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Pluses and Minuses

Richard Quinn

IS A 55-PLUS community for you? Do you want to spend your later years surrounded by folks just like yourself—mostly crotchety, demanding old people?

I’m joking, of course. But am I exaggerating?

My wife Connie and I made the move from our New Jersey single-family home to a nearby 55-plus community six years ago. Like the idea of a 55-plus community? Here are some factors to consider.

First, a 55-plus community requires defining. There are several types and sizes, from The Villages in Florida, covering 32 square miles with 145,000 oldsters and 230 pickleball courts, or mine with its nine three-story buildings on 15 acres and 108 condos total. A 55-plus community can include individual homes, townhouse apartments, condos or some combination of all three.

And don’t be fooled by the age designation. Fifty-five may be the minimum age but the typical resident is a lot older. The median age in The Villages is 74.6, meaning half the residents are older than that. My community is about the same. Only one of my golfing buddies is under age 80 and one duffer is 92.

This age thing brings up another feature of a 55-plus community: sirens and flashing lights. If you lump a lot of old folks in one place, you can expect health care emergencies on a regular basis and, yes, even deaths. It’s a constant reminder of our mortality and a bit depressing at times. In our building of 12 people, there are five widows, two of whom have lost their spouses since we bought our condo.

Will a 55-plus community save you money? Possibly, but don’t count on it. The total cost has many factors, including the size and design of the complex, how expenses are shared, and what maintenance is your responsibility. If you have an individual home, the outside care may be included, but not things like roof repairs. I, for one, overestimated how much we’d save by moving.

In 2018, our homeowners’ association (HOA) fee was $700 a month. Today, it’s $900, and expected to increase in a few months. There’s also a rumor we’ll get hit with an extra assessment to raise our community’s cash reserve.

The question is, would we be spending the equivalent—$10,800 every year—maintaining our old house? Years of experience say no. On top of that, my unit’s annual property taxes are $13,500.

Importantly, the homeowners’ association fee may not cover the HVAC systems if you own the property. Since buying our condo—built in 2011—we’ve replaced the water heater and air-conditioning at a cost of thousands. We live in one of the country’s highest-cost areas, so repairs here are also relatively expensive.

Homeowners’ association fees vary greatly. Other communities in our area have much lower fees, but they also have triple or quadruple the units. Size matters. The demands of the residents matter as well.

If you’re shopping for a 55-plus community, I suggest thinking about two things: avoiding hefty assessments and supporting resale values. If you want both, the community has to sink money into all forms of maintenance and amenities, even if it’s things you don’t use. Our community spends a great deal on landscaping and irrigation, but the expenditures are supported by residents and it clearly shows in the community’s appearance.

We bought our 2,000-square-foot unit for $580,000 in 2018. The same-size unit recently sold for $780,000 after a few weeks on the market. Maintaining resale values requires a commitment by the entire community to keep our standards high.

By contrast, low HOA fees and minimal cash reserves may put residents at financial risk. I have two friends in other states who were each assessed $20,000 for major building repairs to address deferred maintenance.

Rules are also an important consideration. If you have a home, there may be restrictions on the color you can paint the exterior. Pets are often regulated. In our community, dogs are supposed to weigh no more than 50 pounds, though we have yet to hire an inspector.

We can’t have gas grills on our balconies for reasons of fire safety, but electric ones are fine. Then there are rules about underage residents living with you. If you want your grandchild to stay, there may be a 30-day limit on the visit.

A critical issue is how many owners can sublet. Ask if there’s a limit on the number of units that can be rented. Our community limits rentals to 10% of units.

Amenities are valuable in varying degrees to different people. I don’t care much for our community pool, but many folks are there every day in the summer. The fitness center is used by some of the younger residents, while the pickleball courts are a clear winner.

If you favor a certain amenity, be sure it’s adequate for the number of residents wanting to use it. A friend lives in a condo community with more than 400 residents and one pool. They have to register in advance for a spot at the pool. Their clubhouse is also undersized for the community.

The Quinns’ 55-plus community

Amenities add value to your property when it comes time to sell. New buyers may imagine they’ll use them all, though that’s unlikely.

Most 55-plus communities have an array of activities. Even our small community has groups for cards, exercise, bocce, a book club, tennis and pickleball. There are occasional trips, parties and social gatherings. Some owners are always involved, while others just want to live there and be left alone.

Both approaches are fine. If you’re a private person, however, know that there are few secrets in a 55-plus community. We seniors are adept at texting and various other means of getting the word out about one another. We know who’s going to physical therapy, how many are missing a prostate, who owns another home and whether their car is leased. Inquiring minds want to know—and they do.

Who runs the place? Can you participate in the election? Our community has an elected board. Only owners can serve on the homeowner’s association board and vote on matters presented by the board. You don’t want a community with a significant number of residents with no financial stake in maintaining its value.

There are monthly meetings to report on issues, review finances—and hear complaints. Our board has hired a company to handle bids for various contracts, and deal with repairs and maintenance. It’s a tough job pleasing us seniors. Our community is on its third on-site manager since we moved in.

State laws have something to say about how things are run in these communities. Our pool, while private, is subject to public pool regulations, including the requirement to have a lifeguard on duty.

Following the catastrophic collapse of a Florida condominium in 2021, a new law was passed in New Jersey requiring periodic engineering inspections of buildings. The inspection will cost the HOA thousands of dollars. Let’s hope no major problems are uncovered. We’ve already sued the builder of our community for unfinished and shoddy work.

Before you make a move, visit different communities and think about long-term costs and your social wants. Ask about the rules, and look at the bylaws and the last financial report. The seller should have them all.

Considering everything, after nearly six years in a 55-plus community, I’m convinced we made the right move. We’ve made many new friends and the people in our building are helpful. Most of the work and worry of owning a house are gone. Our expenses are more predictable. And the location, less than a mile from our home of 45 years, means nothing else has changed in our lives.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.net. Before retiring, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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