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A BOOMING CONCEPT -- PREVIEWING POPULAR RETIREMENT AREAS

Ten to 15 percent of Americans relocate after they retire. And demographers expect that percentage to show an upswing as baby boomers retire.

Boomers "have traveled more and are likelier to have lived in multiple locations during their careers," says R. Alan Fox, publisher of Where to Retire magazine. "So they have not developed the deep roots that would keep them in the same spot after retirement."

Boomers are inclined to move after retirement to the places they enjoyed on vacations or business travel. The savviest boomers are using pre-retirement trips to figure out whether a favorite location will be the best spot to settle permanently.

Many developers of master-planned retirement communities offer vacation packages that allow people to try out living in their towns. Such packages often start at under $100 a night to stay in a townhouse or model home. Some communities offer visitors motel or apartment stays. The package may include discount golf, a wine and cheese party with residents and other events that show off the town's features. There's also time to check out recreational facilities, restaurants, shopping, health care and other aspects of the town.

Communities with age restrictions will require that one member of the party be a minimum age, often 50 or 55. Developers sometimes set a maximum number of trips to the same town, allowing potential buyers to see it in different seasons.

At some communities, a couple will have to set aside time to tour the property with a sales representative. The planned towns come in all sizes, from 50,000 to a few thousand. In communities old enough that normal resales are going on, private real estate agents offer rentals that often are good deals when compared to hotels or resorts.

Developers hope that such visits will change the minds of skeptics who vowed they'd never set foot in such a place, let alone buy a house or townhouse in one.

"Once people understand the lifestyle, they must decide if a particular community is right for their pocketbook," says Gary Newman, vice president of sales and marketing for Del Webb, which opened its first Sun City in 1960. "The cost of living may be too high, or they may want something even more elegant."

Developers are incorporating new features and building master-planned towns outside the Sun Belt, hoping to attract boomers.

"For years, there was the belief that golf had to be at the center of these communities," Fox says. "In reality, the majority of retirees do not play golf."

So other themes are emerging for planned communities.

"Some now are nature-oriented," Fox says. "They may be built near a national forest or state park, and include nature trails, jogging and bicycle paths and areas left in their natural state. We're also seeing communities laid out in the old-fashioned way with shops around a central town square."

Some of the bigger developers are wiring houses and meeting places for cable, high-speed access to the Internet and computer training centers.

"That's because you see more home offices today," Fox says. "Planned communities are getting younger people who are retiring or semi-retiring earlier, or doing their jobs from home over the Internet."

Developers also are beginning to build retirement communities in unexpected places. Del Webb, for example, has begun a Sun City west of Chicago in Hinkley, far enough from the city for a rural atmosphere, but close enough for weekend getaways or business appointments.

Those planning for retirement can find out about these communities by asking state tourism offices for lists along with other information about relocation. Publications like Where to Retire contain stories and advertisements about towns that appeal to retirees as well as the master-planned communities. Internet searches also yield results.

Trying out retirement towns can make for a cost-conscious vacation, as well as increase the chance that a move there would be a happy one.

Where to Retire magazine is published quarterly. A one-year subscription is $11.95, two years, $19.95, and three years, $27.95. The magazine is at Suite 415, 1502 Augusta Drive, Houston, TX 77057; 713-974-6903.

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