by Jane Duckwall
Dave Marcelli and his wife, Marsha, lived in a south Charlotte home for 28 years. But after their two children grew up and moved out, the two-and-a-half story house on a half-acre lot seemed too big. “It had a lot of space we weren’t using,” Marcelli says. “And it was expensive to keep up.” So, the Marcellis did what many baby boomers are doing: They moved into a smaller house in a community designed for people age 55 and older.
As Americans born between 1946 and 1964 downsize, Epcon Communities, Shea Homes and other builders are developing neighborhoods in North Carolina to appeal to active empty nesters. The state represents a great market for so-called boomer housing, attracting many people from the Northeast and Midwest who want a warmer climate but find Florida too hot or crowded, or want to be closer to their children and grandchildren who have landed in the state. North Carolina ranks fourth nationally for in-migration of people age 50 or older, says Doug Dickerson, director of AARP North Carolina, which lobbies for senior citizens. The state now has more than 2.7 million residents age 55 or older — a group expected to increase by almost 40% and make up a third of the state’s population by 2035.
With the baby-boom population aging and credit conditions still limiting new housing starts, the U.S. is likely to be 360,000 homes short of meeting demand for low-maintenance housing by 2019, according to a study by Epcon, Charlotte-based Metrostudy research firm and Builder magazine. Epcon, a Dublin, Ohio-based home-builder, is among those jumping on the trend, aiming to attract some of the 11,000 people who turn 55 each day, says Lisa Douglas, a regional sales manager in Charlotte. “This segment of the market is the place to be. We can’t keep up with demand. We have so many customers wanting what we offer: maintenance-free, ranch-style homes.”
As anyone who has seen Eddie Van Halen, 60, or Bruce Springsteen, 65, in concert recently can attest, baby boomers are rewriting the rules of retirement. Jay Seymoure, general manager for Shea Homes’ new Trilogy Lake Norman community, calls those targeted by his company “zoomers” because of their zest for life and, often, a desire to continue working for enjoyment, rather than financial necessity. “It keeps them younger, keeps them engaged, and keeps them active,” he says. Marcelli, 66, still works as a civil engineer after moving in July to Epcon’s Courtyards at Weddington Road, where he isn’t mowing grass, cleaning gutters or painting his house’s exterior. Now, he has more time for cycling, hiking and other favored pursuits.
Seymoure met a lot of zoomers in Arizona, where Shea Homes has three Trilogy resort communities for baby boomers. He moved to North Carolina in 2014 to work on Trilogy Lake Norman, the first Trilogy community in the Carolinas. The first phase of 30 homes sold out in less than a month, with construction starting this fall. Prices range from $240,000 to $430,000 with the largest models measuring 2,800 square feet.
Eventually, Trilogy Lake Norman will have about 1,600 homes on 600 acres, with 200 acres of open space for walking trails and other amenities. Residents will have access to a resort club featuring pools, fitness centers, a demonstration-cooking kitchen, and a full-service restaurant suitable for a formal anniversary dinner or a casual lunch. Homeowners will be able to rent boats at a dock on nearby Lake Norman. Monthly fees for Trilogy communities typically average between $150 and $275 per home. Shea, part of the Walnut, Calif.-based J.F. Shea Co. that is among the largest privately held U.S. homebuilders, expects to add similar developments elsewhere in the Carolinas, though it hasn’t made any specific plans, Seymoure says.
Epcon opened its first maintenance-free communities in North Carolina in 2008, focusing on the Charlotte and Raleigh markets, says Nanette Overly, vice president of sales and marketing. So far, they have started 36 communities in the state, including 22 that are under construction. Home prices in some developments start at $160,000, while other sites cost as much as $400,000. Monthly fees, which cover lawn care and external maintenance, average about $200 a month, Overly says.
It’s not clear how many 55-plus communities are in the state, but they are proliferating, says Lewis Sadler, a Cary-based homebuilder. He points to Flowers Plantation, an incorporated development in Johnston County that is planning three age-restricted neighborhoods and an adjacent medical center. The 3,000-acre development, which describes itself as the largest planned community in the Raleigh-Durham area, already has 15 neighborhoods and two schools.
The amenities of 55-plus communities vary, but most feature single-level homes with options for second floors or walkout basement suites. Some baby boomers have parents living with them, making a mother-in-law-suite a nice option. Many home plans have accessibility features that allow residents to age without moving out, even if they become dependent on walkers or wheelchairs.
Just because a community is marketed to people 55 and older does not always mean it is restricted to that demographic. “We typically don’t age-restrict,” Overly says. “Our homes are designed for someone looking for maintenance-free living … So it’s really a life stage more than an age stage.” Federal housing rules permit senior housing developments to refuse to sell or rent properties to families with children under 18 as long as more than 80% of units are occupied by an adult age 55 or older. Even if there are no age restrictions, some 55-plus neighborhoods may not appeal to families with young children. In Epcon’s Courtyard communities, basketball hoops, swing sets and trampolines aren’t permitted, Douglas says. Still, many buyers select homes with additional space and amenities to accommodate and attract visiting family members. “We welcome grandchildren for sure,” she says.
Marcelli said he likes his new living arrangements and the accessibility of nearby parks, shopping and a YMCA. His community has regular social gatherings, and he and his wife have enjoyed getting to know their new neighbors. They range in in age from early 50s to mid-80s, and include transplants from as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan.
The only problem he’s had to deal with since his move, he says, is figuring out “how to shoehorn” items into his new house from his old one, which was almost twice the size and included a workshop. “It’s a question of what do you need, and how to adjust your lifestyle.”