What is an active adult community?

adult paint class
31.62 percent of survey respondents said they sought an active adult community for better social activities and amenities. / Photo by belushi / Shutterstock.com

The term “active adult community” might sound like a euphemism for a retirement home or assisted-living facility, but it’s far from it. Rather, an active adult community is much more akin to living at a country club or resort.

George Kolar, a regional sales manager and real estate agent for neighborhoods.com and 55places.com, says there’s a lot of misconceptions about active adult communities. 

“The amount of times one of my clients say, ‘My friend or my sister, or my co-worker has been trying to get me to come visit this community for years, but I thought everyone would have a wheelchair, walker, or oxygen,’” he says. “People don't realize how active and vibrant these communities are.”

Keep reading to learn about these communities and if they might be a good fit for you or a family member.

What is an active adult community?

Unlike a retirement home—which includes features like meal plans, on-site medical staff, and different ways to accommodate residents unable to fully care for themselves—an active adult community is designed for adults who are completely independent.

People don't realize how active and vibrant these communities are.

Most have age restrictions where residents must be at least 55 years old (or another age designated by the community). While these communities might be located near hospitals, they are designed for fully independent occupants—no group homes, no meal plans, no assistance.  

There’s also a key word in there: “active.” Active adult communities are designed to nurture active social lives and typically include a full suite of amenities such as a swimming pool, recreation and fitness centers, golf courses, tennis courts, and more.

The architecture of an active adult community can vary greatly and may include a mix of single-family homes, condos, and townhomes. Many of these communities are quite large—a Del Webb community near Ponte Vedra, Florida, has 1,940 residences, for example—but according to a recent National Housing Survey from 55places, there’s an emerging trend focused on smaller, more intimate communities of a few hundred homes or less. 

Why would someone choose one of these communities?

The social aspect of an active adult community is a huge draw—in fact, it’s the top reason cited by survey respondents: 31.62 percent said they sought an active adult community for better social activities and amenities. Many adults age 55 and older might be empty nesters who are interested in a more carefree retirement that prioritizes leisure and relaxation in an easygoing yet social environment.

According to the National Housing Survey, several lifestyle factors proved important to respondents asked about desirable features of retired living. More than half of respondents said they wanted a travel club, and nearly half wanted health groups and athletic clubs.

The takeaway? Social get-togethers are an important aspect—and a major allure—of active adult communities. In fact, 35 percent of respondents didn’t even consider age restriction an important facet of an active adult community. Instead, they described these communities as an outgoing, social community of like-minded people, regardless of their ages.

Where are active adult communities located?

While these communities are found all over the country, there are a few states where retirees seem perennially interested in moving. Mild climates certainly come into play, but not always. According to the National Housing Survey, Florida, New Jersey, California, Arizona and Pennsylvania are the top five desired states for retirees.

So, it’s not surprising to know that Del Webb, a popular active adult builder, recently opened a community in Tampa, one of many in Florida. Still, Del Webb has also recently opened communities in surprising states: Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota, according to the survey.

Are they the same as apartments?

Not usually. Active adult communities are designed for residents to purchase a home or condo rather than rent. However, the National Housing Survey study found that there’s an emerging trend of 55+ rental communities. These are often located in more urban areas yet offer the same amenities and social perks as communities located elsewhere. 

Whereas Del Webb is a popular example of for-sale communities, builders Overture and Solea instead cater to rentals. According to the study, “These communities offer all the benefits of an active adult community but without the hassles of homeownership, plus they’re closer to city centers than traditional active adult communities.”

Are 55+ residences smaller than traditional homes?

For a lot of retirees, that’s the idea! Survey respondents reported downsizing as their second-highest reason for moving, so naturally home sizes might be a bit smaller in an active adult community. However, these still have all the comforts of home, including a single-story footprint, garage, and upscale kitchen (more on that below).

Are these communities the same as a regular neighborhood?

Not quite. However, they might have the look of any other type of planned community. That’s because, according to the housing survey, 66 percent of respondents said they want to live in a single-family home. 

Some of the most desirable features of a home in a 55+ community is that it’s a single-story property and has a garage. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents listed single-story living as the most important feature of a home, while 44 percent listed having a garage as the most important feature. Just like many other single-family homes in traditional neighborhoods, respondents sought premier features like a modern kitchen (35 percent).

One big difference between active adult communities and traditional neighborhoods, though, is that the former tends to be a bit more social and community-oriented.

One of the best aspects of living in an active adult community is the people. They are so warm, genuine, friendly, caring, and welcoming. Residents look out for each other and take care of each other.

“I bought my first home when I was 25 and I was so excited. I expected my neighbors to bring me cookies and cover over to introduce themselves. Not only did that not happen, but my experience was the complete opposite. I never became friends with any of my neighbors, even though I tried,” Kolar says. "One of the best aspects of living in an active adult community is the people. They are so warm, genuine, friendly, caring, and welcoming. Residents look out for each other and take care of each other."

Is the homebuying process here the same as with any other home?

Marketing a 55+ community might be different than a single property on the MLS, but the nuts and bolts of purchasing one of these properties is largely the same. About half of respondents in the survey said they would pay with cash, while the other half would use a traditional fixed-rate mortgage.

Kolar says, though, that the process for buyers can be a little different, since active seniors tend to have different needs than a traditional homebuyer. 

“The homebuying process starts by selecting the area someone wants to live in. Next, they select a community that offers the activities and amenities they are interested in. They finish the homebuying process by choosing the floorplan, model, or available home they like best,” he says. “When people are moving to an active adult community, they are ‘right-sizing,’ which often means downsizing. While the home and floor plan are important, they are not the most important factor.” 

If you are a family member is considering one of these communities, 55places—part of the Neighborhoods.com family—is a great place to start. This comprehensive site features photos, videos, descriptions, floor plans, listings and reviews of just about every active adult community in the entire country.

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