When Joanne and Gary Leonard started house-hunting in September, they knew exactly what they were looking for -- two bedrooms, a pantry kitchen and a community pool. A quiet neighborhood, Joanne Leonard said, was a plus.
A few weeks later, they found exactly what they wanted -- a new condominium in the Gatherings at Cedar Ridge, a development for people 55 and older in Anne Arundel County's planned community of Piney Orchard. They plan to move in by May, and they're excited about what the community and the condo have to offer.
"The pantry is a very good thing to have," Joanne Leonard said. "We'll upgrade the kitchen cabinets, the countertops, later." She and her husband both like the size of the rooms, the high ceilings and the column-lined entryways.
The most important thing, they said, was the floor plan. The condo's two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen, small den and sunroom are all on one level. That is perfect for Gary Leonard, 54, who has a hard time walking up stairs because of arthritis.
The baby-boom generation is beginning to retire and in the process, couples like the Leonards are making 55-and-older developments, which often are packed with luxury homes, clubhouses, billiard rooms, cafes, walking trails, community centers and gyms, one of the fastest growing markets for homebuilders in the Washington area and nationwide. According to the National Association of Home Builders, more than 25 percent of the 1.2 million new homes projected to be built this year will be bought by someone older than 50.
There is one obvious reason for builders to be particularly interested in baby-boom buyers: disposable income. Many boomers are selling a home to downsize, said Mark Stemen, president of the D.C. active adult division of K. Hovnanian Cos., a Virginia development company. Some are able to pay cash, a convenience that younger buyers, just starting a family, often don't have.
The boomers want a more appealing retirement than their parents had, and their demands are reshaping the housing market, said Debbie Miller, an agent with Virginia's McEnearney Associates who specializes in 55-plus housing.
"This is not your father's Oldsmobile," Miller said. "It's much trendier and more sophisticated. The boomers don't want to live a stodgy life. They want activity. They want to be closer to theaters, restaurants."
They don't want the weekly yard maintenance that comes with larger, single-family homes, Miller said. "They also want lock-it-and-leave-it convenience," meaning they can take extended trips at their leisure and at a moment's notice, without having to worry about taking care of their house.
Jeff Jenkins, assistant director of the NAHB's 50+ Division, agreed. "The days of shuffleboard are long gone," he said. "These buyers today are more sophisticated. They're more affluent. They want to be engaged on many different levels."
Jenkins and Evelyn Howard, a Bethesda market researcher who specializes in housing for the 50-plus segment of the population, spent part of this week judging an NAHB contest for best seniors housing. The competition, now in its 14th year, has gotten increased participation as the market has shifted, Jenkins said. This year more than 300 homebuilders submitted entries. The results are to be announced in January.
"It was started to recognize the skills in designing housing that is sensitive to consumers' needs," Howard said. "It really raises visibility among builders that seniors housing is a very large industry and a very varied industry. The 50 and older are a diverse group a and have diverse interests."
Not all of them automatically look for an "active adult" development. "We looked at several places, some of which weren't retirement communities," before settling on the Gatherings at Cedar Ridge, said Joanne Leonard, a third-grade teacher at Brooklyn Park Elementary School in Baltimore. "We realized if you wait the prices are just going to go up. We also realized that this is going to be a hot market for buyers seven years from now. Why wait? We also like the fact that this is a quiet community."
Gatherings at Cedar Ridge, a Beazer Homes USA Inc. development, offers a clubhouse, fitness center, community pool, exercise course and activity room. Residents also have access to Piney Orchard's ice rink, tennis courts and bike trails. While couples don't have to be 55 when they buy a home in the Gatherings, at least one of them must be 55 when they move in. Adult children can live with their parents, but children or grandchildren 17 and younger cannot, though they're allowed to visit.
Unlike previous generations, which traditionally flocked to the Sun Belt regions of Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona, baby boomers are more likely to look for retirement housing not far from where they spent most of their adult lives, a trend that has slowly developed over the last decade, Jenkins said. In 1995, 78 percent of active-adult communities were built in Sun Belt states, NAHB figures showed. Today, that percentage has dropped to less than half.
"I think we recognized pretty early this trend that folks didn't want to necessarily pull up stakes," K. Hovnanians's Stemen said. "People are living longer. Some still work. There's a longer period of time post-55, when folks are active and able and ready to enjoy themselves. The major difference is that you see this strong concentrated emphasis on creating lifestyle."
K. Hovnanian got into the retirement housing market in the 1960s, selling Florida condominiums to New York and New Jersey retirees. The company began developing floor plans based on an active adult lifestyle in the early 1990s. Today, it has "Four Seasons" properties in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The Four Seasons at Ashburn Village, in Loudoun County, includes townhomes and condominiums that start in the upper $300,000s. The company has built a similar community in Warrenton, FauquierCounty, the Four Seasons at Vint Hill. They also have plans for Four Seasons Charlottesville, to be made up of 535 single-family, detached homes. A development on Maryland's Kent Island is in the planning stages.
All Four Seasons communities have 21,000-square-foot clubhouses, indoor and outdoor pools, card rooms, billiard rooms, arts and crafts sections and secure walking paths.
One of the oldest and largest active-adult developments in Maryland, Leisure World, was built in Silver Spring in the 1970s. The 610-acre community has 5,000 residences with another 2,000 planned, market researcher Howard said.
But today, Howard said, the most intense development in 55-plus communities is moving farther away from downtown Washington, in places like Stafford and Prince William counties in Virginia, and Frederick, Prince George's and Howard counties in Maryland. That is because a lot of potential buyers are interested in fairly easy access to big-city amenities -- but no longer need to worry about a daily commute.
Bozzuto Homes, a Greenbelt housing manufacturer, has built just two age-restricted communities since 2001: the Enclave at Ellicott Hills, in Ellicott City; and St. Paul senior apartments in Capitol Heights. Ellicott Hills has 175 condominiums and 130 townhouses, plus a fitness center, billiard room, card room, spa and pool. St. Paul has 100 apartments.
But some of Bozzuto's other developments, those aimed at the general population, with no age restrictions, include amenities such as one-level floor plans and elevators that cater to the needs of baby boomers and their elders. Those age-oriented designs are increasingly popular, said Chuck Covell, president of Bozzuto Homes.
Spinnaker Bay, near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, fits into that category. The high-rise development of 315 apartment units and 35 condominiums was completed this fall. Each building within Spinnaker Bay is equipped with elevators, and the condos have walk-in showers, wheelchair-accessible bathroom vanities and reinforced shower walls that can be equipped with grab bars. While Bozzuto does not advertise or sell Spinnaker Bay condos solely to the 55-and-older market, word of mouth has brought many baby boomers in to take a look.
Bozzuto has plans to develop three more active-adult communities, Covell said.
"They're moving down in size, but moving up in quality," Covell said of the empty nesters who make up an increasing proportion of his clientele. "They don't need those four bedrooms anymore, but what they do need is a larger dining room or a larger living room to entertain at Christmas. People don't want to move away from their families either."
Older couples such as Bernie Lisek, 72, and his wife, Rita, 73, are benefiting from the changes that the baby-boom generation is bringing to the housing market. Both are still independent and very active; they are getting ready to move into the Gatherings at Lynwood, Beazer Homes' active-adult community in Elkridge.
After three decades of mowing the lawn at their Ellicott City home, Bernie Lisek, a retired Unisys Corp. data processor, was more than happy to leave it all behind for a low-maintenance condominium. His wife was hesitant at least.
"Women get a little more sentimental about these things," she said. "We had a lot going for us in our house. We've added on. But we came here and we liked what we saw. We still wanted our freedom and we're still able to maintain ourselves."
The Liseks' two-bedroom condominium will have a double bowl vanity in the bathroom, tray ceilings in the living room and master bedroom, a den, two bathrooms and a patio. And its setting gives them proximity to their children, a major city and medical services.
"The hardest decision we're going to have to make now is what to leave and what to take," Bernie Lisek said.
A decision, it seems, that more members of the 55-plus will be making.
"Today think of 70 as 50 or 60," market researcher Howard said. "They're not like our traditional idea of retirees. They're individuals. It's a different population out there."