A yoga class in Sun City, 2013. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Del Webb, the country’s biggest builder of “active adult” housing, is changing its formula to appeal to Baby Boomers.

On January 1, 1960, the Del E. Webb Corporation invited members of the public to see its new community, Sun City, Arizona. Sun City was not just a new development, but a new concept: a place where senior citizens could enjoy a busy, social retirement, playing golf and shuffleboard in year-round sunshine. It was so novel that company executives were not sure anyone would come.

Instead, 100,000 people flocked to the grand opening, touring the model homes, the golf course, the shopping center. By 1970, Sun City had a population of 16,000; it now has 37,000 residents and a sister development next door, Sun City West, with another 25,000. (I recommend watching the 1961 promotional video for Sun City, below.)

Today, age-restricted communities make up a sizable segment of the housing market, and the company founded in 1928 by Delbert “Del” Webb is its biggest player. (Del Webb is now part of Pulte Group.) But many of its newer “active adult” communities look quite different from the popular image of Sun City and other classic, large retirement resorts.

In recent years, the builder has been tweaking its master plans and home designs to appeal to the nation’s 76 million Baby Boomers, aged between 51 and 70. Boomers, as Del Webb has learned through surveys and model-home testing, don’t want the same things their parents did.

Del Webb spokesperson Jacque Petroulakis told CityLab about the features that her company is finding today’s retirement homebuyers want. They may surprise you.

Location near a city center

Increasingly, Del Webb customers want to live near a city. Does this mean they prefer an urban lifestyle, as we keep hearing about the Millennials? That’s not the main reason, Petroulakis says.

According to a 2013 Del Webb survey of Boomers, 79 percent of them anticipate continuing to work in some capacity after they retire. In the new communities the company builds, Petroulakis says, there’s a mix of regular full-time workers, people who have scaled back from full- to part-time, retirees who still do some consulting or contract work, and those pursuing a second career after retirement, as well as traditional retirees.  

For Del Webb, then, finding parcels of developable land near job centers has become key; of course, those parcels tend to be smaller.  

Model homes at Del Webb’s smaller new development in Marana, Arizona, near Tucson. It doesn’t include a golf course. (Pulte Group)

“For the past five years, we have started building smaller, more intimate communities, and increasingly, building them in locations that are closer to city centers,” Petroulakis says.

The original Sun City is 22 miles from Phoenix, a long distance in 1960. Among Del Webb’s recent developments, several are closer in: for example, Carolina Arbors is inside the county limits of Durham, North Carolina. Mirehaven, still under construction, is in the City of Albuquerque.

Both of those communities are several miles from their respective downtowns, and they’re unmistakably suburban in form, with garage-fronted single-family houses on self-contained streets. You couldn’t call them urban (Mirehaven is gated, too). Still, they’re not as isolated as retirement communities that came before.

Judy Davidson, 62, moved into Mirehaven with her husband Artie, 63, just a couple of weeks ago. Both still work—she’s a registered nurse and he’s an insurance agent. Their previous home was nearby in Albuquerque, and they wouldn’t have considered moving too far out of town. “We both have our jobs here,” she says.

Some resort-style retirement communities far from job centers are still selling briskly, like The Villages in Florida, says Len Bogorad, a managing director at the real estate consultancy RCLCO. “But there certainly are more and more of these communities that are closer to existing cities, closer to jobs,” Bogorad says. “That’s one of the big changes, that more people in this generation are continuing to work, at least part-time.”

Personal fitness facilities and the great outdoors

It would be premature to announce the end of golf-themed retirement: Del Webb and other builders are still opening communities with tees and greens at their heart, like Rancho Del Lago in Vail, Arizona, about 25 miles from Tucson.

But golf is a sport in long-term decline, and that’s starting to be reflected in the active-adult market.

Mirehaven, Carolina Arbors, Vandalia in Plainfield, Indiana (near Indianapolis), and some other new Del Webb communities don’t have 18-hole golf courses; instead, they’re near existing golf courses, and it’s proximity that the marketing materials tout.  

The Davidsons illustrate the point. Artie golfs, and his wife “play[s] at it some,” she says, but they don’t feel shortchanged moving to a community without an on-site course. What sold them on Mirehaven was the lifestyle, golf not included. “We know more of our new neighbors, we spend more time outside, just doing things with them. Walking, socializing. It’s more outdoorsy, I guess.”

Among seniors, personal fitness has dethroned golf. “I’m not saying that golf and tennis are not popular. They still remain popular,” Petroulakis says. “But more popular is personal fitness.”

Outdoor recreation is growing among seniors, Bogorad confirms. “Even in communities that have golf courses, when they ask people what the most important amenities are, it’s usually walking and hiking trails and biking.”

Indoor group fitness is popular, too. Del Webb residents sign up for everything from yoga and tai chi to kickboxing. Early and late classes tend to fill up, Petroulakis says, given that many people still work.

Of course, in a metropolitan area where land is relatively costly, it’s easier and cheaper to build a state-of-the-art fitness center and walking trails than a golf course. The growing interest in activities that are not as land-intensive as golf has probably fueled the shift toward closer-in locations, and vice versa.

A home of your own, with room for visitors (and all your stuff)

Del Webb is seeing an increase in the number of single buyers. This is in line with broader trends in household formation.

“In most cases, the single buyers like being near family,” Petroulakis says, although “near” doesn’t necessarily mean the same city or state—just within reach. Some of these buyers, women particularly, are acting as part- or full-time caregivers for their grandchildren. That may be another factor in the popularity of closer-in suburban locations.

Single and partnered buyers alike may choose to downsize—but many don’t, or not by much. They prioritize having space for visiting friends and family, Petroulakis says. And they often want to keep the personal objects they’ve collected over a lifetime, not cull them; storage “is a huge concern.”

Del Webb builds condos in some markets, like the Washington, D.C. suburbs. But in most of the country, it sticks to single-family houses. Its homes (including condos) range from about 1,200 to more than 2,500 square feet. That makes them smaller than the national new-home median of 2,400 square feet, but significantly bigger than the 860-square-foot ranch models that thousands toured at Sun City’s opening. Floor plans emphasize one-story living (although some have a second story, for guests or storage) and include universal design features like raised dishwashers, for easier loading and unloading, and “zero-step” entries from the garage.

Some floor plans include an optional second-story loft, for guests and storage. (Pulte Group)

Historically, age-restricted communities have appealed only to a minority of senior homebuyers—about 20 percent, Bogorad says. That percentage is holding steady for the Boomers, he says, and since their absolute numbers are so high, it’s no surprise that active-adult homebuilding is experiencing a small boom.

Judy Davidson is happy with her new neighborhood. She’s eager to swim and join group activities when the Mirehaven rec center opens. “We’ll probably stay here for the rest of our lives,” she says.

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