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Aging With Others

Sundar Mohan Rao

IF SOMEONE TOLD ME 10 years ago that I’d end up living in a 55-plus community, I would have laughed. Our plan was to stay in the home we loved and age in place.

What happened? Our initial move to a 55-plus community was driven solely by convenience. My company transferred me to Atlanta in 2021. We wanted to downsize to an apartment, but finding one close to work was challenging. Our son pointed out that there was a 55-plus apartment community close to my workplace. We liked it and signed a lease.

This rental “active adult apartment community” had a large three-story building with 140 modern apartments. The community had great amenities—a clubhouse, swimming pool, a salon, movie theater, gym, dog park and electronic security. It was located in a busy area, with lots of restaurants and shops nearby.

But most residents were much older than us and weren’t as active as advertised. Moreover, it turned out many residents were living there temporarily, making it hard to develop a sense of community. The building charged a low initial monthly rent—with the first month free—to attract new tenants. But for the second year, we were hit with a 30% rent increase. That prompted many residents to leave—a downside to rental communities.

Still, we liked the concept of a 55-plus community, but decided to buy instead of rent, this time in Tampa. We had some friends in the area. Weather and lower taxes were also big draws. Our new 55-plus community is a magnet for ethnic Indians, but otherwise it’s typical of 55-plus communities in Florida. We moved here in late 2022.

There are lots of cultural activities in and outside the community to keep us busy. Several major medical facilities are close by. The community has a clubhouse with meeting rooms, swimming pool, gym, restaurant, walking trails and a pickleball court. The biggest advantage is the strong sense of community. It’s hard to feel lonely here.

You’ll notice several things at such communities. Anyone under age 65 is considered young. Nobody asks, “What did you do in your career?” A major topic of conversation is travel. You won’t see many kids or pets around. You’ll hear ambulance sirens every so often, as someone is transported to hospital. Sadly, you’ll see more deaths and attend more funerals. You get reminded every day that our time on earth is limited, and that we should be grateful for what we have.

Intrigued by the idea of a 55-plus community? Here are seven key benefits:

Social life. You’ll know your neighbors, most will be around the same age or older, and—if it’s a community of owners—most intend to be longtime residents. There will be countless special-interest clubs, classes, activities and outings. You’ll make many friends. Folks will stop by and help when there’s a need.

Amenities. These may include a fitness center, golf course, dining facility, dog park, pools, walking and biking trails, tennis courts and pickleball courts. All this leads to a thriving social life, but it comes at a cost. Whether you use these facilities or not, you end up paying for them through the homeowners’ association (HOA) fee.

Safety and security. Many such communities are gated, provide a high level of security and are usually in lower crime areas. Clubhouses and other recreation areas are generally ADA compliant. Residences typically are on just one level, for the safety and convenience of seniors.

Quiet living. You won’t see kids running around or hear late-night parties. Younger individuals are welcome to visit—for a limited time.

Minimal maintenance. The HOA takes care of the bulk of the community’s maintenance, including common areas, landscaping, shared amenities and the exterior of buildings. This frees up time to enjoy the many activities.

Home prices. The price per square foot for homes in 55-plus communities may be higher, but the total cost is often lower because the houses are smaller. If folks sell the house where they raised their family to move into a 55-plus community, they’ll frequently end up pocketing at least some money.

Low property taxes. Because these communities often aren’t supporting school funding, property taxes can be lower.

What about the downsides of 55-plus communities? Here are eight drawbacks:

HOA fees. These can be a shock, ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a month. This will usually cover cable TV, internet, landscaping, use of a clubhouse and other amenities, but won’t include the meal plans offered by the community’s dining facilities. A major concern is the annual HOA increases driven by inflation or improvements to amenities. You should budget for an increase every year, which could be as much as 15%.

Strict rules. The HOA enforces regulations and community bylaws. If a resident violates the rules, the HOA may impose a fine. The regulations can be extensive, covering how you can customize your home, landscaping in front of your house, home exterior, age requirements to live in the community, use of amenities, pet restrictions, and guidelines for renting your unit. Be sure to review all regulations before buying.

Smaller homes. Units in 55-plus communities are typically smaller than standard homes. This also means smaller yards. If you enjoy having a big garden, you won’t be happy. If you have family visiting, they may have to stay in a nearby hotel. I’ve known several residents who moved to bigger homes after a few years.

Developer issues. If you buy a new home, make sure the developer has a good track record. Developers usually offer one-sided contracts that favor them. Read all documents carefully and consult a lawyer before signing any agreement. Expect developers to over-promise and under-deliver. Delayed construction, poor workmanship and escalating costs are just some of the issues you may face.

Location. The communities may be situated far from big cities, shopping centers and medical facilities. Some may be in more rural or suburban areas to reduce land and construction costs. I know several folks who moved from such communities because major medical facilities weren’t easily accessible.

Less privacy. In a 55-plus community, secrets often don’t stay that way for long. Still, most neighbors are considerate. They watch out for other residents and offer help when needed.

Lack of diversity. With all residents from the same age range, and possibly with similar interests, the opportunity to learn from people of varying backgrounds may be limited. You may want to develop a social network outside the community.

Resale challenge. For health reasons, you might be forced to move to a continuing care retirement community, assisted living or a nursing home. Remember, while 55-plus communities are designed with seniors in mind, residents still need to live independently.

What if you can’t? If you have to move, it may not be easy to sell because the pool of potential buyers is restricted by age. Much will depend on the reputation of the community, amenities, location, costs and the attractiveness of competing communities in the area.

Will you be happy in a 55-plus community? That depends on the vision you have for retirement. These communities are a good choice if you’re focused on developing a vibrant social network and you can still live independently. But if caring for yourself is an issue and you don’t have family nearby to help out, a 55-plus community probably isn’t a good choice. In our community, I see adult children running back and forth to help parents struggling with health issues. That’s often a precursor to these residents moving elsewhere.

One final suggestion: Before buying in a 55-plus community, see if you can rent a home temporarily to be sure it’s what you want. After all, you want to thrive during your retirement years, not just survive.

Sundar Mohan Rao retired after a four-decade career as a research and development engineer. He lives in Tampa in a 55-plus community. Mohan’s interests include investing, digital painting, reading, writing and gardening. Check out his earlier articles.

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