove somewhere can serve that purpose. Provide options to potential buyers so a room's purpose can change over the years.
Low maintenance is key for boomers. They don't want the extra work because they'd rather be traveling or jetting around. Also, mowing the lawn, repainting and the like can be a hardship as they get older.
"We look for those surfaces that require less maintenance," says O'Conner. "We're looking for siding that doesn't need maintenance, molded surfaces over railings or around windows that never have to be painted."
A big attraction of active adult and age-restricted communities is the option of paying a homeowner association fee that covers upkeep and maintenance for owners. This provides some of the convenience of "lock and leave" — they can leave for days, weeks, and months at a time and have the snow shoveled and the landscape tended. There's less work for them when they come back in town, and the home won't look like its owners are away.
Cobb Hill Construction, a custom home builder in Concord, N.H., offers a specialized maintenance package to certain custom home buyers who are frequently away from home. It started when the company built a high-end custom home for a couple that spends their winters in Florida. They asked if they could have someone check in on the place while they were away.
"We'd check ongoing activities in the house every second day while they were gone," says Jerry Kingwill, vice president at Cobb Hill. "We just made sure that there wasn't water in the basement, that the furnace had fuel, and that the hot tub chemicals have been put in. Over Christmas we came in and watered the Christmas tree."
They provide a similar service for a buyer who primarily lives in India. The cost and frequency is established on a per-customer basis. Kingwill doesn't imagine providing this service for more than five to 10 customers at a time long-term. But for older buyers with free time and means to travel, it's a desirable option. It's a good example of listening to your buyers, and finding a way to provide something special that meets their needs.