By CATEY HILL
Saddled with vacant units>, retirement communities across the country are trying to lure new buyers by any means necessary from adding cushy amenities and special move-in deals to lowering prices on homes. And with summer fast approaching, one tactic is becoming especially popular: the "test drive."
Retirement communities in Arizona, California, Florida and other vacation destinations are pitching older Americans so-called retirement getaways, a few nights in a model home with access to all the luxury amenities. Their hope, of course, is that you never want to check out. And while no national data exists on how many communities are pushing these test drive programs, "they're definitely becoming more common," says Andrew Carle, the founding director of the senior housing administration program at George Mason University. The Trilogy at Monarch Dunes near San Luis Obispo, a beachfront community for those 55 and older, is promoting the two-night "test drive" package for $299 per person or couple it launched about a year ago. Valencia Reserve, a 55+ community near Palm Beach, is busy marketing their two-night, three-day "stay and play" getaway program for $99 a night. And on top of the dozens more communities offering such deals, there are plenty others that will gladly arrange your very own test drive if you ask, says Carle.
For retirement communities, the test drive strategy seems to be working. For example, since January 2010, the Trilogy at Monarch Dunes reports that more than 20% of the couples who bought their test-drive package went on to buy a home about 32 couples. Across the Robson Resort Communities' seven retirement properties, roughly 75% of the 3,200 people who participated in its getaway program are now permanent residents, according to a spokesperson for the company. "It's a good sales tool for communities because people might have doubts, but when they get there they can see the advantages and disadvantages," says Sandra Timmermann, executive director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute.
And these communities, which were hit hard by the economic downturn in 2008, need all the help they can get, experts say. In the past four years, occupancy rates in retirement communities have fallen about 5 percentage points to 87.6%, according to the NIC MAP Data & Analysis Service. Meanwhile, prices have slumped: The median price of a new age-qualified home in an active adult community has dropped 6% from its peak in 2005 to $300,000, according to a January report from the Metlife Mature Market Institute.
But for consumers, these plans aren't all fun and sun. While some programs are free, many more come with a pricetag ranging from $99 to about $200 per night. And with meals and transportation typically not included, consumers should be prepared to shell out hundreds more, experts say. Potential buyers can also expect to sit through at least one sales pitch. To test drive Pebble Creek in Phoenix, for example, you will spend about an hour with a sales associate, who talks about the community, gives you a tour and hands you a personalized itinerary for the weekend, including dinner with a resident couple, says a spokesperson for Robson Communities.
On top of that, some communities require that you meet other specific criteria before letting you stay with them. For example, Casa de Manana in La Jolla, Calif., requires that you make an initial guided tour of the premises and show that you can afford to buy a home before allowing you participate in its "guest stay" program.
Still, for those retirees or soon-to-be retirees who are already researching where to spend the next phase of their lives, these programs may be worth the cost and hassle. "You'll learn whether the people are friendly, what the food is like, if you'll like the climate," says Timmermann. At the very least, it may be a less expensive way to see a vacation hotspot than booking your own vacation, say experts. SmartMoney.com looked at five high-end retirement communities located in vacation destinations that allow you to test drive their services.
The Trilogy at Monarch Dunes
Located just outside of San Luis Obispo, one of SmartMoney.com's "New Best Places to Retire," the Trilogy at Monarch Dunes is a 55+ community with a slew of amenities, including an indoor pool, two golf courses, an on-site spa and fitness center and environmentally friendly homes. But the most unique part of this community may be its locale -- steps from the ocean, just off historic Highway 1 and tucked into one of the fastest-growing wine regions in the country. The community even offers prospective buyers private wine tours to some of the region's vineyards; for residents, the nightly menu at the complex's bistro pairs local wines with entrees. And Preston Holdner, the general manager of the property, adds that this area of the coast "hasn't been overbuilt," so there aren't many neighboring homes and communities along the beach.
Of course, that prime location makes the Trilogy one of the pricier retirement communities. The smaller homes, which are about 1,600 square feet, cost upwards of $400,000, while some of the 3,700-square-foot homes along the golf courses can hit nearly seven figures."California real estate tends to be more expensive than a lot of other places," says a Trilogy spokesman. And the community does not offer health care services, so you need to figure in those additional costs.
And at $199 for a two-day, one-night stay, or $299 for a three-day, two-night stay, the Trilogy at Monarch Dunes' test drive program is also among the more expensive retirement getaway options (many hotel rooms in the area cost less). But there's also "no high-pressure sales pitch," says Holdner. Just ask Susan Ashford, 57, and her husband Tom, 59, who were recently looking to retire on the West Coast and bought a two-night package. While a community staffer took them on a tour of the property, and arranged activities golf for him, spa day for her, along with a complimentary dinner at the complex's bistro "there was no pressure to buy now," she says. They bought a unit a few months later anyway.
Casa de Manana
Once a high-end hotel perched on the cragged cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, San Diego's Casa de Manana is now a luxury, 190-home retirement community that attracts retirees who are "very interested in continued learning and the arts," says a spokesperson for Front Porch, which runs the company. In addition to Spanish-style architecture, including a handcrafted tile fountain in the main courtyard, a pool and fitness center, on-site salon and direct access to the beach, Casa de Manana also has both an on-site library that displays residents' artwork as well as a separate gallery, the Front Porch Gallery. In fact, the gallery recently expanded to a storefront in nearby Carlsbad, where tourists can buy the residents' works.
All these extras add up: Residents pay anywhere from $3,235 per month for a studio to more than $10,000 per month for a two-bedroom, oceanview villa. And active boomers might find the average age early 80s a drawback. Joan Woodworth, a spokesperson for the community, says that while the average age might seem high, "we have a wide range of ages" and that Casa de Manana is "worth the price" considering meals (and all the amenities and programs) are included.
To test drive Casa de Manana, you can take part in its "guest stay" program. Potential buyers must be 60 or older, and you'll first need to meet with the community's sales and marketing team and undergo a financial background check to ensure that you can afford to live there. If you qualify, you'll be able to spend two days for free, including three meals. After that, a room and three squares cost $120 per day.
Nestled in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona near Madera Canyon, one of the top birding destinations in America, this retirement community is marketed as a nature lover's dream. "It's beautiful here, and it's 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Tuscon," says a spokesperson for the community. Plus, Quail Creek offers all the high-end extras: pool, tennis and bocce ball courts, an art center with ceramics and painting studios, a fitness center, a 27-hole golf course. It also boasts 11 different home designs to choose from, ranging from 1,376 to 2,686 square feet (about $175,000 to about $350,000). But retirees looking for more action beware: A trip to enjoy the shopping and nightlife in Tuscon, the nearest major city, is a 40-minute drive. A rep responded that Quail Creek is "more of a destination location."
But for birdwatchers and other outdoor enthusiasts, Quail Creek may be a good fit. Its "preferred guest getaway" program includes a three-night, four-day stay in one of its luxury homes, a free round of golf and unlimited access to amenities like the pool, tennis and fitness center, and one complimentary dinner in the community's restaurant. Quail Creek also throws in a golf cart and two bikes to help you get around during your stay -- all for $99 per person a day from June through August; prices jump to $209 from October to December and $249 from January to March.
If your idea of a fun Saturday morning is a pickup game of basketball, a challenging Pilates class or doing the downward dog as the sun rises, Valencia Reserve's got you covered. This GL Homes' property in Boynton Beach, Fla., roughly half an hour's drive from Palm Beach, has the usual fitness-related amenities like tennis courts, a fitness center and a pool. But it takes the fit-over-50 phenomenon to a whole new level with a resistance exercise pool, lap pool, yoga studio and even a Wii gaming area. Plus, the community, which is staffed by a full-time "lifestyle director" who arranges activities and events for residents, has more than 100 clubs you can join, including the tennis team and the bridge club.
But with more than 1,000 homes and 4,000 residents spread over 300 acres, the community may seem too crowded for some. Also, each resident's home and landscaping looks very much like his neighbor's. The homogenous design "ensures a consistency of look," which is "appealing to many retirees," says Jill DiDonna, a spokesperson for GL Homes. As for those who claim the community is too big, DiDonna counters that "there is a lifestyle staff to help residents get to know each other and understand the programs available."
For interested buyers, Valencia Reserve's "stay and play" program costs $99 for two nights and three days on its campus, which includes a free lunch at the cafe. Sixty-three-year-old Sheila Justin and her husband, who hope to retire in South Florida near her mother, recently took part in the program. While they were impressed -- "It was like staying in a hotel" with regular maid service they decided they weren't ready to buy yet.
Think Club Med for the over-55 set. PebbleCreek offers multiple lap pools, 45 holes of golf, 12 tennis courts, multiple whirlpools and saunas, a performance/movie theater, and even a series of pickleball courts. Located in Goodyear, Ariz. -- within the Phoenix metro area -- this sprawling retirement community offers homes that range from just over 1,500 to more than 3,100 square feet and cost from about $215,000 to more than $400,000.
The main drawback is that the 2,360-acre community is far from intimate: The development plans to build about 6,000 homes in the coming years and already has nearly 4,000. "Most communities with a lot of amenities are large communities," says a spokesperson for Robson. "You enjoy the neighborhoods within the communities and you join clubs and groups."
The test drive program at Pebble Creek is relatively inexpensive at $99 per person for a three-day, four-night stay. The price includes a stay in one of the private homes in the community; use of all of the amenities, including one free round of golf; and one meal in the main restaurant. Prospective buyers will receive an overview of the community and its perks and a customized itinerary tailored to his or her hobbies. For example, aspiring artists might be signed up for a pottery class, while tennis aficionados may be set up in a doubles match with a resident couple. A spokesperson for Robson says the itinerary allows test drivers at least 95% of the day to do as they wish.