Shuffleboard? Try scuba diving, boomer

With new upscale amenities, retirement communities no longer resemble old folks' homes, says Money Magazine's Dan Kadlec.

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By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing writer

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Dan Kadlec is co-author of The Power Years, a guide for boomers. E-mail him at boom_years@moneymail.com.

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Every time I hear the words retirement and community strung together, I cringe - for two reasons.

First, I can't shake the uninspiring image of cue-toting geezers pushing pucks at one another on the shuffleboard court.

Second, in yet another unmistakable sign that I really won't be young forever, I know that the day when this fast-growing industry starts to court me is relentlessly creeping closer.

I'm right on one count and dead wrong on the other. While it's certainly true that developers of retirement villages are out to hook boomers like me, the communities they're pitching bear little resemblance to the old folks' home of my mind's eye.

In fact, you don't even have to be retired to live in one - just an empty-nester, typically 55 or older.

The best of these new developments boast lush grounds with fitness facilities and Olympic-size pools, luxury homes and amenities galore.

Need dinner reservations? Call the staff concierge. Feeling some cubital fossa discomfort after climbing the on-site rock wall? Your personal trainer will be right over, and the nutritionist won't be far behind with a vitamin cocktail to help you heal.

These communities are sprouting up everywhere, from traditional retirement towns in Arizona and Florida to northern cities such as Chicago, Denver and Philadelphia.

Industry leader Del Webb, for example, now runs 59 developments in 20 states, up from just 15 in seven states in 2001, and the builder expects to open seven more over the next 18 months, despite the slowest housing market in decades.

Convinced of can't-miss, long-term growth as we boomers age, other companies are charging ahead as well.

But just because they're building it doesn't mean you should come. To figure out whether an age-restricted community is right for you, consider these questions.

Does the age thing bother you?

Some people simply can't get past the idea of living in a place populated exclusively by older adults regardless of how appealing the surroundings and services may be, which helps explain the way these developments are typically marketed.

"We don't use the word retirement," says Caryn Klebba, spokeswoman for Del Webb. "These are 'active adult' communities." The emphasis is on fitness and dining options and other common interests from kayaking to skydiving.

"Boomers are a diverse group," says Jerry M. Ray, a senior vice president at the St. Joe Co., another active-adult community builder. "You have to give them the amenities they want."

That means things like nature trails, views and finely appointed homes with kitchens and living spaces big enough to throw a party.

Others play up offerings like gourmet cooking classes and community-service travel. So there's plenty to keep you feeling young.

Still, it may not work for you when you step outside and see only like-minded, similarly aged neighbors - and not a child in sight. (Kids can visit, of course, but the length of the stay permitted varies widely: Some places say two weeks, some six months.)

How much are you willing to pay?

If you cheap out, you won't get the great stuff. Consider these estimates from Dan Owens, director of the National Active Retirement Association: Spend $175,000 (plus $200 or so in monthly fees) and you'll likely end up in a 1,500-square-foot condo with amenities limited to a bare-bones clubhouse and a few planned activities.

Starting around $350,000, you can get a townhouse or a single-family home of about 2,800 square feet with a brick exterior and granite countertops.

But not until you spend $600,000-plus (and tack on $500 to $1,500 a month in fees) will you find true luxury living, with spacious and customized single-family homes in a community with a fitness center; a clubhouse with a library and computer room; indoor and outdoor pools; gourmet restaurants; dozens of special-interest clubs; and a premier golf course.

Of course, the exact price varies by location. Developments near a big city, the mountains or water tend to command the biggest premiums.

How social do you want to be?

Life in an active-adult community is centered on, well, the activities - which is great if you want to get involved and is not so great if you don't.

"The people who live in these places are really into group things," says Margaret Wylde, CEO of ProMatura Group, a market research firm in Oxford, Miss.

For instance, she says, active-adult buyers are twice as likely as buyers who don't choose an age-restricted community to value a walking trail and four times as likely to prize a clubhouse that offers many activities; about half say it's important to have a common barbecue area.

The activities are just options, but once you get there, they may feel more like obligations because social networks form around them. It's important to find a community that more or less shares your vibe in terms of how involved you want to be.

What kind of activities do you want?

Not all adult communities are the same. Some focus on golf and tennis. Those built on the water may feature sailing and scuba, while in mountain-area developments, skiing and hiking are popular.

And then there are the places that are built around a particular theme. For instance, this month Wellstone Communities is opening its wellness-oriented Cooper Life at Craig Ranch near Dallas, complete with restaurants, parks, stores, fitness centers, walking and cycling trails, clubhouse and top medical facilities.

You can get a personal trainer, a nutritionist, prepackaged healthy meals, a personalized vitamin regimen and even regular CAT scans. You can also spend up to $2 million for your home (plus $2,000 a month in fees).

How do you choose?

Searching for the right active-adult community is a lot like helping your teenager pick the right college. You'll find plenty of good information on the Web (a good starting place: the list of developments named best-in-class by the National Association of Home Builders at nahb.org/50plusawards).

But you have to visit to get a real feel for a place. Don't just speak with a sales rep. Talk to residents and ask what activities are most popular and how much socializing goes on.

And be sure to find out the average age in the community. Older developments tend to have older residents - which, for many youth-seeking boomers, might just be a deal breaker. To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.