Whether kids moved out only recently or the nest has been empty for a while, purchasing a home for your next stage of life may be a more daunting task than you expected. It makes sense to downsize, but you’re still active and don’t need special care.

Enter the age-restricted community. They go by a variety of names – 55-plus, independent living, active-adult and more – and they’re the only legal exception to fair housing laws that prevent discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or family status.

Operated through a homeowners or condo association, age-restricted communities offer a variety of amenities to residents – from private golf courses to game nights – with restrictions on the age of residents that live full-time in the community. But the stringency of the rules varies based on the individual HOA bylaws.

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These housing options that target baby boomers and beyond have been expanding over the last couple decades, says Nat Kunes, vice president of product at AppFolio, a full-suite property management software company that works with property managers and homeowners associations throughout the U.S.

“I expect to see, and what we hear from our clients, is that a lot of property owners are repositioning some of their properties, or planning to reposition their properties, to be 55-plus communities,” Kunes says.

It makes sense – the U.S. Census Bureau expects 1 in 5 Americans to be over age 65 by 2030. And with continual medical advancements, age doesn’t necessarily prohibit people from exercising, traveling or being social in any way. To better accommodate active retirees (and those who are still working), residential communities are working to offer more amenities.

But you’re no longer just buying a home that’s the right size in a convenient location. Now you’re buying into a lifestyle the community promotes, and you want to make sure it will make you happy for many years to come.

“We try to tell people to focus more on their lifestyle and less on the house,” says Kathy Sperl-Bell, a Seniors Real Estate Specialist and broker-owner of Active Adults Realty in Lewes, Delaware. “We can find you a single-level house with three beds, two baths and an open floor plan. That’s just not hard anymore.”

[Read: The Do's and Don'ts of Downsizing Your Home.]

Here are seven things to consider when looking at buying a home in an active-adult community.

It might take longer than a normal home search. You’re not just looking at the size of a home or its location in relation to school or work, so expect a longer search for the perfect 55-plus community.

“A lot of people start researching areas and communities two or three years prior to making a purchase,” says Samantha Reid, communications manager for 55Places.com, an active-adult community information website and brokerage service.

Some agents specialize in this kind of purchase. Most people buying into an age-restricted community have been homeowners before, and the purchase process itself doesn’t differ too much from any home purchase in a master-planned community. But with the level of detail in selecting the home that allows you to live exactly as you want, Reid stresses the importance of working with an agent who specializes in senior home purchases.

Agents who work with 55Places.com, for example, all specialize in home purchases in active-adult communities, and the National Association of Realtors certifies agents like Sperl-Bell as Seniors Real Estate Specialists after completing education within this niche of homebuying. While affiliation isn’t required, you’ll want to find an agent with enough knowledge of communities in the area and a level of expertise you can trust.

No two communities are the same. As with all master-planned communities, the amenities and services offered can vary widely from one community to another. So if you like the idea of living near other seniors but aren't satisfied with all the social aspects one community offers, keep looking. You’ll find something more suited to your tastes.

“If you’ve never played golf, you’ve never used an indoor pool and you’re not that keen on going to a clubhouse, don’t buy into that community,” Sperl-Bell says.

There may be a few kids there. Some active-adult communities will market themselves as an ideal living situation for seniors, but that doesn’t always guarantee the association limits the age of its residents, or it may only restrict residence to adults ages 18 and up or require at least one resident of the home to be over a certain age.

“Not all communities marketed as active-adult are age-restricted, so sometimes you have to read the next line,” Sperl-Bell says. If you’re dead set on not living next door to children, be sure you’re looking at only age-restricted communities.

The more amenities, the higher the HOA fees. It’s pretty common in the southern Delaware beach communities for HOA fees to be over $500 per year, Sperl-Bell says, especially if there’s a clubhouse, landscaping services, a pool and more.

Services available as you age. While active-adult communities are often focused on the social amenities offered to residents, if you’re planning to live there for more than a few years, it may be wise to take services into account that you may not need now but would benefit from down the road. Senior fitness, easy access for medical professionals and even grocery delivery could help make living in the community convenient for you as you age.

[See: The 25 Most Desirable Places to Live in the U.S. in 2017.]

A non-age-restricted community may be a better option. You may be most excited about the amenities an age-restricted community could offer – whether it’s landscaping and maintenance or a clubhouse with regular social activities. But don’t narrow your search to exclusively age-restricted communities if that’s not a true deal-breaker for you.

Tags: real estate, housing, senior citizens, new home sales, existing home sales, pending home sales, retirement


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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