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  • Lisa Jevens

A retiree wish list: What seniors want

Retiring baby boomers have ditched the tired stereotypes about where they want to spend their golden years. Most do not plan to jettison possessions and fly south to a take up residence behind the gates of a golf course community.

In fact, 9 out of 10 retirees plan to stay put, according to AARP and the National Association of Home Builders.

"As the first generation to grow up in the suburbs, boomers are accustomed to an active, family-oriented lifestyle that calls for space and privacy at home and the ability to walk out the door, get in the car and go wherever they want, when they want," said Nancy Thompson of AARP. "Most boomers like where they live."

The NAHB confirmed this in a 2009 national survey of 55-plus homebuyers and the builders who court them. The survey revealed that most baby boomers want to age in place in their own suburban communities, near family and friends. But not all of them necessarily want to stay in the same large, multilevel house where they raised their kids. They want a home that fits their stage of life. They want to upgrade, not upsize.

Active-adult communities are the places to see what retiring baby boomers crave in a new home. These are communities that feature clubhouses, social activities, fitness amenities and maintenance-free living for those older than 55. There are many in the Chicago area, including the popular Del Webb brand, which started the trend.

"Family is still such a core value in the Midwest," said Maria Wilhelm, vice president of sales for PulteGroup Inc., Del Webb's parent company. "The Chicago-area Del Webbs are attractive because so many people have family here."

What is the typical ranch home like in one of these retirement communities? It has all or most of the living space on one level, with few stairs. It is less than 3,000 square feet, with an open kitchen/dining/living area, two bedrooms plus a den or three bedrooms, and an attached two-car garage. It has built-in Internet wiring, a walk-in shower, office space, granite countertops, a main-floor laundry and a master suite.

Some homes are customized with wider doorways for potential wheelchair use, shower grab bars, lower light switches and higher toilets, even walk-in bathtubs. The price range is from the $200,000s to the $400,000s.

What buyers don't want are trophy-house amenities that waste money and space, said Stephen Melman, the NAHB's director of economic services. They forgo stairs, oversize tubs, some of the costlier green building features (though Energy Star appliances are expected), home theaters, vaulted two-story family rooms and foyers, formal living rooms, snow blowers, lawn mowers and leaf rakes.

Mike and Judi Marino reflect these preferences. They recently built a ranch home in Grand Dominion, a Del Webb community in Mundelein. At ages 69 and 65, respectively, they left behind their large four-bedroom Lake Zurich home where they lived for 35 years and raised their children.

"We were at the point where we lived between the kitchen and family room," Judi said.

Now, with 2,300 square feet, they have a little less square footage but more usable space.

"We did not use our living room for the last 20 years, so I did not want a formal dining room and living room," Judi said.

The couple have an open floor plan encompassing the living room, kitchen and dining area, with an island separating it.

"That is what I always wanted, and it's great when the family is here," said Judi. "There are two bedroom suites with large closets, plus a den."

Mike initially had concerns about losing basement space.

"We solved that by getting a three-car garage. It gives me plenty of storage for the tools and the Christmas tree. It worked out better than I was expecting because I got rid of ladders and lawn mowers," he said. Maintenance-free living was on their must-have list.

The Marinos' new home is 15 minutes away from their old one. Many of their new neighbors are locals as well.

The folks at Del Webb have been catering to couples like the Marinos for decades. The Marinos' model, The Deerfield, was designed using feedback from previous homebuyers. Grand Dominion offers activities such as Zumba fitness classes, pickleball, Baggo (bean bag toss) tournaments and travel clubs, said Wilhelm.

"We have lodges throughout the community, extensive workout space, facility rooms, a ballroom, indoor and outdoor pools and more," she said. At Bowes Creek Country Club, a Toll Brothers community in Elgin, "people are looking for maintenance-free, resort-style living," said sales manager Debbie Kukla.

The active-adult offerings at Bowes Creek include attached ranch town homes starting at $199,995, detached ranches starting at $245,995 and single-family homes with a second story starting at $294,995. The single-family models are essentially ranches with an upstairs bedroom/loft space for guests.

"They want to live on one level, but they want extra space for kids or grandkids visiting," Kukla said. Buyers often customize, removing the tub from the master suite to add a larger shower or an extra closet. Or they change the living room into a den, preferences consistent with the NAHB's findings.

"Bowes Creek has the best of both worlds, because it has an on-site golf course run by the city, so the residents have access but aren't required to pay extra for it unless they use it," Kukla said.

Aside from the lifestyle advantages, the reason retiring baby boomers choose to build new homes like these is the scarcity of new one-story homes on the general housing market.

According to Melman, only about a third of all new homes built today have a master bedroom on the main level. Plenty of older ranch homes exist in the Chicago area, but they are the opposite of maintenance-free and typically lack the modern features boomers want.

The Marinos found this out.

"We didn't want a used house; we had one," said Mike. "We knew we wanted to go to a ranch, and you don't find new ones unless you have one built yourself." Wilhelm said buyers are excited to move into something new that fits this stage of their lives. "It might be their dream house or their first new house," she said. "They say, 'I don't want to give anything up.' "

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Money & Real Estate, April 6, 2012.

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