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Where Next? Following Boomers to Their Next Real Estate Purchase

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By Joyce Finn

Baby boomers are becoming seniors at a rate of 10,000 per day, 4 million per year. By 2020, 80 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older. Many will uproot to flee ice storms and frost heaves, move closer to kids and grandkids, or seek gated retirement communities for security and social activities.

It should matter to REALTORS® where boomers choose to live. Seniors commit fewer crimes and drive less, but require more medical facilities, which will increasingly affect municipal and federal spending. A study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University states that the growing number of those over 65 will shift the composition of housing demand toward smaller homes, rental properties and senior housing. Already, school budgets are shrinking where age-restricted residential communities sprout.

One such retiree is Caroline Sturgis, a retired hospice nurse who moved from Westborough, Mass., in 2010 to a gated retirement community in South Carolina. According to Sturgis, “We used to live on three gorgeous acres on a hill but shoveling snow and mowing became such a burden that we ended up in South Carolina.”

Opportunity exists for REALTORS® who work with homeowners who face housing issues in the years between retirement and assisted living. Savvy real estate professionals like Loraine Murtagh, a REALTOR® in Winchester, Mass., are already catering to this niche market. In her affluent community northwest of Boston, many residents are empty-nesters. Murtagh says, “We’ve become a more move-conscious society. If you go back 30 years, people died in the house they grew up in. Now adults and children move at the drop of a hat. The fact that someone would stay in their old house with the stairs and all those rooms no longer makes sense. Why wouldn’t they want to get out? We’re going to see a huge explosion of people saying, ‘Let’s do something different.’”

Sturgis agrees. “I love to try new things and places, and I’m hoping this isn’t my last stop. Besides, families just aren’t what they used to be. When I grew up, all my cousins, aunts and uncles were nearby. Now everyone is so spread out.”

When listing a property for someone in this demographic range, Murtagh reminds Realtors® to listen to their clients. She continues, “If you start to stage their home and someone is really resistant to taking the family photos off the wall, then maybe this might not be the year for them to move. They might not be ready. Even if their head says it’s time, their heart can’t even get the photos off the wall. You can’t push someone. It has to be on their time.”

A study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute on early boomers stresses that by 2020, women between the ages of 65 to 74 will head one-third of households. A rising number will be responsible for their grandchildren and unable to move. Murtagh stresses that it’s possible to wait too long. For four years she worked with a client planning a move to Florida. A recent heart attack and failing vision has left him frail. “He’s lost the opportunity to get out and enjoy what should’ve been a whole terrific new side of life,” says Murtagh. “When the time is right, seize it!”

On the other side of the country, Las Cruces, New Mexico, has consistently been listed as one of the top ten towns for retirement. Kevin Wilson, a REALTOR® in Las Cruces comments that retirees are looking for more than just listings. “I consider myself a professional concierge of the city. I don’t take new clients on a tour of subdivisions; I take them downtown. They’re meeting REALTORS® all across the southwest, checking out El Paso, Albuquerque, Mesa and Tucson, trying to figure out where they want to retire. I tell my wife, I don’t sell houses to retirees; I sell Las Cruces to retirees. Once they decide they want to move here, that’s when we’ll find the right house for them.”

In coastal South Carolina, 75 percent of Sharon Wise’s clientele are seniors buying into Sun City, Hilton Head, an over-55 gated community. According to Wise, “It made perfect sense that this community [of over 8,000 homes] would become my niche.”

Over 80 percent of Wise’s clients find her through the Internet, so her marketing is geared to informing them about the community by email. She constantly updates the Sun City sub-site on the company’s website with new floor plans, an updated blog, area information and new Sun City, Hilton Head, activities. This constant activity keeps her search engine placement high. “What works for me is a large email database of Sun City clients. I keep those emails updated and, once a month, I send a Sun City email blast listing inventory, new sales, incentives to purchase and new amenities. Sometimes I send them the activity schedule for the current month.” Wise finds that in the current economy, often buyers like Sturgis will look three or four years before buying.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “The percentage of people who changed residences between 2010 and 2011—11.6 percent—was the lowest recorded rate since 1948.” But again, from studies by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, economic and population indicators don’t take into account the pent-up demand of families who have doubled up in this current recession. When the economy does improve and the glut of foreclosed homes lessens, the senior niche market will be a boon to REALTORS®.

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