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Young at heart: Designing homes for the new 50+ market

Young at heart: Designing homes for the new 50+ market

Discard old-hat approaches to home and community design. Aging baby boomers are more active, independent, and youthful than the preceding Eisenhower generation.

By Susan Bady, Contributing Editor March 12, 2012
Young at heart: Designing homes for new 50+ market
This article first appeared in the PB March 2012 issue of Pro Builder.

Whether you call them aging baby boomers, empty nesters, or active adults, 50+ home buyers are a powerful market segment that many builders would love to tap — although getting them to buy is more difficult nowadays. The economy is largely to blame; according to a study of the 55+ market by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the National Association of Home Builders, the housing downturn and the recession of 2008-09 made buyers more practical, with increased importance on financial rather than aesthetic reasons for choosing a new home.

“I think the general home-buying market has actually come more in line with what we consider the senior or 50+ market,” says David Sinkey, principal of Boulder Creek Builders in Louisville, Colo., “which is to say that smaller is better, low maintenance is better, efficient use of space is better.” Since many 50+ buyers are dealing with a fixed income, monthly operating costs are a big concern.
Interior designer Lita Dirks, CEO of Lita Dirks and Co., Greenwood Village, Colo., says there’s “a more youthful presence” to the 50+ market today than 10 to 15 years ago. “The Eisenhower generation produced a more traditional buyer that wasn’t as active as the boomers,” Dirks says. “You can put today’s buyers right up there with young, first-time buyers, because both market segments are going after that same kind of excitement. They’re much more independent — they’re the ‘I’ in the Me Generation.”

The 50+ Hot List
• Energy-efficient products and systems
• Low-maintenance materials and landscaping
• Accessible designs that include wider doorways, particularly in the bathrooms; larger showers that accommodate wheelchairs; and entry ramps for homes built on raised foundations
• Rooms that can multitask, such as a study/guest room or a dining room/library
• Multi-generational housing with dual master suites, detached casitas, or living quarters above detached garages to provide private living areas for aging parents or older children moving back in
• Either a dedicated home office or a smaller “resource center” (an alcove adjacent to the kitchen with a desk, file drawers, etc.)
Source: Larry Garnett Designs

In some cases, builders that target 50+ buyers are getting a few customers who don’t fit the profile. At Sinkey’s latest project, Steel Ranch, two couples with young children have homes under contract. “That was a total surprise to us,” he says.

While older buyers still purchase homes in age-qualified communities, they’re not the majority, according to the MetLife/NAHB study. For example, Tuscan Ridge in Copley, Ohio, is age-targeted, but buyers don’t have to be 55 or older to qualify, says Joel Stile, owner of the Stile Cos., Akron, Ohio.

The first homes at Tuscan Ridge, which opened last July, were a mix of stacked flats and detached condominiums, but Stile soon recognized he was competing with townhomes that were a little smaller but offered more for the same price.

“We were missing part of the market that was looking for one-floor living but didn’t want to live over or under somebody,” he says. “When I saw that was the case, I switched gears and began offering only ranch condominiums.” 

Building on a brand

The Dunwoody Way at Del Webb Sweetgrass in Houston reallocates space that would traditionally be a third bedroom to the kitchen, dining, and great rooms. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DEL WEBB


Del Webb is arguably the best-recognized name in active-adult communities. Parent company Pulte Group regularly surveys consumers in order to refine new-home designs and community amenities.

In general, Del Webb buyers are interested in fewer bedrooms and larger living areas. For example, the Dunwoody Way at Del Webb Sweetgrass in Houston is a 2,300-square-foot home with only two bedrooms.

“That’s abnormal in the marketplace from a traditional standpoint,” says Kimberly Paulus, director of marketing for Pulte Group. “You’ve got these wonderfully open, spacious living areas that make the home live bigger than 2,300 square feet. We’ve allocated the space where buyers are going to use it.”

Paulus says many active adults are still working, either in an outside office or from home. Ample storage space is a must, and demand has risen for dual master suites. But it’s the community amenities that have changed the most. Del Webb is adding facilities for meditation, yoga, Pilates, and Zumba and partnering with local universities on state-of-the-art computer classrooms that allow residents to take college-level courses. 

At Sweetgrass, Del Webb’s first community in Houston, homes are priced from the $130,000s and range from 1,130 to 2,640 square feet. Since the grand opening last February, 139 have been sold of a planned 1,500. The builder’s marketing strategy incorporates event-related social media, including YouTube videos that illustrate the community’s active lifestyle (see http://tinyurl.com/8yd7fw8).

Scott Thomas, director of architecture for Pulte Group in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., says Del Webb’s strategy is to offer three product series: 30 feet wide, 40 feet wide, and 54 feet wide. This accommodates different budgets and needs, such as buyers who are looking for a vacation or winter home.

By spring, Thomas says, Del Webb plans to roll out 15 new floor plans that incorporate feedback gathered over the last year and a half from consumers. Features of the new plans include:

  • Open living areas with views from the kitchen into the great room
  • Informal dining rooms that can accommodate a large number of people
  • Retreats where smaller groups can split off during parties or a spouse can go for alone time
  • “Snore rooms” connected to the master bedroom for escaping from a snoring spouse
  • Drop zones between the garage and kitchen
  • "Costco rooms” for storage of bulk items
  • A fixed staircase that accesses storage space in the attic, which is perceived by consumers as safer than the typical pull-down attic stair.

50-plus extended family

Epcon Communities’ popular Palazzo model features a combined kitchen, dining, and living space that wraps around a rear courtyard and maximizes natural light (top). A bonus suite above the garage of Epcon’s detached homes can be used as a home office or living space for family members or renters (above). RENDERING: COURTESY OF EPCON COMMUNITIES


Recognizing a shift in the 50+ market, Epcon Communities, a Dublin, Ohio-based developer, recently added detached homes to its portfolio.
“Because of economic pressures, it’s become more common to have different generations living under the same roof,” says Nanette Overly, VP of sales and marketing services for Epcon. “So now we offer bonus suites over the garage, equipped with optional kitchenettes, in our new line of detached homes.”

The bonus suites have been met with “resounding applause” from buyers, says Overly. Last spring, during a parade of homes at Courtyards of Little Bear in Columbus, Ohio, about 5,000 people toured Epcon’s Palazzo model; the company sold three during the parade and made two additional sales over the next 30 days. Designed by Dean A. Wenz Architects, Bexley, Ohio, the Palazzo is 1,519 square feet — 2,034 including the bonus suite.

Overly says kitchens and outdoor living space are a big focus for 50+ boomers. “We always see a spa-like shower, but big tubs are going by the wayside.” Aging boomers are less inclined to buy in communities where activities are organized for them (“They like to schedule their own activities,” says Overly), but they give the thumbs-up to walking paths and trails. Garage space has always been important, but nowadays the 50+ buyer wants that space to store motorcycles and other leisure time “toys.”

Smaller and smarter

The eco-friendly Chico Beach Cottages in Silverdale, Wash., are clustered on an acre of waterfront property, with views of Mt. Rainier. The homes are grouped around a central pedestrian garden walkway, with garages on the perimeter. PLAN: JOE BIANCO/NORTHWEST PROPERTY IMAGING


Linda Pruitt’s cottages aren’t for everybody, but the 50+ singles and couples who buy them have embraced the meaning of living smaller and more sustainably. Pruitt, principal and co-founder of The Cottage Company, has completed several successful pocket neighborhoods in the Seattle area. Her latest is Chico Beach Cottages in Silverdale: seven homes clustered on an acre of prime Puget Sound waterfront, with views of Mt. Rainier.

The cottages are 1,500 to 1,700 square feet and start at $359,950. When the community opened last summer, approximately 1,500 people toured it. Two homes have been sold to date. Residents park in detached garages at the perimeter of the site and have access to a private beach, a gazebo, rain gardens, an electric car-charging station, and a community commons building.

Designed by Wenzlau Architects, Bainbridge Island, Wash., every cottage has a view corridor to the water, a main-floor master suite, and a floor plan that enables single-level living, plus a study tower that provides an overlook. The living room, dining room, and kitchen are arranged as a great room and scaled for appropriately sized furniture. Vaulted ceilings and large windows create gracious spaces that live much larger than the square footage would imply. Space-saving devices such as a dining alcove and custom built-ins are common in the richly detailed homes.

A bounty of ranch plans

Exterior elevations at Steel Ranch depict a Colorado style with high roof pitches, stone, copper roof accents, and dormers. Six plans offer variations on this style. “They give the neighborhood a real cohesiveness,” says architect Anne Olson. PHOTO: HDR HOMES/WWW.HDRHOMES.COM


Steel Ranch in Louisville, Colo., is the result of Boulder Creek Builders’ extensive consumer research and the work of two different architectural firms: KGA Studio Architects in Louisville, Colo., and Osmosis Architecture in Niwot, Colo.

The architects developed six small-lot ranch plans with alley-loaded garages. KGA contributed four plans and Osmosis designed two, one of which is oriented to the front toward a community park. Master suites and primary living areas are on the main level. There is also a lower level that can be finished as additional entertaining and/or living space for children. Including both levels, the homes range from 2,081 to 2,606 square feet.

Optional “Colorado rooms” at the rear of each home offer such features as gas fireplaces, fire pits, pergolas, built-in barbecues, and private gardens. The homes are also accessible, with zero-step entries from the garage, a mid-landing on all staircases, and wider doorways and hallways.

Boulder Creek sold five homes at Steel Ranch prior to the grand opening last November. To date, 17 of 68 homes are sold. Prices range from the high $300,000s to the low $500,000s.

The Entice model at Steel Ranch offers main-floor living with an 800-square-foot lower level that can be finished out for many uses, including recreation, storage, and bedrooms. FLOOR PLAN COURTESY OF KGA STUDIO ARCHITECTS


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