- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

They come in different ages, professions and economic status, but older home buyers with grown children the empty nesters share a common goal: The need to rethink current living conditions. It emerges soon after the last of the children packs up and moves out.

The number of households with no children under 18 is rapidly increasing, observers say. Whether today's empty nesters are downsizing or upsizing and remodeling, their decisions revolve around a common theme: They are determined to simplify their lives.

In the process, empty nesters make decisions as diverse as their baby-boom population. The real estate industry and developers have long recognized empty nesters' differing desires with the hope of capitalizing on them.

"Empty nesters have more choices, and they're willing to make them," says Peter Ancona of Zip Realty in Northern Virginia.

From urban, high-rise apartments to luxury homes on lots measured in acres, the places empty nesters choose to call home can run the gamut. Although most empty nesters prefer homeownership to renting, Mr. Ancona says he has had clients who made the decision to rent because they didn't want to deal with some of the hassles that come along with ownership anymore. Some trade their suburban commuting lifestyle for luxury downtown apartments.

While moving to more manageable spaces seems to be the popular choice among empty nesters, don't think that they'll settle for just any one-bedroom unit.

It's more about simplifying than scaling down, and, according to Tim Bird of Zip Realty in Central Maryland, downsizing for many means moving into a substantial, 2,000-square-foot condominium.

"Most empty nesters come from very nice houses, they want to maintain that environment, and they want an environment that is pleasing to look at but don't want to do a lot of work to make it that way," Mr. Bird says. "They are looking for the services provided to be high quality."

Condominiums and town homes are appealing because both environments usually offer maintenance-free exteriors no grass to cut or snow to shovel. Empty nesters are moving into these types of housing in established and new neighborhoods and in age-restricted, active adult communities.

"A lot of empty nesters are moving into adult communities with smaller lots and where everything's taken care of," says Bill Franklin of Weichart Realtors in Bowie.

Many of today's empty nesters are not as quick as the previous generation was to pull up roots, leave the hometown, children and grandchildren to go off and live in another part of the country, industry observers say.

"A large percentage of empty nesters are moving to be closer to their family and kids," Mr. Franklin says.

"Not everyone wants to go [to a retirement community]," Mr. Ancona says.

Builders are realizing that empty nesters want a convenient place to live without having to move out of town, and active adult communities are attempting to fill the need. That's why they are growing so quickly in areas where retirement living was unheard of a decade ago.

"They're definitely gaining in popularity, we're answering a market demand for empty nesters," says Paul Eberz, assistant vice president of active adult communities at the Toll Bros. building firm. Mr. Eberz adds that the active adult lifestyle offers the opportunity for socializing and fills the demand for luxury single-level living the biggest attractions to empty nesters.

Toll Bros.' Regency at Dominion Valley is a resort community in Haymarket, Va., with 972 homes. It offers community shopping, golf, hiking and biking trails, pools, tennis courts, and a tot lot for visiting children.

But according to the National Association of Home Builders' publication, "The Best of Senior Housing News," a hot new trend in active adult housing is second-story space. As these communities welcome younger empty nesters the 55-65 age range the idea of private space on another level for use as a home office, personal getaway, hobby area, or a children and grandchildren's room, has become appealing. Mr. Eberz says the Toll Bros. properties include options for basements and lofts.

Gated communities, whether condominium, town home or single-family, offer still another attraction.

"Gated communities are very important," Mr. Bird says. Empty nesters who travel often will have enhanced peace of mind if they live in a gated community with good security. It's just one less concern that they'll have to deal with, as they grow older.

There is still a population of empty nesters who prefer to move to bigger and better homes. Maybe they're not sure the kids are gone for good or maybe they've always planned to retire in their dream home.

Some luxury home builders are catering to this group of home buyers, as well, by including features that will allow them to age in their homes more easily. Features such as raised electrical outlets, wider doorways, and multiheight work surfaces, all improve accessibility, an important consideration for later years.

Yet, there are many who will just reinvest in their nest.

Realtors agreed that selling the family home can be an emotional experience. Most have had empty nesters who begin looking for a new home and just decide to stay where they are. In that situation, children's rooms become libraries; basements become hobby rooms and back yards turn into peaceful retreats.

Empty nesters also enjoy remodeling and redecorating to reflect their new lifestyle, industry observers say.

When looking for a new home, "they are all across the board when it comes to amenities," Mr. Bird says.

But popular requests among empty nesters in the home market are first-floor master bedrooms, an extra room for visiting family or a home office, storage space, and nearby recreation.

Locations are most popular when they're convenient. Empty nesters don't want to travel far to get services they need. The closer the grocery stores, shopping centers and doctor's offices, the better, Realtors say. Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with on-site recreation facilities are also a big plus.

Empty nesters are much more active than in the past, they don't necessarily feel older, and they want to actively enjoy the benefits of their career successes.

Communities that are closer to the city appeal to younger empty nesters, whereas developments that are farther out tend to attract retirees, Realtors say.

"I haven't seen a lot of empty nesters in this area actually moving into the city. Most seem to be staying in the suburbs," Mr. Franklin says. When they do decide to move out of the state, Mr. Franklin says, "they are moving to places with a friendly retirement tax structure such as Pennsylvania, Florida or Tennessee."

Joel Lutkenhouse of Long & Foster says his experience with empty nesters has shown that "those between the ages of 50 to 65 were interested in moving simply for the sake of buying something newer. They weren't concerned with the number of stairs or amount of space to maintain. They were looking upon the move as a smart investment with newer properties appreciating better than older ones."

Mr. Lutkenhouse adds that this observation came in contrast to the common perception that those over 65 who didn't seem to be moving from an investment standpoint just wanted fewer stairs and less space to maintain.

"Selling a home you've been in for a while can be pretty dramatic," Mr. Bird says. "The most important thing is to spend time up front to establish your plan and talk with a Realtor, as well as a financial planner, to help you set the plan in place."

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