Mimi Kirk is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Years ago, housing experts predicted a housing crisis brought on by “the great senior sell-off.” But the seniors aren’t selling—yet.
A recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies forecasts that the remodeling industry will remain robust over the next ten years. The growth will be driven, as ever, by the Baby Boomer generation, 80 percent of whom own homes, and two-thirds of whom have expressed a desire to “age in place.” This means that many of them are modifying their living quarters to include such “universal design” features as wider doors and hallways to accommodate wheelchair use.
Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—are a plentiful and relatively affluent lot; they’ve steered economic trends for decades. But as the oldest members of the generation amble into their 70s, housing analysts are wondering who will take up the mantle of remodeling—and home ownership—when they’re gone. Hopes are often pinned on the generation that last year overtook Boomers as the country’s largest: Millennials.
But Millennials are a big question mark. The generation, born between 1985 and 2004 according to Harvard’s Joint Center, has been slower to buy houses than previous ones, including the smaller Generation X. This isn’t from a lack of desire but of affordability, says Abbe Will, a co-author of the report. That could change. “The oldest Millennials will be approaching their mid-40s in another decade,” she says. “We’re looking at the next ten years to see what will happen. Will this group catch up? We don’t know.”
It’s a dilemma that has preoccupied Arthur C. Nelson, a University of Arizona professor who spoke with former CityLab staff writer Emily Badger in 2013 about what he dubbed “the great senior sell-off.” Nelson postulated that Boomers would soon be selling their homes in droves, but would be hard-pressed to find buyers—mainly because Millennials wouldn’t want to buy them.
Nelson pointed to the affordability issue as well as the fact that about a quarter of Millennials prefer urban housing, such as condos or townhouses, over the detached suburban homes that were the Boomers’ preferred habitat. Younger buyers, he said, will also be looking for starter homes—smaller than the big Colonials and split-levels that line America’s cul-de-sacs. “We can predict the next housing crash,” he said at the time. “That’ll be in about 2020.”
Four years later, Nelson tells CityLab that that he believes the sell-off will still occur—but later, in the mid- to late 2020s. This has to do with people deciding to defer selling their homes, hoping to get a better price later than settling for a lower price now. “Home values in much of the country are still less than those before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” he says. Prior to the recession, the typical homeowner would sell a house about every six years. “It was like clockwork,” says Nelson. “This drove a lot of planning and development projections.”
Frequent sales put pressure on the market to produce homes catering to changing tastes among buyers. Nelson notes that the home building industry is now producing less than half the number of new houses it did in the mid-2000s. Though demand now outpaces supply, homeowners are hanging on to properties significantly longer—nine to ten years—because they owe more on their houses than they can get for them, their houses are worth less than before the recession, or they can’t find a home that meets their needs due to insufficient supply.
“It’s not that Boomers are going to ‘age in place,’” says Nelson. “They’re going to be stuck in place, and they’re going to make the best of it.” Those who can afford it will remodel.
Regardless of when it occurs, the great senior sell-off won’t affect every Boomer equally. A large chunk of Millennials—Nelson posits around two-thirds—will want to buy suburban homes because they like the lifestyle, or because they will be priced out of cities like Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, where housing costs are exorbitant. Most of the other third, he says, will want to live in central cities and the oldest, closest suburbs—though not necessarily downtown. The small percentage who prefer downtown living but cannot afford certain cities may move to more affordable ones, such as Philadelphia or Minneapolis.
Nelson predicts that the fringe areas surrounding cities will bring the biggest headaches for Boomers looking to unload their houses. Because Millennials will be looking for small homes when they finally start to buy in larger numbers, the sprawling McMansions of the exurbs won’t be desirable to many of them. “The Boomers in the exurbs are going to be in a real pickle,” says Nelson. “Even in a dynamic market like Washington, D.C. or other booming cities, the market for those homes is going to be soft.”
Though Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, agrees that exurbs and rural areas will likely be vulnerable to the Boomer/Millennial housing mismatch, she’s not as pessimistic about the sell-off as a whole.“The Baby Boomers are a large generation,” she says. “Nothing they do is going to happen en masse.” She also believes that the Boomers who don’t age in place will demand an increasing array of housing options that will help spread out sales over time, decreasing the likelihood of a sudden glut of housing.
But many analysts do agree on one thing: More housing will need to be built for Millennials—and it needs to be scaled to their desires, not their parents’s. “Millennials are likely to prioritize different features in their homes, such as greener materials or in-law suites,” says Molinsky. And according to the Harvard Joint Center’s projections, nearly 90 percent of those looking for homes in 2035 will be under 35 or 70 and over—and both groups tend to buy less square footage.
The challenge for local governments and developers, says Nelson, “is to anticipate these future needs and build different and smaller homes now—before getting trapped with too many larger homes later.”