- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Florida is overrated. Arizona is nice, but the summer days are scorchers. California is beautiful but way too expensive. And Hawaii? Forget about it.

As baby boomers — the nation’s largest segment of the population — begin to ease into their retirement years, these are the answers more and more are giving when it comes to the paramount golden-years question: “Where do you want to retire?”

Their conclusion is they would rather stay put, according to two studies by AARP and the National Association of Home Builders and Countrywide Homes.

“These seniors are not looking to migrate; they want to stay close to their family and friends,” said Jack L. Haynes, executive vice president of the National Builder Division at Countrywide Homes, based in Plano, Texas. “But they are also looking for different types of lifestyles we have never seen before.”

That was the case for Mary Gesiakowski and her husband, Gerald. The Illinois natives moved last year to a single-family home in a new retirement community, Grand Haven, in the Chicago suburb of Romeoville. The Gesiakowskis’ new home is less than an hour’s drive from where they have raised their two children.

“We wanted to stay close because of our children,” said Mrs. Gesiakowski, 57. “And they wanted us to stay close. They are not happy when we go out of town for too long.”

The Gesiakowskis are typical of the NAHB/Countrywide study, which also has found:

Nearly half of buyers desire to be closer to children, grandchildren and other family.

Convenience is a major plus for senior buyers. More than three-quarters of the builders have developed communities for those 50 and older in close proximity to shopping centers, with many homes close to churches or medical facilities.

About two-thirds of builders report that their customers are relocating within their communities or states.

“The study dispels the common perception that seniors prefer to move to traditional warmer-weather retirement destinations like their parents did,” said Kent Conine, president of NAHB and a home and apartment builder from Dallas. “An overwhelming majority of seniors want to live near their loved ones or in the communities where they have put down roots.”

Why stay put? Research from the NAHB found that boomers, the more than 77 million people born between 1946 and 1964, were much more tied to roots and families than their parents. They also tended to be closer to their children than their parents were to them.

One thing is certain: This lack of interest in moving has nothing to do with a lack a money.

“Baby boomers are the largest and wealthiest segment of the population,” said Leslie Marks, executive director of the NAHB’s Seniors Housing Council. “Not only do they have their own money, but they stand to inherit quite a bit a money from their parents, who are traditionally the savers.”

Mrs. Marks said the entire country, from home builders to medical professionals, will start seeing the impact of baby boomer retirements in the next five or six years. The effects will last for the next two decades.

The first of the baby boomers turned 55 in 2001 and a lot of them weren’t planning traditional retirements, NAHB said. These people are generally in good health and will continue to work, although they may choose lower-stress or part-time jobs.

Unlike their parents, they have little inhibition about spending.

“This is a very educated segment of the population who will spend money on themselves because they have it and they feel they deserve it,” Mrs. Marks said.

So should South Florida resign itself to being the retirement center of the past? Not at all. While many seniors are choosing to stay close to home, the numbers of people retiring “are so huge,” Mrs. Marks said, that their influence will reach across the nation, not just the Sunbelt.

“Almost every single state will be a market for seniors,” she said.

As any demographer will confirm, 77 million people with money in their pockets and a propensity to spend is a force to be reckoned with. The housing industry, among others, is researching ways to respond.

What they have learned is that seniors may be less interested in where they live but have plenty of ideas about how they want to live.

“Baby boomers and older home buyers want a maintenance-free lifestyle, freeing them up to travel, socialize and pursue the active lifestyles they want to lead,” said Kent Conine, president of NAHB and a home and apartment builder from Dallas.

Builders say today’s seniors, unlike the past generation, are willing to use equity and pay extra for high-tech options and upgrades for their homes.

“Successful builders are offering yard service, high-speed Internet access, universal design features and social activities to attract 50-plus customers,” Mr. Conine said.

The NAHB study found that nearly 70 percent of builders targeting the seniors market had the communities include high-speed Internet service, while many included wiring and intercom or entrance phones.

More changes are on the way.

The AARP study finds that seniors want lever door handles instead of knobs, outlets and switches positioned higher, and security systems.

Other popular requests are close proximity to hospitals, doctors’ offices and drug and grocery stores. User-friendly public and private transportation systems also are desirable.

The AARP study of 50-plus buyers also finds:

52 percent want a house that allows them to live entirely on the main level.

50 percent want to be in a comfortable community.

37 percent want a smaller home.

29 percent want a home that reduces or eliminates yard work.

Less yard work, a smaller yard and a sense of community were definite draws for the Gesiakowskis.

“We have a smaller house and we opted not to have a basement,” Mrs. Gesiakowski said. “What’s unique is that this is a brand new community with young retirees so we get to make new friendships, which makes it nice.”

And what about Florida?

The Gesiakowskis always can vacation there, but there is no substitute for being close to home.

“A place like this isn’t typical for the Midwest,” Mrs. Gesiakowski said. “But it is starting to be.”

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