Retirement living: Choosing condo living or a retirement community requires examination of your want

by Tom Zucco So where are you going? • Are you ready to give up all the headaches of a single-family home and move into one of those 55 and older “active retirement” communities like On Top of the World or Sun City Center? Remember, they have golf, swimming, spaghetti dinners. And they do the yard. • Or is there something a little unsettling about living in one of those places? Maybe you don’t want to be around so many people who look and think like you. Maybe you’ll take your chances living where there isn’t an age restriction. Maybe a big city or a college town.

The 78 million people who comprise the baby boomer generation (anyone born between 1946 and 1964) are just entering their early 60s. Where will we all live?

By choice or for financial reasons, some will stay in the same home they’re in now. Some will find an apartment or mobile home. And some will do the same thing their parents did and settle into an age-restricted community.

But there’s that other option: life without age restrictions. Some experts think that’s exactly where a large number of boomers are headed.

Of course, finances play a huge role in the decision. If your nest egg is all nest and no egg, or if you don’t own a home or can’t sell the one you have, your choices are limited.

Dr. David Denslow Jr., 66, a research economist at the University of Florida, said the economy has a lot to do with where baby boomers are choosing to live.

“We’ve been interpreting the slow sales at places such as On Top of the World and Sun City Center by the oversupply of housing and the abrupt drop in net migration into Florida,” Denslow said. “The drop in migration is of course the result of the national recession and the difficulty retirees are having selling their homes up North and in other parts of Florida.”

But Denslow and his wife, Nancy, 64, also a professor at UF, may be part of that new “no-age restriction” wave. The couple plan to buy their retirement home in a downtown area or near a university. “We both enjoy music and other urban activities,” Denslow said.

Because his daughter will be teaching at USF, Tampa is a possibility. Another is Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina.

“As Nancy and I age,” Denslow said, “observing and being involved with people across the full spectrum of life brings us great pleasure.”

But not everyone prefers, or can afford, that lifestyle.

The On Top of the World condo community in Clearwater has 4,967 units. It’s actually a decent-sized town; about 6,500 people live in the nearly 90, geography-inspired buildings: Punjab, Queen Victoria, Bagdad and others. Prices for condos range from about $40,000 to $350,000, but most are in the $90,000 range. About 80 condos are currently for sale.

Carol and Keith Scott bought a unit there in February. The couple had lived in Costa Rica and Hawaii. Keith is 62; Carol is 48. “I was determined to find something affordable in a decent neighborhood,” said Keith, a retired musician who kept his Sunday afternoon gig at JD’s Restaurant in Indian Rocks Beach.

They looked at On Top of the World because they thought they’d get a good deal.

And they did. A two-bedroom, two-bath unit for $57,000, plus a $278 monthly maintenance fee. The kitchen needed to be updated, but that wasn’t a problem.

“It’s got free golf, tennis, a gym and all the activities,” Scott said. “Anything you could possibly want to do, you could do here.”

Scott said that at first, his wife was worried she might not fit in at an older community. “But she’s very happy here,” he said. “It is kind of a shock coming from Costa Rica and Hawaii to this community and seeing mostly older people. But I don’t mind that, and it’s a real secure community.”

Nancy Padberg is president of , a Web site that ranks the best U.S. cities for boomers to retire to based on factors such as housing costs, weather and hospital and airport access. She sees a common thread in the towns that made her list: colleges and universities.

In 1947, 5 percent of the population had a bachelor’s degree. Today, the number is close to 30 percent. Baby boomers represent the biggest increase of college graduates in the nation’s history, Padberg said, and many may want to return to campus.

But then there’s the Villages retirement community near Ocala. It’s the only Florida community on the list, and it made it without being home to a college or university.

“Age-restricted developments were created,” Padberg said, “because there will always be a segment of the 78 million baby boomers who will go there.”

Still, Padberg also thinks the new wing of the party, the ones living outside the restrictions, is getting larger.

“They still want their independence and don’t want to be put in a box,” she said. “That’s their mentality. They grew up with social change, radical music, burning bras . . .”

St. Pete Beach Realtor Nancy Baird has been selling homes in Pinellas County for 20 years. She also senses a subtle shift.

“The Villages and those type places, we just don’t see that many people going there lately,” Baird said. “Most active retirees don’t consider themselves old, and they don’t want to pigeonhole themselves.”

Baird said that of the nearly 40 retirees she has worked with recently, only one looked into an age-restricted community.

“One thing to remember is that a condo is a tougher sell if it’s age-restricted,” Baird said, “because you’re limiting who can buy it.”

That’s one thing Cliff Howe, 62, and his wife Jane, 61, won’t have to worry about. The Howes bought a condo in Tierra Verde last September. No age restrictions.

A retired insurance agent, Howe said he never considered an age-restricted community.

“The main reason was my wife,” he said. “She was adamantly against it. We both feel that if you’re not around younger people, then you’re with people with the same frame of reference. And that’s not very stimulating.”

Howe mentored Hispanic teens at a Lawrence, Mass., high school, and would like to continue his work at nearby Lakewood High in St. Petersburg.

“I had a rap station programmed into my car radio for them,” he said. “It was great to get other perspectives.”

Howe’s parents had a condo in a retirement community in Bradenton, and everybody knew everybody else. “That,” Howe said, “was 90 percent of what everybody talked about.

“As I watch people off my deck,” he added, “I see people considerably younger than me. It’s that diversification that we really like.”

St. Petersburg freelance writer Tom Zucco is a former longtime reporter for the Times. He can be reached at

Making the move?

Questions to ask yourself:

What’s the likely resale value of the home I’m moving into? If I get sick or need help, where can I turn? What are all the expenses I need to pay each month? How close is the airport, the hospital, the bank, the grocery store? What do I want to do in my spare time?

The 55+ community

The state tracks 55+ communities, which have to register and abide by the Florida Fair Housing Act. Essentially, in order to be able to call itself a “55+ community,” the community must demonstrate that 80 percent of residents are 55 and older. The numbers of registered communities are in decline in the past decade:

Year, No. of

2001/2002: 1,821

2002/2003: 795

2003/2004: 504

2004/2005: 473

2005/2006: 219

2006/2007 201

2007/2008: 177

2008/2009: 140

Source: Florida Commission on Human Relations

On the radar

The top 21 most appealing cities to retire to, as reported by . The site offers information on income and estate taxes, homestead exemption, average property taxes, maps, events, weather and numerous other details, plus photos and videos.

Aiken, S.C.

Asheville, N.C.

Ashland, Ore.

Athens, Ga.

Austin, Texas

Bend, Ore.

Camarillo, Calif.

Chapel Hill, N.C.

Charlottesville, Va.

Columbia, Miss.

Danville, Ky.

Fort Collins, Colo.

Las Cruces, N.M.

Maryville, Tenn.

Paso Robles, Calif.

Pinehurst, N.C.

Prescott, Ariz.

Reno, Nev.

St. George, Utah

Tucson, Ariz.

The Villages, Fla.