Baby boomers Julie Healy and her husband, Vladimir Leonov, have plenty of energy and mobility now. But they decided to make their next home one that can accommodate their future needs better than their Falls Church townhouse-style condo, which has multiple flights of stairs.
“We bought the Waverly model, a villa-style home at Stone Ridge by Van Metre Homes that has a first-floor bedroom with a full bath that we can use someday if we need to,” says Healy. “There’s only one staircase to the upper level and it’s straight, so we could even add one of those stair lifts if we ever needed one.”
Unlike many empty nesters, Healy and Leonov upsized rather than downsized in their move to Loudoun County, but it was the open floor plan, the natural light and the option for one-level living in the future that attracted them.
Baby boomers, who drove the first-time buyer market in the Washington area in the mid-to-late 1980s and the move-up market in the early 2000s, were the largest segment of home buyers in 2013.
“A major trend in the metro area last year was the number of non-family buyers,” says Dan Fulton, senior vice president at John Burns Real Estate Consulting (JBREC) in Reston, Va. “The group we call mature couples, who are 45 and older without any kids age 18 and younger at home, represented the biggest group of buyers, with 23 percent of the market share or more than 19,525 home sales.”
“Mature singles” — over 45 with no children — accounted for 12 percent of sales last year, and retirees over 65 represented 10 percent; combined with mature couples, these groups of buyers made up 45 percent of buyers in the District region in 2013.
“Never-nesters” — JBREC’s term for those without children — are beginning to look for a new type of home, typically with less maintenance, the option of one-level living with a first-floor bedroom or rambler-style home on one level, or an apartment-style condominium. Some empty nesters opt for an active adult community that’s age-restricted to buyers 55 and older, but others are simply looking to downsize and to live in walkable communities.
“A common theme among mature couples and younger people without kids is to live within walking distance to shops and restaurants or public transportation,” Fulton says. “Buyers who make this lifestyle choice often choose location over size and are willing to pay a lot to be near a place like Reston Town Center.”
David Versel, a senior research associate with the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis in Arlington, Va., says his studies are showing that while baby boomers prefer walkability, most are concentrated in the suburbs where they face the need to drive. GMU’s research shows that 47 percent of homeowner households in the D.C. area in 2010 had at least one baby boomer owner (aged 45 to 64).
“There’s a lot of inertia among baby boomers, which we think is contributing to the low inventory of homes on the market,” Versel says. “The biggest obstacle to getting baby boomers to move is the lack of the right types of housing. We have the push factor in place; boomers think their homes are too big, they don’t want to climb stairs, or they want to drive less. But we don’t have the pull factor of the type of home they’re looking for. They can sell their house for $700,000, but they can’t find an attractive housing type in a desirable area that’s also affordable.”
Diana Keeling, a realty agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda, Md., not only works with many empty nesters looking to downsize, but she also is one. She and her husband, Nick Keeling, recently bought a one-level rambler in the Bannockburn section of Bethesda, an area where they’ve lived since 1983.
“We wanted to stay in the neighborhood, so we found this house and completely gutted the inside and turned it into a beautiful contemporary home,” Keeling says. “Most of my buyers in their 50s and 60s want to live somewhere where they can walk to things. They think they want a condo, but condos often turn out to be too expensive, especially if they want three bedrooms. There just aren’t very many available, especially in Bethesda, so they can cost nearly $2 million.”
Keeling says some of her clients opt to stay where they are and wait, or they move to smaller homes but without first-level master suites. She says some buy townhouses and have elevators installed, but that can be a costly option and isn’t always possible.
“A few buyers have just decided to wait until they’re ready to move into an age-restricted community,” Keeling says. “Some people are moving into places like Fox Hill in Bethesda earlier because they have bigger condos, and that way they don’t have to move again.”
Homeowners in their 50s and 60s often want to move out of their detached single-family homes and into condos so they don’t have to do home maintenance, says Kevin Love, a real estate agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Arlington. These people also prefer to buy something newer and to avoid renovation projects, because they’ve already experienced the pitfalls and stress of remodeling, he says.
“Some older buyers are looking at homes in the Gainesville area, where they have smaller detached houses and a golf course, but most want to stay in the area,” Love says. “If they’re in a single-family home in Arlington, they want to move to a condo in Arlington, and they’ll compromise on the size or the age of the place in order to have less maintenance.”
Love says many of his buyers prefer to be in a mixed-age community rather than an active-adult community.
“The trend seems to be to age in place, at least in the same Zip code, near friends and in a neighborhood they like,” Love says. “Also, a lot of people are working longer, so they need to stay close to where they work.”
Fulton says that buyers who are interested in active-adult communities typically choose them for the lifestyle that includes recreational amenities and a grand clubhouse along with the social aspect of living near people of similar interests and ages.
“Outside of those communities, there aren’t a lot of move-down homes available for empty nesters, so this is an opportunity for builders to introduce this,” Fulton says. “The homes people are looking for don’t exist much as resales in this market.”
Age-restricted developments such as Fox Hill in Bethesda are sprouting across the region, but a few builders also are designing for empty nesters in multi-age communities. At Willowsford in Loudoun County, Va., Arcadia Community, a company that started in California’s Napa Valley, has introduced luxurious, single-story homes priced at $750,000 to more than $1 million.
“These are big, single-level homes on three-fourths to 1.5-acre lots with a wide-open floor plan so you can see straight through from the front of the house to the back,” says Brad Durga, chief operating officer for Arcadia Community in Leesburg, Va. “The bedrooms and kitchen and living areas are all on the main level, and then we have what we call a club level downstairs that’s open to the main level with a wide staircase. . . . You can also add an elevator to each home.”
The houses have 3,000 to 6,700 finished square feet, so they’re not meant for downsizing. Durga says the houses are popular with other buyers in addition to empty nesters because they’re designed to be a better match for the way people live today.
Van Metre Homes has several new designs geared to empty nesters, including detached single-family homes, villas and condos in a building with an elevator in the active-adult Villages community at Broadlands in Ashburn, Va.
“Our Vista collection of homes sold out at Raspberry Falls, and now we’re selling them at Bull Run Golf Club in Haymarket,” says Merle Phillips, vice president of sales and marketing at Van Metre Homes in Stone Ridge, Va. “The one-level homes have a big owner’s suite . . . plus two more bedrooms on the main level.”
At Bull Run Golf Club, the houses start in the $700,000s. The condos at the Villages, priced in the $300,000s, offer walkability since they’re across the street from the Broadlands Marketplace.
At Brambleton, Van Metre Homes offers an optional first-floor master bedroom in its attached villa models, priced in the $400,000s. Phillips says these flexible floor plans appeal to empty nesters and others. The company also offers single-family homes with first-floor bedrooms and baths at Belmont Glen, Brambleton and Stone Ridge. Those are priced in the $500,000s.
“We asked our sales team for comments from potential buyers and found that even when people didn’t have multiple generations living with them year-round, they liked the idea of having a first-floor bedroom for extended visitors or in case they need it in the future,” Phillips says.
Fulton says that the existing homes in the D.C. area are geared to families with children, so he expects that builders will begin to focus on designing and developing new homes for empty nesters.
“There will always be a market for family oriented new homes,” Fulton says, “but builders are competing with existing homes for families. They’ll face less competition when they build homes that match what empty nesters want.”
Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.
●Walkability to restaurants, shops, public transportation — in the city or an inner suburb or in a community with a town center.
●One-level living — or an elevator.
●Big windows that let in lots of natural light.
●Less space — but lots of storage.
●Open floor plan with fewer formal spaces.
●Stairs — a two-level home is acceptable as long as the master suite is on the first floor.
●Routine home maintenance requirements such as shoveling snow, cutting grass and cleaning gutters.
● A lot of space — too many rooms means more cleaning and more maintenance.
● Location where they have to drive everywhere.
● Older homes that need remodeling — empty nesters prefer a new or already renovated home rather than working on a place themselves.