Active adult communities attracting younger buyers

For years, builder Jim Chapman’s name has been associated with the active adult market — that slice of the real estate sector that caters to buyers 55 and older. His best-selling products have been courtyard-style homes with shared driveways, one-level floor plans and no exterior maintenance, all factors that appealed to the empty-nester and retiring population.

As chair of the National Association of Homebuilders’ 55+ Housing Industry Council and the founding chairman of ALL Home program that promotes aging-in-place home designs, Chapman has seen this niche market change dramatically in the last decade.

“Ten years ago, the average age of our buyers was 72; now it’s 62,” he said. “We’re working with much more of a Boomer buyer who wants more and is willing to pay for it.”

Those buyers have prompted Chapman to redesign his product. His developments in Johns Creek, Woodstock and south Forsyth County feature a broad menu of upgrade options; roomier floor plans with 2,200 to 3,000 square feet; and secluded backyards and individual driveways for privacy.

Priced from the mid-$300,000s, houses at Sweet Briar Farms in Woodstock sit on wider lots that offer a bit more breathing room between residences. Floor plans include single-family ranch designs with outdoor living areas, optional third garage or elevator, and as many as four bedrooms. Chapman is moving away from his “bread and butter” — a quadraplex with shared driveways — to what he’s calling a “ranch townhouse” — a 1.5-story home attached to similar homes, but each with their own driveways. “They can also have fenced backyards, which is a big deal for people with dogs,” said Chapman.

New active adult communities also emphasize security and social connectivity, with gated entrances, walking trails, clubhouses and community gardens. That's a key difference for the new crop of 55-plus buyers, says Bill Ness, founder of the Chicago-based that tracks new and re-sale active adult options across the country.

“It’s all about the lifestyle. That’s what the majority of people want,” said Ness. “We’re seeing communities that have very carefully crafted lifestyle components, often with an activities director who coordinates everything from water aerobics and pot lucks to billiards and card games. They usually have a clubhouse with a fitness center, an outdoor pool, activity rooms, maybe even a small ballroom. Some have indoor pools and golf courses.”

Ness also notes that many of the recently-built active adult neighborhoods are designed to be just that: sociable, walkable neighborhoods that connect residents. “Go back 15 years, and look at something like Sun City in Arizona. There were 10,000 to 20,000 homes around numerous golf courses. It took years to build and sell out. Now we’re seeing smaller communities that can be built out in six or seven years.”

Buyers are less likely to pack up and move thousands of miles away to live in such communities, Ness notes. “We’re seeing smaller, more location-driven communities pop up because people don’t want to leave family and friends to move across the country. They want that lifestyle closer to home.”

That trend is happening locally in several spots around the metro area, where builders of large developments such as Seven Hills in Paulding County add active-adult sections to the master plan.

“There’s this weird notion that an active-adult community is filled with people who hate children,” said Ness. “In fact, many of those people have grown-up kids and grandchildren and are living in a master-planned community so the generations can live nearby.”

Chapman also sees that interest with his buyers, who want to stay in the Atlanta area to be close to family and friends but who want to trade in the responsibilities of the big, single-family home.

“Today, this type of housing is a lifestyle,” said Chapman. “And there is absolutely a huge demand for it.”