Friday, May 18, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Rethinking the 55-Plus Market

SOME would-be buyers who visit Villagio, a 55-plus housing development in South Brunswick, think they’ve arrived at the wrong place.
To members of a market segment said to avoid stair-climbing, second-floor bedrooms are not the only surprise. Villagio has a basketball court and a jungle gym, but at least so far, it lacks a clubhouse, which at a typical development of this type is usually among the first elements built.
“This is not your father’s adult community,” Mr. Gueyikian said during a recent tour of the development, a 100-acre property punctuated with 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot stucco houses painted in shades like amber, rose and terra cotta (although elevators are an option for their buyers). “The thinking was in the senior market that you sell your house and downsize, but some people don’t want to go to a smaller house. They want a new home with bragging rights. Today’s people are looking for the Porsche S.U.V., they’re not looking to buy a van.”
The 55-plus market was especially hard hit by the downturn in the housing market — so much so that in 2009 New Jersey passed a law allowing such communities to convert to serving the general populace. In any case, said Tim Touhey, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, “there’s been an evolution in the health and conditions of families.”
“Some 55 and older are still working and want office space,” he said. “Some may have adult children living at home. They want more variety and choice. And the development community is driven by what the market wants.”
In other words, Mr. Gueyikian may just have hit upon something. After several years in which, he said, buyers seemed to lose interest, Villagio is building seven houses, adding to the 43 that went up in late 2007. Long-range plans call for 210 homes.
A builder of million-dollar-plus houses in Holmdel, Marlboro and Colts Neck, Mr. Gueyikian said he identified an interest in his vision of 55-plus housing when meeting with a group of homeowners at his development in Ramapo, N.Y., which has retirement-age buyers living in $2 million to $3 million
homes on two or more acres each. But, recognizing that relatively few could afford this level, he scaled down his formula, creating instead homes on one-tenth of an acre that range in price from $479,000 to $755,000.
With Villagio, he also took steps to loosen the strict age limitations typical of “adult” communities. Working with South Brunswick planning officials, he was granted a variance allowing that only one person in the home must be older than 55, while others can be as young as 19. Jeri Gaita, Villagio’s marketing specialist, estimates that 25 percent of its residents have had their grown children living with them at one time or another.
Though that flexibility wasn’t a particular selling point for Joe and Marge Schellato when they bought a house here in 2008, it turned out to be a bonus when their 25-year-old son temporarily moved in with them. The size and styling of the houses were the most significant factors in the Schellatos’ decision to buy, in addition to the population of residents, many of whom are still working.
“We wanted to downsize, not necessarily in size but in maintenance,” said Mr. Schellato, a vice president of Wells Fargo, whose wife is a high school English teacher. “This is a highly active community. A lot of people are still working, or interested in sports. Everybody seems to be on the same page.”
As far as accommodating that lifestyle, Villagio is just now adding a clubhouse and a pool. Mr. Gueyikian said this hadn’t been a priority at first, because he assumed that, given residents’ varied interests, there was ample entertainment nearby. That has been true of Brenda and Carlos Sison, who moved here three years ago from a 4,000-square-foot house in Short Hills. Having retired from her practice as a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Sison says she appreciates being near Princeton, and the culture it provides.
“Living near an academic community,” she said, “you feel young. They offer activities you can enjoy, and it’s not too far from our previous lifestyle.”
In general, developers of age-restricted housing these days are trying to adjust to the changing realities of their pool of buyers. Some have pulled out of the market, which was heavily overbuilt in the 1990s and early 2000s because communities throughout the state eschewed housing projects that would add children to their overburdened school systems. Then, in July 2009, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a conversion law that allowed developers to ask local planning boards to broaden access to their approved but not yet built communities, while adding a requirement that 20 percent of each new project be more affordable.
“With the market being saturated and the economic crisis,” Mr. Touhey said, “quite a few projects went in for the conversion. I stopped counting at 45. The bill worked very well, and many have moved forward with development.”
One who took advantage of the opportunity was Randy Csik, president of American Properties. In 2010, his company bought a site in Piscataway already approved for 152 age-restricted homes and immediately applied to local officials to convert the plan to 120 market-rate single-family homes and 30 age-restricted affordable rental apartments. Eighty of the single-family homes have sold to date, for $423,000 to $525,000.
“At the time,” Mr. Csik said, explaining his decision to convert, “the housing market for seniors had virtually dried up except for a few selected communities. It’s getting better, but not anywhere near what it was in 2006.”
Those still building in the 55-plus market have embraced other modifications: converting attic space into loft bedrooms, for instance, or adding finished basements for visiting grandchildren.

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