Guiding empty nesters to next step

Homes in some active-adult communities have finished basements, including Toll Bros.' new Mews at Laurel Creek in Moorestown.
Homes in some active-adult communities have finished basements, including Toll Bros.' new Mews at Laurel Creek in Moorestown.
Posted: September 22, 2013

Many a home sale is like a romance: Buyers find in that one perfect property their heart's desire.

But sometimes, a little matchmaking is required - as area builders have discovered over the last 15 years or so with empty nesters, a market segment as significant as first-time and move-up buyers.

"It's clearly a time when many realize that they need to rethink the next chapter of their lives, asking themselves, 'Now what?' " said Kira Sterling, chief marketing officer for Horsham-based Toll Bros., which has built several over-55 communities in the Philadelphia region.

Chris Gaffney, a Toll Bros. group president, said the percentage of the company's homes for age-qualified buyers jumped from 6 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2012.

What do these buyers want? And how do builders attract them to their communities?

Informal cocktail parties that introduce prospects to satisfied residents work well for Toll, Gaffney said. "Meeting people who have made the move can be motivating and reassuring."

Those with newly empty nests worry about less space and what it will look like, said Jim Gehman, Toll's director of design.

The typical empty-nest buyer seeks a first-floor master bedroom, a floor plan featuring more open space, and often a home office, he said. Toll's active-adult communities in the region offer those features at prices starting in the the low $400,000s.

For two recent buyers at Toll's Regency at Yardley, there was another prime consideration.

Retired international-tax expert Scott Stevens, 63, plays the trumpet. When he and his wife, Debbie, were thinking of giving up their 25-year-old single-family home in Yardley, she worried about sound issues.

"I didn't want neighbors banging on the common wall, telling him to be quiet," Debbie Stevens said.

When they found Regency, which offers single homes rather than attached or clustered units, the Stevenses fast-forwarded their move.

"I was sentimental about a few things, including our dining-room set - so we took it with us," said Debbie Stevens, 58. "Now, we have the set and the memories."

The trumpet, too.

Frank McKee, chairman and president of McKee Group, a home builder based in Springfield, Delaware County, recognizes the Internet as a useful tool for disseminating information to the active-adult market.

The company offers an "Internet Concierge" to respond to prospective empty-nest buyers, now a significant segment of its marketing. The McKee website also includes survey questions about when is the right time to make a move and what to expect when you do.

"The most basic questions these people need to ask themselves are, 'What am I leaving behind?' and 'What am I getting?' " McKee said. Homes in the company's local active-adult communities range from $199,900 to $406,000.

Focus groups remain vital to the matchmaking between buyers and builders. The latest buzz:

A first-floor bedroom in addition to the master.

Front porches. Many empty nesters are walkers who welcome the chance to chat with neighbors.

Community clubhouses as social connectors. Where children once linked these buyers to their neighbors, the clubhouse now becomes the social center, with pools, classes, card and craft rooms, even social directors.

Among the perennially popular considerations for empty nesters, focus groups suggest, are low maintenance in all things, on-site fitness facilities - particularly for baby boomers committed to healthy lifestyles - and close proximity to shopping, but also open space

McKee Group has taken note of the fact that tax-weary, 55-plus homeowners often look to Delaware, where the tax structure is more favorable than in neighboring states.

Bob and Debbie Barnabei moved from South Jersey to Delaware, to McKee Group's Spring Arbor community in Middletown. Debbie Barnabei, 64, said she is thrilled with their 1,900-square-foot rancher and its open floor plan, and is amazed by the friendliness of the community.

Bob Barnabei, 67, said that they're still planning to host their four children and 11 grandchildren on holidays.

"It will be cozy," he said, "but wonderful."

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