55 Plus Communities: a guide to finding your retirement paradise

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If you or someone you know is thinking about retirement, you've probably heard a lot of talk about 55 plus communities. Also known as senior living communities or age restricted communities, these planned residential hubs have become increasingly popular over recent years. The concept of these communities is simple, with people of a certain age bracket living in their own individual dwellings with access to a variety of amenities and social support structures.

In many ways, 55 plus communities are similar to standard condominiums, with residents in control of their own apartment or dwelling but still able to benefit from the common areas and assets of the wider community. In other ways, 55 plus communities are very different to condos, with home ownership not possible in some situations, more comprehensive fee structures in place, and both exterior and interior maintenance able to be taken care of by the community board.

While people often leave their family home and move straight into a nursing home, a number of alternative options have become available to retirees. Traditional and nontraditional living arrangements continue to blossom across North America, from full-ownership co-housing spaces through to rented co-housing, niche retirement communities, naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), assisted living, and shared housing in standard neighborhoods.

Before you make a choice that will affect the rest of your life, it's important to be aware of your options and find a solution that meets your needs.   

What are 55 plus communities?

Retirement communities have three things in common: age restrictions, common areas and assets, and common rules and regulations.

Age restrictions

55 plus communities are age-restricted or age-qualified communities that limit involvement to people of 55 years of more. While some of these communities are flexible regarding their age requirements, others are not. If you're thinking about getting involved with one of these communities before you turn 55, it's important to check their rules and regulations and speak with someone from administration.

In most cases, household members who are younger than 55 will be allowed to live in the community, which means all dwellings need to contain at least one person of 55 years or older. Some communities are even more lenient in their interpretation of this rule, with 80 percent or more of homes needing to be occupied by someone who is 55 or older. While the 80/20 rule is common in many communities, this ratio is arbitrary from a legal perspective and can be changed according to the needs of the community.

Apart from sharing certain age restrictions, 55 plus communities are extremely varied. For example, while some communities allow you to own your apartment or dwelling, others are set up as rental communities. This is the first key consideration you'll have to make, with property ownership offering a number of benefits but also coming with a fair share of responsibilities. Other important considerations relate to the type of dwelling, the type of community, the amount of services, and the fee structure.

Common areas and assets

Along with qualifying residents by age, all 55 plus residential spaces are designed to operate as a single cohesive community. Whether you want access to amenities, regular social events, or a low-maintenance lifestyle, all of these communities have been designed to accommodate people with similar needs in a certain age bracket. The common areas and assets of the community are shared equally between all residents, from swimming pools and yoga classes through to restaurants, bowling greens, and parks.

Common rules and regulations

The third and final element that defines all retirement living communities is the rules and regulations that are in place. Once again, specific rules and the interpretation of these rules can vary considerably between communities. Depending on the community in question, rules may include age restrictions and ratios, guest restrictions, noise restrictions, pet restrictions, on-time payment of monthly fees, and general maintenance standards. In some cases, residents may be expected to help maintain common areas or get involved with the community.

What kind of communities are there?

Retirement living communities continue to get more popular across North America. Whether you're looking for a traditional community defined by age alone or a nontraditional living arrangement defined by specific activities or artistic sensibilities, you have more choice available to you than ever before.

Let's take a look at the most common living arrangements available to elderly residents, from totally independent living with full-ownership through to rental arrangements, niche communities, and assisted living.

Co-housing communities with property ownership

Full-ownership co-housing spaces, also known as active adult communities, gated communities, or independent retirement communities, are designed for healthy and active senior citizens who want to own their home and are able to live independently. While the type of dwellings available vary considerably from detached homes through to townhouses, apartments and mobile homes, this type of arrangement allows retirees complete freedom and property ownership.

From a legal perspective, this type of arrangement is very similar to a condominium, with the resident owning the home itself and partly responsible for the maintenance of common areas and assets. While very few communities expect residents to do the work themselves, monthly fees need to be paid each and every month to help look after amenities and contribute to the contingency fund.   

Co-housing communities with a rental arrangement

Many co-housing communities are set up with a rental arrangement, with residents paying weekly or monthly rent for a house, apartment, or alternative dwelling. While this type of arrangement offers the same freedoms as co-housing with ownership, the resident is not able to build equity or enjoy the security of owning their own home. Most 55 plus communities allow residents to sign a lease for six months or a year, with many people keeping the same apartment for years or even decades.

While some people consider rent to be "dead money", this type of arrangement makes it easier for retirees to move around or change their living arrangement without the heavy burden of a mortgage. Renting property is extremely common in many parts of Europe, not just for retirees but for people of all ages. While home ownership is still the preferred path for most people in the United States and Canada, this is slowly changing as people learn about the benefits of renting.   

Niche retirement communities

Niche retirement communities are set up to house people with something in common. The common factor that unites a community can be pretty much anything, from religious faith and sexual orientation through to artistic inclination, labor union membership, or a shared love of hanging out in the nude. Niche communities allow people to socialize with like-minded souls and access amenities used by specific sectors of the community. For example, Christian communities can built churches and prayer rooms, and artistic communities can build studios where people can get together and create.

NORCs

A NORC is a neighborhood where there's a significant portion of older people who’ve aged in place and alongside one another. These naturally occurring retirement communities have an organic quality that many 55 plus communities are trying to emulate. While NORCs are relatively rare in North America, they can occur when younger residents move out of a community at the same time as older people move in.

Some NORCs have a strong ethnic focus, with people from similar backgrounds more likely to stick together as they age. This type of community shares a number of similarities with "the village model", where paid staff and volunteers assist retirees in their existing homes.  

Shared housing

Just like younger people, retirees may choose to share a large house in order to achieve financial freedom and maintain control of their lifestyle. This type of living arrangement is often known as "Golden Girls" retirement after the popular TV show.

When two or more unrelated people choose to live together for cost sharing benefits and companionship, they can avoid many of the unwanted rules and restrictions often associated with 55 plus communities. A shared housing arrangement may involve a home owned by one of the residents or a shared rental agreement.  

Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs)

CCRC provides a continuum of care for elderly residents, from completely independent living through to assisted living and nursing home care. These retirement communities have a comprehensive scope and allow people to move between different levels of care as needed. Often referred to as "aging in place", CCRC provides multiple living arrangements, shared amenities, social events, nursing staff, and medical support when needed.

In many ways, this type of arrangement is both the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. While you can access additional support when needed and stay in one facility as you age, CCRC can be expensive and often feels less independent than other 55 plus communities.

There are three common fee structures in place for CCRC facilities: extensive contracts with unlimited support, modified contracts with unlimited healthcare, and fee-for-service contracts where you pay for each product and service as needed.

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Common amenities in retirement communities

As mentioned, 55 plus living communities are partly defined by the existence of common areas and assets. Being able to access these amenities is one of the main benefits of a retirement community, with people able to improve their lifestyle and enjoy facilities that they couldn't afford through other means. While monthly fees are always applicable, you can access more amenities and you don't need to look after them yourself.  

When comparing retirement communities, it's important to list all of the amenities available to you and how they could impact your quality of life. While you may not use these amenities right away, people often start new hobbies and enjoy different social settings after they retire. There are three main classes of amenities found in 55 plus communities, those based around socialization, those based around specific activities, and commercial amenities.

Social amenities

In terms of social facilities, many communities have a hall or club room where people can meet and spend time with their new friends. Regular activities may take place in this space, such as yoga classes, aerobics, art classes, and tai chi. Depending on the community in question, there may also be parks and other amenities that emphasize the natural assets of the community.

Lifestyle amenities

In terms of sporting and lifestyle activities, many 55 plus communities have built dedicated infrastructure to support people as they age. Whether it's a gym, a tennis court, a bowling green, or a swimming pool, these amenities can have a profound impact on your health and wellbeing. It's important to note, however, that all of these facilities come at a cost, with monthly maintenance fees likely to be much higher when there are multiple community assets to look after.

Commercial amenities

Some communities also have a commercial sector, with restaurants, beauty salons, and other businesses giving people access to important services without needing to leave the grounds. While only large retirement communities have multiple full-time shops, many communities allow health and beauty practitioners to visit on a weekly or monthly basis.  

How to choose where to retire

There are lots of important considerations when you're choosing where you want to retire, from the location and weather through to the local transportation hubs and entertainment venues. While it's important to choose somewhere that's novel and inspiring, for some it's also important to choose somewhere close to home where your relatives and friends can visit. There are many well known perils of aging alone, with each person needing to make their own decision based on their lifestyle and financial needs.  

Like all real estate decisions, the location of the 55 plus community will have a huge influence on the cost and lifestyle offered. People often want to live somewhere warm when they retire, which is why Florida and similar locations are full of retirees. This can have a number of benefits apart from the weather, with more elderly people giving you more opportunity to socialize with people who are your own age.

Even though some retirement communities are set up so you never have to leave, it's also important to be close to transportation hubs, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Staying in contact with the outside world will help to keep you inspired, engaged, and younger than you might have thought was possible. Some communities offer regular bus trips to local attractions and commercial centers, so choose a location where there's lots of things for you to see and do.

While Florida is obviously very enticing to aging Americans, there are significant benefits of staying close to home. When you retire close to home, not only is it easier for friends and family to visit you, you're also familiar with the local area and know how to get around. Spending your later years in a place where everyone knows your name has a number of benefits, with people who age alone suffering from higher living costs and compromised mental health. If you do need to head towards the sun, make sure you leave yourself enough money to return home for regular holidays.

Considerations when buying or renting in a 55 plus community

Before you make a decision and decide where you want to live, it's important to ask a number of important questions.

Location

First and foremost, you need to choose a location that meets the future needs of your lifestyle. If you do need to relocate, it's important to acclimatize yourself before you go. While Florida and Southern California can be beautiful, the heat and humidity are certainly not for everyone. Once you've developed a short-list, it's important to research the neighborhood, check out medical care, and spend some time on the ground walking the streets.

Buying vs renting

The second decision you'll have to make is whether you want to buy or rent a home in a community. This will have serious implications for your future, so take your time and weigh up the pros and cons. While there's no better feeling than owning your own home, taking out a mortgage later in life is not for the faint of heart.

Even if you're financially free, owning a home comes with a greater sense of responsibility than renting in a similar location. It's important to factor in local tax rates and insurance costs when you make your decision and take a look at the mortgage market and approval process.

Comparing communities

Once you know where you want to live and what type of home you're looking for, it's important to compare different communities by creating a short-list. Everyone has different needs and expectations when it comes to retirement, so do your homework and make a decision based on your finances and lifestyle. Meet the board, study the community financials, look into the rules and restrictions, and find out what it really means to be a community member. You may also want to look at the activity calendar to find out just how busy you're going to be.  

Maintenance and membership fees

Last but certainly not least, it's critical to look into the monthly HOA fees and what they entail. While all communities will have monthly fees, the amounts involved can vary considerably based on location, services, amenities, and membership arrangements. While you will need to pay for the upkeep of common areas and assets, you may not require medical care, food delivery, or many of the extras typically offered by larger communities. Lots of 55 plus communities also require club membership, which can end up being very expensive.

Advantages of 55 plus communities compared to a house or condo

For many people of retirement age, there's an important choice to make between living in a 55 plus community or living in a standard house or condo. While each person needs to make this decision alone, it's important to be aware of the pros and cons involved with each path.

Living in a dedicated retirement community will give you greater access to people of your own age, medical services, age-specific amenities, and support structures designed to assist you throughout the aging process. While there may be greater expenses and more restrictions involved, this path is specifically designed to accommodate people as they age.

Living in a standard house or condo provides a greater sense of freedom than living in a retirement community, although it does come at a cost. Rather than having access to age-specific amenities and medical support systems, you will need to find your own support systems and adjust them when necessary.

The same thing could be said for social support networks, with friends much harder to come by if you're living in a building full of families and young couples. While standard dwellings are generally cheaper and more flexible, you may spend more time and money searching for the things that come standard in a retirement community.  

Retiring in Canada

Whether you're looking for a sea change in Florida or a snow change in Canada, where you retire can have a huge effect on your overall experience. While 55 plus communities are very similar in the US and Canada, there are some noteworthy differences. For example, in Canada, communities are not legally allowed to exclude anyone on the basis of age. While the province of British Columbia has a Strata Property Act which enables restrictions and the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has also upheld restrictions, it's important to look into the rules and regulations of each community.

According to Statistics Canada's 2016 census figures, retirees outnumber children for the first time in recorded history. There are now 5.9 million Canadian seniors, compared to 5.8 million Canadians 14 and under. This has led to a number of new communities being developed, from active communities through to assisted living and memory care. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the national average for an active community is C$1,400-C$3,500 per month. For assisted living, the average is C$1,500-C$5,000 per month. For memory care, it's between C$3,000 and C$7,000.

Retiring in the US

The situation is similar in the United States, with 55 plus communities ranging anywhere from $1,500 per month through to $6,000 per month depending on the availability of amenities and support services. CCRCs can be significantly more expensive, however, with an entrance fee of $100,000 or more usually needed.

An entrance fee often comes with a life contract, with this service designed to provide lifetime access to all healthcare services with minimum fee increases. If you want a less expensive continuing care agreement where services and fees change over time, you may may be able to limit or avoid an entrance fee altogether.  

Just like in Canada, assisted living, memory care, and rehabilitation services will be significantly higher than independent living. If you're looking for more detailed figures, Genworth continues to developed the Cost of Care Survey to help families understand the costs involved with retirement care across the U.S. If you're an American citizen looking to retire in Canada, or a Canadian who wants to move to the States, it's important to look into your residential and taxation status and how this may impact your experience.

For the fifth year in a row, 55places has ranked 55 plus communities across the US based on research, internal data, feedback, and personal experiences. Sun City Hilton Head in Bluffton, SC topped the list for 2018, thanks to its large sprawling grounds and feature-rich amenity complex. On Top of the World at Ocala, FL was second on the list; followed by Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio, CA; Sun City Grand in Surprise, AZ; and Solivita in Kissimmee, FL. You can take a look at this valuable resource here.