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The National Association of Home Builders look at the Baby Boomer crowd — 77 million strong — and see a possible way out of the housing crisis. Increasingly, homebuilders are building smaller, more energy-efficient new homes in active communities that Boomers want — and making them more affordable in the process. With money tight and down payments low, it looks like Boomers are taking the bait.

These insights come from a study by MetLife (Stock Quote: MET) and NAHB called, “Housing for the 55+ Market: Trends and Insights on Boomers and Beyond.”

In it, Boomer are declaring that they’re willing to relocate and buy a new home, but it has to be on their terms. Says the study, “Those who moved from their existing homes did so primarily for reasons relating to their families, but the design and look of the community, and the quality of the home, as well as the design and layout of the new residence, were the factors most often considered by those who chose to move."

The study also shows that more 55+ homeowners are increasingly eager to buy into “age-restricted” communities where the emphasis is not so much on square footage or granite countertops, but on the active lifestyle that Boomers indicate they want. In a comparison between 55+ homeowners in private residences and age-restricted active adult communities, customer satisfaction levels were higher for the latter group.

The data also showed that more Boomers are looking for smaller, less expensive homes and want to live in communities close to where they work (Boomers are reluctant to retire at age 65, the study says). According to the study, the percentage of study participants who opted for smaller homes closer to their place of employment rose from 11.4% in 2001 to 16.6% in 2007.

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But the Great Recession has thrown a monkey wrench into the home ownership plans of Baby Boomers. With more Boomers clinging to their jobs, and watching in dismay as their home values plummet, sales of new homes for “active adults” have slowed. According to the NAHB/Met Life study, Boomers want to sell their homes and move into active adult communities, but increasingly, they just can’t afford it.

"A strong and growing number of retirees and empty-nest households are interested in either downsizing or moving to a more user-friendly home — especially if it's near their existing community," said David Crowe, NAHB's chief economist. "But the current market still presents significant obstacles to homeowners who need to sell an existing home before buying a more appropriate one. That situation is holding many mature consumers back from moving."

Consequently, it looks like Boomers will be running in place for a while, at least until the economy improves and they can sell their homes and move to active adult communities. According to the NAHB study, that could take a while.

Highlights from the NAHB/MetLife study:

  • Most homeowners age 55+, like their parents, are choosing to “age in place,” but a large and growing number — more than 1.2 million households — are choosing to move to communities designed to meet their needs.
  • The main reasons for moving to a 55+ owner-occupied community were family or personal reasons, financial or employment reasons, and the desire to have a higher quality home. In multi-family communities, family was the number one reason, but reducing costs and increasing quality were also top priorities.
  • Within the community, design and looks were most important to 55+ single-family homebuyers, while closeness to family and friends was a higher priority in age-restricted rental and multi-family communities.
  • Home and community location relative to work location are important for a growing number of 55+ households.
  • Active adult communities are attracting more buyers who are age 60 and under.
  • The share of homebuyers in age-qualified communities with some college education or more increased from 50% in 2001 to 73% in 2007.
  • The share of minorities has trended upward in age-qualified and other 55+ owner-occupied communities, and is likely to continue. The 55+ housing market is likely to become more racially and ethnically diverse.

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