When Brian and Jasmine Jones spent a “stay-and-play” weekend at the planned community of Wickenburg Ranch, a Trilogy Resort Community in Wickenburg, Ariz., they knew immediately that they had found their future retirement home. In that pre-pandemic time, the couple was assigned an “ambassador” to show them around, introduce them to people and answer questions. Brian was hooked from the moment he played the “Big Wick” golf course.
“When Jasmine suggested looking at Wickenburg Ranch, I questioned why we would look way out there, practically off the grid,” says Brian, a 62-year-old internal auditor for Cort Furniture. “But the golf courses are great, and the area is beautiful, so we fell in love with it right away.”
The planned community of Wickenburg Ranch, which is about one-half sold out, will have approximately 1,500 to 1,600 homes when it’s complete in two or three years. The community is what is known as a naturally occurring retirement community, with most of the residents age 55 and older.
“The majority of the neighborhoods are age-targeted, with one-level homes that have two or three bedrooms and a location that appeals to retirees, pre-retirees and winter visitors,” says Chris Haines, president of VT LandGroup, the developer of Wickenburg Ranch. “We also have a few age-restricted neighborhoods where the homeowners must be 55 or older.”
A baby boomer trend
The pandemic-related isolation pushed many baby boomers to speed up their moving plans, says Deborah Blake, principal of the Ipsum Group, a researcher on people ages 55 and older, and a real estate consultant in Phoenix.
“Baby boomers want out of their big single-family homes into a smaller place without steps, and the pandemic caused a lot of people to decide not to wait to downsize their home and upsize their life,” Blake says. “The isolation from their friends, family and grandkids made them want to make the most of their time and accelerate their plans. Plus, with millennials eager to move to larger suburban homes, low mortgage rates and rising home prices, more baby boomers were motivated to sell.”
Arizona has always been a popular retirement destination because of its weather and low cost of living, Haines says.
“About one-third of the buyers at Wickenburg Ranch are from California,” Haines says. “The real estate prices are significantly lower here, along with taxes and utilities. Another one-third come from the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, especially from Chicago. The other one-third are from Arizona.”
People who move from California often have significant cash from the sale of their home, especially if they owned it for decades, Blake says. In 2020, approximately 60,000 Californians moved to Arizona.
“California buyers tend to spend a lot on upgrading their homes with optional features and are willing to spend extra on lot premiums, too,” Blake says.
Rural life with small-town charm
A big appeal for most residents at Wickenburg Ranch, which began as a dude ranch owned by entertainer Merv Griffin, is the rural location.
“There’s a small-town atmosphere here, but you can find everything you need in town,” says Jasmine, 58, who works for Assa Abloy, an electronics company. “Most people who move here like getting away from the hustle and bustle of cities and larger towns.”
Wickenburg Ranch is located about 70 miles from downtown Phoenix and 75 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Blake says residents can drive to destinations in Phoenix within 45 to 90 minutes, to Mexico and Las Vegas in three hours, and to mountains for skiing in 90 minutes.
Rural and small-town locations have become increasingly popular during the pandemic among people who can work remotely or who are retired. An analysis by the National Association of Realtors found that the share of homes purchased in a suburb, small town, rural or resort area rose to 85 percent in the fall of 2020, compared with just 15 percent purchasing in a city.
“About one-third of buyers at Wickenburg Ranch lived in rural locations prior to coming here,” Blake says. “The others, who come from a mix of urban and suburban locations, say they’re happy to get away from the traffic and congestion.”
When sales opened in the community in 2014, it was seen as kind of a “Podunk” town, Blake says.
“Now the town of Wickenburg has become hip and trendy, with art studios, a performing arts center and more restaurants,” Blake says.
Wickenburg is known as the “Team Roping Capital of the World,” says Haines, and hosts a variety of events and festivals such as a bluegrass festival and Gold Rush Days, a 70-year-old tradition that celebrates ranching and the gold-mining history of the town.
Amenities open to all
The homes and amenities in Wickenburg Ranch are designed to complement the style of the small Western town. The sales center is a “Ranch House” with a bar and views of the walking trails, a golf course and desert landscape. Community amenities include five restaurants, a clubhouse with a spa, fitness center, an art barn for classes, tennis courts, bocce ball courts, pickleball courts and two golf courses.
“The amenities are open to everyone in the community,” Haines says. “Because most residents here are 55 and older, we don’t have separate amenities for the active-adult neighborhoods.”
Homeowner association fees are $130 per month, and mandatory club dues are $180 per month. New residents pay a $6,000 social initiation fee. Optional golf membership, which is separate from the social club, has a $30,000 initiation fee and costs $350 per month.
The golf courses, which are managed by Troon Golf, are a big draw for many residents.
“Our golf membership at Wickenburg Ranch gives us privileges to get tee times at Troon-managed golf courses, which are some of the nicest courses all over the world,” Jasmine says.
Brian particularly likes the nine-hole Li’l Wick course, which the couple sometimes play on their lunch hour.
“The nine-hole course is lit up at night, so we love to play then,” Jasmine says. “They have these ‘Nine and Dine’ events that make it so easy to meet people.”
The couple also enjoy wine tastings with the wine club and dinners with food and wine pairings.
“While some things had to be pared down and moved outside because of covid-19, there are still lots of activities and ways to make friends,” Jasmine says. “We had a Christmas parade where everyone decorated their golf carts that our neighborhood won. There are bunco groups and card games. We’ve made a lot of deep friendships already.”
Active-adult communities and golf course communities gained popularity during the pandemic because people could feel safe within the bubble of their neighborhoods, Blake says.
“These are gated communities where you know everyone without any transient population,” Blake says. “Golf had a rebirth during the pandemic because people realized it was a good socially distant activity.”
Downsizing, then upsizing
The Joneses, who lived in California, Oregon and Texas before settling in Gold Canyon, Ariz., about 15 years ago, were looking for a community for their retirement and to downsize from their 3,400-square-foot home.
“At first we were worried about carrying two houses since we bought here before our previous home was sold,” Jasmine says. “We downsized and figured we’d live in the house for two years and then decide if we wanted to stay, but we realized almost right away that it was too small.”
Now the couple are living in a rented home while Shea Homes builds their new home, which is anticipated to be complete by the end of the summer.
“We found a lot that overlooks the golf course and Vulture Peak that had a slight price cut because it was early in the pandemic, so it felt like the stars aligned for us,” Jasmine says. “Now the community is selling so fast that prices are going up by $5,000 every week.”
Most of the homes at Wickenburg Ranch, which average $450,000, are open either to the desert or to landscaped open space that complements the desert, Haines says. Some have a golf course view.
“Most homes here have a backyard and ample side space on either side of the house,” Haines says. “Buyers want a detached home with a nice lot but not too much land. They don’t want to spend their time and money on maintenance.”
Although residents are responsible for maintaining their yards, Haines says the minimalist desert landscaping eliminates the need for cutting grass or extensive gardening.
Shea Homes and Dorn Homes are building homes priced from the upper $200,000s to $600,000 and above that range, in size from 1,342 to 3,249 square feet. Homes are available with garage parking for two to five cars, and some garages can accommodate an RV.
For the Joneses, settling in the desert far from the city lights offers exactly what they hope for when they retire: a peaceful country life surrounded by natural beauty and close friends.