Boomers: On the move, or staying and remodeling?

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | October 7, 2016

Home builders, urban planners, and remodeling contractors are all trying to guess where the tidal wave of Baby Boomers -- the youngest of whom turn 50 in 2014 -- will settle during the next phase of life. But one thing is agreed -- the Boomer generation does not plan to "go gentle into that good night."

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, hearing the word "aging" is decidedly getting old. Marketers have resorted to using the term "active adults" instead. According to a 2011 survey of Boomers by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 41 percent of Boomers are healthy and believe they are going to stay that way. More than a third expect they will never have to give up driving. Most have not even considered the sort of accommodations they may have to make to their living environment, such as walk-in tubs or pull-out cabinet shelves, if they ever require assistance. Responses like these can be considered a sign of either optimism or denial, but they do not necessarily shed light on where Boomers plan to live. So what can we glean from current research?

Where do Boomers want to live?

Unlike their steady and somewhat more predictable parents, the Greatest Generation, Boomers cannot be counted on to downsize and move to a 55+ retirement community, the Sunbelt, or an assisted living facility. Given their propensity for breaking every rule of previous generations, those Boomers who can afford it are more likely to turn up living somewhere they can surf, hike, bike, skydive, and zip line into their 70s and beyond.

For most Boomers, however, post-2008 plummeting home values and shrinking retirement savings changed the way they now think about retirement. In fact, many Boomers no longer have plans to retire completely or at all from working. They either cannot afford to, or they love what they do and don't plan to give it up. While they may have equity in their homes, some may still not be able to sell and move elsewhere. Younger home buyers have had a hard time getting financing to buy the Boomers' homes or have not been able to sell their own homes if they were underwater on their mortgages.

What do Boomers want in a community?

AARP's 2011 housing survey of Boomers - then 45-65 years old - examined their attitudes regarding relocation, aging in place, and home planning and decisions. The results showed that 84 percent of those surveyed loved the community they were living in and would stay there except for a few reservations: a majority would have preferred to have their doctor, grocery store, hospital, place of worship, and drug store within walking distance so these important destinations are more accessible later in life. Public transportation, a shopping center, and entertainment venues were also mentioned.

What home features are important to Boomers?

The same survey found that only 36 percent had given "a great deal of thought" to what they might want or need in their home environment "in later years." When asked about specific modifications, 60 percent or less considered universal design modifications for safety and ease of operation important renovations for their "retirement" homes -- things like lower light switches, higher electrical outlets, lever-handled door knobs and non-slip floors. More important in the near term: 79 percent wanted a bedroom on the main level and 64 percent wanted an easy-to-program thermostat. A main-level bedroom was a major consideration in later years for 91 percent of respondents, and safety and ease-of-use modifications were also more important down the road, but not by much.

Del Webb, the leading builder of active adult 55+ communities, does surveys every few years. Their October 2013 Baby Boomer Survey focused on the empty nest -- are Boomers leaving it behind for a new home? Fifty-five percent of respondents said they wanted to purchase another home in the future, and 10 percent want it to be someplace warmer than where they live now. But for the short term at least, 70 percent have repurposed their children's former rooms into space for their own use: 34 percent have turned them into guest rooms, and another 14 percent have remodeled them as home office space.

A realistic look at planning for Boomer housing

In a 55-page 2012 publication from the Urban Land Institute, Housing in America: The Baby Boomers Turn 65, author John K. McIlwain explores various housing options for Boomers according to location, type of community, and home features. He differentiates between the "retirement" years, which may or may not include working, and the later years when Boomers might still want to live in their own homes but need some assistance or accommodations to do so.

"Saying you do not want to move when you finally reach a point where you need some assistance, that you want to continue living independently at home instead of being 'institutionalized,' is one thing. But this widely shared sentiment says nothing about where you may want to live during the years leading up to the time when you may need assistance," McIlwain says.

He goes on to quote the Center for Housing Policy, which reports that "while about one quarter of . . . households aged 65-74 include someone with a disability, the proportion climbs to nearly two-thirds among households with a member 85+." Unfortunately, by the time most people reach the age of 65 and start needing to make renovations either to keep their home from falling into disrepair or to make living in it easier, they have neither the financial resources nor the tolerance for dealing with remodeling. Furthermore, beyond the age of 75, fewer homeowners have an interest in moving.

Are home builders marketing to Boomers?

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) 55+ Housing Market Index for third quarter of 2013 showed increasing confidence from builders "…tracking right along with other segments of the home building industry," according to NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. He goes on to say, "…like other segments of the industry, the 55+ market is improving in part because consumers are more likely to be able to sell their current homes, which allows them to buy a new home or move into an apartment that suits their specific needs." The NAHB 50+ Housing Council advises new home builders to incorporate universal design so all new homes will have appropriate features or planned space for Boomers to install safety features such as grab bars or walk-in tubs as the need may arise.

Though there are some Boomers for whom aging-in-place is irrelevant, the rest may find it wise to start considering home features they'll need in the future. Whether remodeling the home you are in now or buying a new one, make sure it has all the features you will need to make life a little easier when you're not busy zip-lining.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.