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Is a Retirement Community the Right Option for You?

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On a pleasant evening, Kay and Joe Biondi went for a stroll in their 55-plus community in Millsboro.

An hour later, they had walked past only three houses. It wasn’t because the Biondis have trouble getting around.

“So many people came out to chat and we have the freedom to enjoy that,” says Kay, 68. “We are on vacation for the rest of our lives. It’s like being in college without the stress of exams.”

Active retirees like the Biondis are swelling the ranks of communities focused on empty nesters who have time, income and good health. And their numbers are growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, an event that is expected to occur each day for the next 15 years.

That’s reflected in the National Association of Home Builders’ 55+ Housing Market Index released earlier this year. Builder confidence was at its highest reading since the index was launched in 2008.

The Biondis live in Independence, where they relax with $3 drinks on Friday evenings at a posh 25,000-square-foot clubhouse. It’s nine miles from the beach where Joe, 71, enjoys surf fishing.

“There’s a ballroom, an indoor-outdoor pool, saunas, walking paths, bike trails, billiards and pickle ball, which I think of as tennis for old bones,” Kay says. “I love to work out, and we have every kind of fitness class you can imagine.”

They entertained frequently at their home in Newark when they were still working, Kay as a math teacher, Joe in automotive sales. That hasn’t changed. Their retirement home is slightly larger than their previous house, the better to accommodate gatherings of old and new friends.

“I wanted a big, screened porch,” Kay says. “And Joe wanted a nice bar.”

Low taxes, low maintenance

With low property taxes and tax breaks on retirement income, Delaware’s 55-plus communities are fast becoming a mecca for buyers from other states, says Debbie Shearer, a senior real estate specialist at Active Adults Realty in Lewes.

“Compared to New Jersey, Delaware’s taxes are very low,” she says. “When I tell someone from New Jersey that the taxes are $1,500, they think it’s $1,500 a month. I say, no, it’s $1,500 a year, and they are shocked.”

Shearer, 63, lives in Heritage Shores, a 55-plus golf community in Bridgeville. She and her husband moved to the First State from Maryland five years ago. She says Sussex County’s easygoing vibe and leisurely pace often surprise retirees from other states.

“One client from New York wanted to know why people were waving to him,” she recalls. “I told him to get used to it because people are friendly in Delaware.”

A growing concept

The concept of communities that cater to active adults has grown as the population grays. Sun City, Arizona, was the first age-restricted community in the United States. The first of its 27,492 residences were built in 1960. The largest 55-plus development in America is The Villages in Florida, which spans three counties with 56,000 homes, 17 recreation centers and 25 neighborhood centers.

Shearer says today’s 55-plus buyers are looking for an open-concept design with a first-floor master suite and a high-end kitchen. Instead of lots of bedrooms, they are looking for spaces that can be shared with friends and neighbors.

She moved from an 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom colonial to a 2,200-square-foot home with three bedrooms and lots of room for socializing.

“People say they want to downsize but the majority of them really don’t,” she says.

Living in a development made up of older residents isn’t for everybody, Shearer notes. Someone occasionally decides to sell and move back to a traditional community. Others miss having lots of children in the neighborhood.

Each development has its own distinct personality and it’s her job to match the community with the homebuyer.

Among the amenities at Heritage Shores are a saltwater indoor/outdoor pool, a putting green, ceramics studio, state-of-the-art woodworking shop and full-service restaurant.

“Senators in Lewes is minutes from the beach and in the middle of the action,” she says. “Independence and Heritage Shores are further out, and it can be a bit of culture shock for people who are moving from a more urban area.”

A recent buyer with vision problems was looking for something within walking distance of a drug store. Shearer suggested Fieldstone Village, a small community off U.S. 13 in Dover.

Four Seasons at Silver Maples in Middletown offers energy-efficient homes with two-car garages, a clubhouse, a bocce court, a fire pit and a pool with a tiki hut.

Noble’s Pond in Dover is inspired by neighborhoods of the 1960s. Each home has a porch or courtyard. The Point, a 28,000-square-foot clubhouse, has a billiards room, a poker room and is the site of such community activities as Hawaiian luaus.

The Courtyards at Brandywine in Wilmington offers carriage homes with full basements and attached two-car garages. A restored farmhouse on the property serves as the clubhouse.

Read the fine print

In choosing a destination, it’s essential to get a thorough understanding of the fees involved in living in a community.

Christophe Emmert, a lawyer with Tunnell & Raysor in Georgetown, previously worked as a real estate agent. She now counsels a number of clients at 55-plus communities.

“Exterior maintenance is a big draw for people who are older and retired,” she says. “But there are sizable ongoing fees that can go along with that. A lot of these communities are amenity rich, with wine tastings and trips to Europe, and they come with a price tag.”

She recommends focusing on extras that are meaningful to the homeowner. If you don’t play golf, it might not make sense to invest in a community centered on the links.

Be mindful of estate planning, especially if you have heirs under age 55 who might want to use the house as a second home until they reach retirement age. If that is the case, choose a development that designates a percentage of homes for younger owners.

A community’s rules also may stipulate that only one member of the household meets the age requirement.

Carolyn deBernard, an attorney at the Law Offices of Bonnie M. Benson in Camden, notes that some communities own the land, though the buyer purchases the house.

“Your home is personal property because you don’t own the land it’s on,” she says. “It’s similar to buying a car in that you get a title but not a deed.”

That is an important consideration in Delaware because there is no probate fee on real estate. But personal property is subject to a fee.

Also ask if an increase in land rent is built into the contract to avoid unwelcome surprises, deBernard says. Ask specifically what you can do with the land since you don’t own it.

“Can I have a flower garden? What are the restrictions on what type of house I can build? If I want to sell my house, what kind of assistance can you give me?”

When the Biondis started looking for a place to retire, they did not target 55-plus communities. But when they analyzed their lifestyle, the concept became appealing.

“Knowing that someone else was going to take care of the exterior maintenance gave us the freedom to come and go as we please,” Joe says. “We worked hard all our lives. Now, it’s time to have fun.”

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