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Choosing an Active Adult Community

Smart tips to help you find the right place for you to land in retirement.

Steve Thornton was driving along Interstate 75 in South Florida on a “scouting trip” for a place to live in retirement when he saw a billboard for Trilogy at Ocala Preserve, 1½ miles off the highway. Stopping there, he was taken with the beauty of the place—and knew his wife would agree. “Lyndia would like it,” Steve, 69, recalls thinking.

While their children were growing up, the Thorntons had vacationed in Orlando, an hour and 15 minutes’ drive southeast of Ocala. “We knew we wanted to be in Florida,” he says. “We had a few places on our list.” The couple had gone online to do research at floridaforboomers.com. Ultimately, they narrowed their choices to three communities.

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After living overseas for 20 years while Steve worked as a petroleum engineer, the couple was based in Plano, Tex., when they began their search.

Research. As part of their research, the Thorntons visited the area as well as the communities they were considering. “We went to them all,” Steve says.

They settled on Trilogy at Ocala Preserve because it felt “right” for them: It wasn’t too big, was new construction, had a golf course, and was a 45-minute drive to their grandchildren and 30 minutes to Gainesville Regional Airport, and had “excellent” health care nearby. “This place is more intimate,” he says. “We have new friends from all over the United States.”

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For retirees, living in an active adult community—whether age-restricted, age-targeted or no age restrictions—is an option for the 40% of retirees who relocate. Five percent moved to an age-restricted community, according to 2014 surveys conducted by ProMatura Group, a market and consumer research organization focusing on those 55-plus.

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“Active adult communities come in all shapes and sizes,” says Bill Ness, founder and chief executive officer of 55places.com, a Chicago-based website that focuses on such communities. “It’s not a one size fits all.” Some communities are budget-oriented and others are high-end. Most have a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, while others have 20,000 square-foot clubhouses or multiple clubhouses and pools, taking up to 100,000 square feet of space.

Today’s active adult home-buyer wants to be closer to a metro area, Ness says. At the same time, the average community size has decreased, with some communities of just 25 homes near an urban center, for instance. Seventy-five percent have an age restriction, either 55 and older or 62 and older.

Visit the community and the surrounding area. Many communities offer two-night visits, typically at a special rate of $99 or $199 per stay or, in some cases, $149 per person per stay, so that prospective residents can learn about them. (Rates vary by property.)

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While you are there, ask to try the amenities and activities, walk through the clubhouse, and speak with as many residents as you can.

Budget. One key to finding the right active adult community is knowing what you are comfortable spending now and in the future. “What is your capability? What are you willing to spend?” Ness says. Consider the purchase price, whether you will need a mortgage, how much the real estate taxes are, and how much the monthly homeowners fees are and what they include.

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Steve and Lyndia Thornton traded their 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath single-family home near Dallas for a one-level, 2,400-square-foot home at Trilogy at Ocala Preserve. Their new home has two bedrooms, a library, sunroom and a three-car garage that houses their “toy cars” including a 1957 Ford Thunderbird. The cost of living is lower in Ocala, Fla., than in the Dallas area. “It fits into our budget,” Steve says. Homes in their community range in price from about $169,000 to about $304,000.

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Monthly fees vary depending on the location, amenities, size of your home and age of the community. For example, the Thorntons’ monthly fee is $400. Monthly fees in other active adult communities can be $150 to $250 or more depending on the amenities, ranging from a clubhouse, indoor and outdoor pools, one or more restaurants, tennis courts, pickleball courts, ping pong, fitness centers and spas, walking trails and bike paths, libraries, and art studios. Fees also can cover services such as lawn care. Ask what the fee covers; fees can increase, typically with inflation (about 2% a year).

Stability. Research the financial stability of any community you consider. Ask to speak to someone other than the marketing person to obtain detailed financial information. Request a copy of the current financial statements and the operating budget, says Dawn Bauman, senior vice president, government affairs at the Community Associations Institute, in Falls Church, Va.

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Two key questions to ask: Is there a reserve plan? And is it funded? The reserve plan describes the life expectancy of major components of the property, the cost of maintaining them and their replacement value. You’ll want to find out if there is a line item in the budget for funding the reserve plan. Funds can be placed in a separate account, Bauman says. Although that is not required in every state, it is a best practice, she says.

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“Before you sign that contract, find out how long you have to evaluate the homeowners association’s finances, reserve fund and rules,” Bauman says. For example, some communities don’t allow you to park a motor home in your driveway.

Initially, developers manage most active adult communities, but generally over 10 years or less they transition to management by the owners. Make sure the developer has adequately funded the reserve in advance of owners taking over management, so monthly fees won’t jump or to avoid a special assessment. Check if a special assessment is pending in the upcoming budget.

Right fit. Active adult communities typically do not include meals or a central dining area. You’ll have your own home, and you can participate as much or as little as you want in community activities. “If you want privacy, it’s there,” Ness says.

Do a self assessment. “You have to take stock of choices you’ve made in the past and how you’ve reacted to them,” says gerontologist Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

Find a place that has activities you like. “Be an anthropologist for a couple of days,” Buysse says. “Try to figure out what the life is like there.”

At her community, “there are all kinds of people,” says Lyndia Thornton, age 71. “It’s the feeling of being able to fit in, just being able to like where we’re going to live.”

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