On the House: For retiring boomers, no McMansions

Posted: March 10, 2013

The early days of my life as a real estate writer were dominated by a number of issues, notably "active-adult" housing.

In the 1960s, these were called retirement communities, and they were in Arizona and Florida. Grandma and Grandpa moved there and played golf every day.

The first time I wrote about it, an editor asked whether "inactive adult" housing was what was found at Laurel Hill Cemetery, especially at those marble mausoleums overlooking Kelly Drive at Hunting Park Avenue.

Undaunted, I wrote about every innovation. Key to the initial stages of this phenomenon was the idea of downsizing - that is, getting rid of what you don't need and moving to something smaller and easier to care for.

As active-adult housing evolved over the next several years, however, it seemed to get larger, acquiring a McMansion quality.

Builders argued that aging adults wanted enough room to keep all their stuff and have offices, workshops and craft rooms, as well as places for holiday dinners and separate bedrooms for their many grandchildren.

Claire Gawinowicz of Oreland has never bought that argument.

"I am a typical, middle-aged boomer, and I have lots of friends and relatives in my same age group," she writes. "I talk to them a lot about the empty nest and where the heck are we going to move to now that we have freedom."

What Gawinowicz says she and those she knows want is what active-adult-housing builders were promising back in the mid-to-late 1990s:

A one- or two-story house with two or three bedrooms and a tiny yard, with no lawn mowing or snow shoveling; the ability to walk to shops, cafes and entertainment; hiking and walking trails, and easy access to public transportation.

"Do you know how incredibly hard this is to find?" Gawinowicz asks. "There are millions of boomers out there looking for this, and the builders just keep building McMansions."

I think what happened is that builders assumed that boomers were a homogeneous group, and that all of us were wealthy.

Reinforced by the demographers, they attributed a number of traits to us - the most misleading being that we had a huge pile of disposable income and were willing to spend all of it for the tendency toward "instant gratification" that has marked our generation.

I attended housing meetings across the country and heard this said time after time.

The boomers were not the only ones being labeled. Generation X had trouble getting off the sofa; Gen Y was something else altogether.

It's easy to pigeonhole and stereotype. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of time.

Plus, all real estate is local, and what we want here is not what goes over big in Dodge City, or Boca Raton, or L.A. - especially L.A.

The reality, too, is that after several years of economic downturn, the majority of us aren't worth as much as we were a decade ago.

Housing prices are coming back, but not by leaps and bounds. Boomer homeowners are finally able to sell their houses and move on down, but the prices they are getting have forced a reduction in expectations.

I think this is the new reality Gawinowicz and her friends are talking about. And it's what builders would be wise to accommodate.


On the House: Town by Town

In the Sunday Business section, Alan J. Heavens takes a look at real estate and life throughout the region. This week's focus: Fox Chase.


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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