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How to Choose a 55+ Active Adult Community

The enclaves vary enormously. Here are questions to ask to pick one for you.

By Beth Braverman

The first time Mary Hickey, 53, and her husband, Joe, 59, looked at a home in Sun City Peachtree, a development in Griffin, Ga., in early 2016, they didn’t realize it was an age-restricted community. But the more the accountant and human resources manager learned about the activities there, the more they were ready to downsize from their 21-acre farm in Barnesville, Ga.

Active Adult Community

“We liked the idea of being around people closer to our own age, whether they were retired or not,” says Mary. “This community likes to do all the things that we like to do.”

The couple moved into the community in September 2017. “I went from working all week and then having to work on the farm, to working all week and having fun,” Mary Hickey says. “When you get older, you need to have fun and be around people that are also happy and having fun.”

Strong Interest in Active Adult Communities

The Hickeys aren’t the only ones attracted by the activities and sense of community afforded by an active adult community — even if they’re not quite ready to retire.

Interest in age-restricted communities (they’re not called retirement communities anymore) like the one the Hickeys chose is strong. In fact, builder confidence in the single-family, 55+ housing market hasn’t been this robust since the National Association of Home Builders started compiling an index in 2008.

But if you’re contemplating moving into an age-restricted community, finding one that’s right for you takes work. While active adult communities generally offer the opportunity for a lower-maintenance (and sometimes lower cost) lifestyle, they vary enormously.

Today’s 55+ communities range from small city-based apartment complexes like Overture's 9th and Colorado in Denver to single-family homes situated on a gated golf course like Trilogy at Ocala Preserve in Ocala, Fla. to the mammoth 9,200-person Rossmoor community in Walnut Creek, Calif. Most are owned by their occupants, but a growing number are rentals. Typically, at least one occupant of each property must be at least 55.

Before settling into an age-restricted community, ask yourself these questions:

What Can I Afford?

In addition to factoring in the cost of rent or mortgage payments (if you'll still have them), you'll need to add in the cost of homeowners' association or community fees, which often run around a few hundred dollars per month. Make sure you understand what those fees cover.

While some 55+_communities have restaurants within them,  your fees won’t cover meals or health care. So budget separately for those. Monthly fees do go toward exterior maintenance, such as lawn care and possibly snow removal, as well as community areas like a clubhouse or pool.

If you’ve recently retired, or are planning to do so soon, sit down with a financial planner to run the numbers to make sure the ongoing costs of your new home won’t impact your long-term financial security.

You can get a sense of what’s out there by searching, which offers ratings, reviews and information on activities and amenities for thousands of communities across the country.

How Active is the Community?

The “right” answer to this question will depend on what you’re hoping to get out of the development — both now and in the future.

Some communities have huge clubhouses, dozens of organized activities and packed social calendars with everything from holiday parties to cruises to local attractions. Others might have few structured activities. If you don’t find the popular activities in the development appealing, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

There are also a growing number of niche communities, designed specifically to cater to specific interests and groups, from LGBT-focused communities to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville-themed developments, says Andrew Carle, president of Carle Consulting, a senior living consultancy in Oak Hill, Va. Communities that cater to a niche will mention it on their websites and in their marketing materials. Asking around during a visit can confirm how well the place  delivers.


Some developments will let you stay overnight in a model home for a few nights or a week to get the true experience of what it would be like to live there.

“I’d encourage anyone to visit a few of these communities and to stay for a few days,” Carle says. “See how you like it.”

Will I Be Able to Stay Here Over the Long Term?

While you may be lured by the "active" part of "active adult" communities, if you're planning to remain in this home throughout retirement, your needs will likely change significantly over the course of your stay. Planning now for your housing in a decade will let you remain in your home independently for longer.

Look for a home with “universal design” features like no-step entries, single-floor living and wider doorways and hallways to allow for wheelchairs, in case you’ll need them one day. Such features are fairly common in most 55+ communities, though they may be seamlessly blended into the architecture.

“We do a lot of things that our customers don’t even notice when they’re buying it,” says Jay Mason, vice president of Market Intelligence with home builder PulteGroup. “We put additional blocking around the tub, so if you want to add a handle, you just have to go in with the screws. We do wider interior doorways, that most people don’t even notice until they need them.”

Would I Like the Surrounding Area?

Even in communities with a host of recreational amenities, you'll likely want to leave the gates once in a while (if only to see people under 55). Make sure you can easily take advantage of things you enjoy off-campus, such as shopping, taking in a show or hiking.

If traveling or having regular visitors is important to you, consider the convenience of the closest airport. This is particularly important if you’re moving to a different region of the country. Of those who plan to move in retirement, more than 40% say their new home will be in a different state, according to a USAToday poll.

The reasons for such moves often include the weather and a lower cost of living, but they’re sometimes more personal as well, says Chris Porter, chief demographer with John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, Calif.

“Today’s retirees aren’t necessarily looking for golf. The biggest amenity for them is to move near their kids and grandkids,” Porter adds. “They’re moving to wherever their kids are finding jobs and living. That’s one of the reasons that active adult communities are expanding into new markets.”

Think, too, about how the surrounding area would serve your needs in the future. Ideally, this means a walkable community or one with a robust system of public transportation. You’ll also want easy access to health care, including a primary care physician and specialty doctors and hospitals you might need in the future.

Beth Braverman is a full-time freelance writer covering mostly personal finance, careers, and parenting. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including CNNMoney, and Consumer Reports. She's counting down the years until she qualifies for residency in a retirement community and can fill her days with yoga and Mah-jongg. Read More
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