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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Boomers base home-buying decisions on lifestyle

By Alan J. Heavens
Knight Ridder News Service

It isn't age that motivates the aging baby-boomer homebuyer. At least not as far as Margaret Wylde is concerned.

"There are age-based influences on buying preferences," said Wylde, a consultant to the National Association of Home Builders Seniors Housing Council. "But the decisions on what kind of home to buy, where and when, are based more on how they've grown up and what they are used to."

Bob Karen, president of Symphony Development Group in Owings Mills, Md., said that the longer people remain in a particular area, the less willing they are to move away.

Boomers who grew up in postwar suburbs such as Levittown, PA., and have remained there are one example that he offers.

Many experts contend boomers are not a market at all, but are as diverse as any other age-based consumer group, Wylde said.

"Age really doesn't have that much to do with it," she said. "But lifestyle - who you are and what you think and what you want - does."

Although baby boomers - those born between 1946 and 1964 - are reaching age 55 at a rate of 7,000 a day, "they remain on the horizon" as a home-buying phenomenon, said Wylde, president and chief executive officer of ProMatura Group in Oxford, Miss.

Karen said the housing industry's active-adult market now is dominated by people ages 62 to 64, "and it has bounced around in the same range for the last 20 to 30 years." But, he added, "it's time to start planning for the boomers."

An important way of preparing is by "thinking young," Wylde said. Boomers are into health and beauty, and they make up the largest share of users of liposuction and Botox.

"If you don't build a house with sex appeal," she said, "you'll attract an older buyer and not a boomer."

If location is the main mover of real estate, then you will find baby boomers gravitating to the rural edges of suburbs or to close-in suburbs, she said, but "very few are looking at city living."

To track the trends among boomers, Wylde's firm analyzed information obtained by National Family Opinion in a September 2000 survey of 890 55-plus households. It focused on those who had bought a house in the past two years or were planning to do so in the next two years, Wylde said.

Published by the home-builders association as "Boomers on the Horizon: Housing Preferences of the 55+ Market," the survey focuses on who these boomers are and what they seem to want.

"Seem to want" is appropriate, considering that the trends do change.

On average, 1.9 people live in the 55+ households participating in the study. A husband and wife occupy 56 percent of the households, while a man or woman living alone account for 34 percent. The rest of the households are made up of various groups of individuals.

Thirty-five percent have an annual income of $50,000 or more, and 62 percent are retired.

Eighty-five percent own their homes. Seventy-three percent live in single-family detached houses, and the average market value of the house is $156,000.

The respondents have owned 3.4 houses, 12 percent have a second home, and nearly half live in areas with 2 million or more households.

That is who they are. Now, what do they want?

The respondents are evenly split on location preferences - rural, outlying suburban and close-in suburban.

Thirty-two percent expect to pay less than $100,000 for a house, while 12 percent believe that purchase price will exceed $250,000.

Most prefer the single, detached house. The majority want it to be one story, but the largest number of those who would prefer a two-story house are from the Northeast.

People ages 55 to 64 are twice as likely as 75+ buyers to build custom houses on their own lots, while the greatest proportion of buyers 65 to 74 want to buy existing houses.

The survey also showed that the largest percentage of 55+ buyers preferred a house between 1,500 and 1,900 square feet. The national average, according to the homebuilders' association, is about 2,300 square feet.

Preference for a full basement is divided equally between those who are willing to pay an additional $15,000 for a full basement and those who do not want a basement at all.

Nearly half want a two-car garage, while 14 percent want a three-car. In the South Atlantic and South Central regions, the preference is for a carport. Only 7 percent of the boomers surveyed would be satisfied with a one-car garage.

Thanks to tighter restrictions on development and the increase in the length of approval times, building lots have become more expensive and, in many regions of the country, much smaller.

Preference among those surveyed for lot sizes varies from region to region and whether the buyer prefers a rural or suburban location.

How many rooms and how will they be used?

Most want open kitchens and three bedrooms. But when asked how many of those bedrooms will be used for sleeping, 58 percent said one, 30 percent two.

Most buyers plan to use the extra bedroom as a guest bedroom, followed by home office, sewing room, hobby room, exercise room, storage, media room or sitting room for the master bedroom.

While realizing that an extra full bathroom might add $10,000 to the purchase price, most wanted two of them. Most also preferred white bathroom fixtures to color fixtures, since colors tend to go out of style faster.

Most wanted laundry rooms near the kitchen rather than in the basement, though people expecting to pay in excess of $250,000 for a house wanted the laundry near the bedrooms.

Most buyers believe houses never have enough storage.

Finally, for boomers, community amenities play a major role in the purchase decision.

Walking and jogging trails and outdoor spaces are a big draw, and open space, access to public transportation and a lake also are favored.