When should boomers hunt for retirement home? Sooner rather than later

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) There was never any question in Holly Wissing's mind about where she and her husband should hunt for a retirement home.

Having spent most summer vacations at a family cottage on Loon Lake in northeastern Wisconsin, she knew the lake was the place she wanted to be. But finding an affordable home wasn't easy.

We looked for several years,'' said Wissing, who is 57. Everything was too expensive or really, really awful.''

Five years ago they bought their own cottage on the lake in Florence County, which bills itself as a county without a stoplight.'' They'll spend more time there starting this summer when Tom Wissing, 62, retires from the zoology faculty at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Holly Wissing plans to work several more years as director of public information at the university.

The leading edge of the baby boom those born between 1946 and 1967 is getting closer to retirement age, and many boomers have at least started to think about where they want to spend their senior years. Experts say they shouldn't tarry.

The baby boomers have always been the pig in the python,'' said Richard F. Hokenson, an economic demographer in Lawrenceville, N.J. Every time they do something go to school, find a mate, look for a job there's always been lots of competition.''

That phenomenon also will apply to retirement homes, he warned. High boomer demand is likely to outpace supply and push prices up, especially in temperate and coastal areas from California and Arizona to the Carolinas and Florida.

Boomers really don't have a lot of time to wait on this,'' Hokenson said. There's a fixed supply of beachfront property that's going to collide with this baby boomer tsunami.''

Hokenson, who is 57, said his own solution was to buy a retirement home in Mexico.

Warren R. Bland, a geographer and professor at California State University at Northridge, has long been interested in regional differences in the United States and last year published Retire in Style 50 Affordable Places Across America.''

I went to all the places and more,'' Bland said. Large cities, college towns, traditional retirement places and some gems you might not think of as retirement places. I was trying to get a measure of quality of life, knowing that that's somewhat nebulous.''

Bland ranks his choices on 12 criteria, from climate to transportation and the availability of retail services and health care. He suggests baby boomers use the book as a starting point in the quest for a permanent retirement home or seasonal retreat.

Relocating is a very serious step to take,'' he said. You shouldn't just go to Fort Collins (Colorado) on a vacation for three weeks, buy a condo and move there. You need to go not just in the tourist season but in the off season as well.''

Wolf Schmitt, 59, chief executive of the Trends2Innovation consulting firm, and his wife Toni, 52, looked for possible retirement sites for eight or nine years.

We kicked tires all over the country, basically wherever there was decent weather,'' Schmitt said. It helped us develop our criteria list. It made us talk through what was really important to us.''

They settled two years ago on The Cliffs, master-planned communities near Asheville, N.C. They liked the development's setting near state and federal parks, its freshwater lakes and its hiking and biking trails.

We're outdoor oriented,'' Schmitt said. My personal passion is horticulture, so I'm a little bit of a tree hugger. And there are a lot of trees here.''

Jim Anthony, president and chief executive of The Cliffs, said the development has evolved to meet boomers' desires.

Ten or 12 years back, our master plan was significantly different. We were a golf community,'' Anthony said. But baby boomers are driving everything, and wellness is something they want. So we've evolved into a bundle of things that make up wellness swimming pools, trainers, hiking trails, the right menus in restaurants, resident naturalists.''

Such amenities don't come cheap. A 1,600 square foot cottage'' starts at $500,000, and some homes price into the millions.

For Marilyn Silvester, 56, an administrative assistant at a Chicago hospital, family was important in determining where to look for a retirement place.

She and her husband Harold, a high school teacher, will close on a home in the village of Sun Prairie, Wis., later this month. Her sister lives nearby.

My husband will retire in a couple of years, and I have four or five more,'' Marilyn Silvester said. This way we have time to get the house ready.''

Avid motorcyclists, the couple spent weekends riding around central Wisconsin and looking at sites. They eventually found the home they wanted on the Internet, she said.

We weren't looking for resort property or a retirement community,'' she said. But we also figured that the longer we waited, the more expensive things would become. And we didn't want to settle for something less desirable.''

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