Charlotte’s other construction boom: Retirement communities

Charlotte’s other construction boom: Retirement communities
The kitchen at the Balsam a 2,505 square foot model home at Trilogy Lake Norman, a large retirement community with up to 1,600 homes planned. (Robert Lahser | The Charlotte Observer)
The kitchen at the Balsam a 2,505 square foot model home at Trilogy Lake Norman, a large retirement community with up to 1,600 homes planned. (Robert Lahser | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo/The Charlotte Observer) - Much has been made of millennials flocking to Charlotte, those 20-somethings whose penchant for urban living is powering a boom in apartment construction and breweries.

But another group is also moving to the Charlotte region in large numbers: Retirees, who are driving a surge in new housing targeted at those 55 and older.

Northwest of Charlotte, Shea Homes is building Trilogy Lake Norman, with 1,600 houses. Near Mint Hill, Kolter Homes is planning to start Cresswind Charlotte, with up to 850 houses and 230 assisted living units. And in Fort Mill, Del Webb is building its second large retirement community in the area, the 722-home Carolina Orchards, and still building out Sun City Carolina Lakes, which now has over 3,100 homes.

All are age-restricted for owners at least 55, and they're all marketed to "active adults." Think demonstration kitchens for cooking classes, outings to concerts, dozens of social clubs, gyms with fitness programs and even perks such as membership in a boat club. At the same time, these new communities sell smaller houses, typically one floor and designed for aging in place, and have HOAs that take care of yards and upkeep.

"It's largely about the lifestyle," said Jay Seymoure, general manager of Trilogy Lake Norman.

The price to move into one of the new retirement communities varies. At Trilogy Lake Norman, prices start in the mid-$200,000 range and go to more than $400,000, along with HOA fees that will run about $300 a month. Prices haven't been set at Carolina Orchards, but will likely be similar to Sun City, where they run from $212,999 to $560,334, with $189 monthly HOA fees.

The target customers are homeowners with enough equity in their current houses to sell and make a large down payment on a new retirement home. Options are much more limited for senior citizens on smaller, fixed incomes who don't have home equity.

Although some new, age-restricted communities underway are reserved for people with low incomes, they're much smaller than these luxury developments. Most rely on tax credits to induce developers to build them, and the comparatively small amount of such credits limits how many get built. In 2015, two housing projects reserved for low-income seniors were approved in Charlotte, totaling just 158 units: the Allen Street apartments in the Belmont neighborhood and Rodden Square on Mallard Creek Road.

At Trilogy Lake Norman, about 80 homes have been sold already, and the first buyers are set to close in March. Construction is starting on about four new houses a week at the development, and Seymoure said about 40 percent of prospective buyers are from outside the Carolinas. The most popular style: A two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot floor plan, with a loft option for kids and grandchildren who come to visit.

"In most cases, they're downsizing square footage and simplifying," said Seymoure.

The boom isn't limited to new construction: Longtime Charlotte retirement communities are expanding as well, including Aldersgate in east Charlotte, Sharon Towers near SouthPark and Plantation Estates in Matthews, adding space for more residents.

Driving the growth, experts say, is a combination of demographics, economics and the same factors that have made Charlotte an attractive location for millennials and businesses. The Baby Boomers, 78 million strong, are aging, with the youngest now past 50, and many want to downsize and relocate. The recovering housing market means many have the equity in homes they've occupied for years to make such a move possible.

"In 2008, everybody put the freeze on building new retirement homes because retirees put a freeze on selling their home," said Andrew Carle, director of the program in senior housing administration at George Mason University.

And the Charlotte region has a number of things in its favor as a retirement destination. The area has a mild, four-season climate – a welcome contrast to the cold of the Northeast and Midwest, as well as the humidity in Florida. The cost of living is relatively low, there's easy access to the mountains and the sea, and Charlotte's airport makes it simple to visit friends and family.

Mecklenburg grays a bit

Despite all the talk of millennials, Mecklenburg has actually been getting a little grayer. In 2000, 15.8 percent of Mecklenburg County residents were 55 and older. The U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey shows that number has grown to 19.7 percent.

Tom Maran, 66, moved to Sun City with his wife in 2012. A Toledo native and retired human resources manager, he'd had enough of Midwestern winters.

"I wanted out because of the snow," said Maran, standing in a park with a dozen other men pitching horseshoes in the crisp air.

"Hey, next time you want to cheat, don't make it so obvious!" one of them yells, drawing laughs.

All are about the same age, Maran said, and they enjoy reminiscing about the past as well as finding new activities. That makes it easier to connect than if he and his wife had moved to a random subdivision.

"You have people from all over the East Coast," he said. "We're all in the same boat. We talk about a lot of the same things."

His wife has taken up pottery, and Maran said if there isn't a club for an activity residents are interested in, Sun City will help them start one. He's president of the horseshoe club.

"The nice thing is there are so many different organizations and things you can do," he said.

Bill McCoy, a retired professor and former director of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte, said that sort of desire is what's driving the growth.

"Baby Boomers want a different kind of environment. They're finished with the typical subdivision," he said.

Will Generation X follow?

While short and mid-term forecasts show rising demand for such developments, McCoy said the outlook gets murkier the farther out you look. It's possible that members of Generation X and millennials, when they retire many years from now, will once again want something vastly different than their parents.

"You need another generation coming up to take these homes," said McCoy. "You might get into a situation where it becomes more difficult to sell these places."

That's decades away, however. For now, developers are betting big on the swelling ranks of retirees.

Paul Emrath, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, said the group is forecasting the number of households headed by someone 55 or older will increase from 49.2 million in 2015 to 56.9 million by 2024.

"The potential market is growing," said Emrath.

As with any community that has a homeowners association, there can be conflicts. A group of residents have formed a group called Sun City Carolina Lakes Informed Owners, for example, raising issues with landscaping, maintenance and a desire for greater homeowner representation.

But in general, Emrath said, the promise of an HOA to handle yard work and other maintenance activities is one of the major reasons people choose to move to these communities.

"They're really looking for a maintenance-free lifestyle," said Emrath.

Jon Cherry, division president for Pulte Homes, owner of Del Webb, said building "active adult" communities close to a city with cultural attractions is more important now than in years past.

Del Webb's new Carolina Orchards development is near the Anne Springs Close Greenway and golf courses, and its proximity to Charlotte and the city's airport is a major selling point.

"A lot of folks would have said, years ago, build it and they will come," said Cherry. Nowadays the draw of the city matters more: "Charlotte is a place folks continue to come to."