What do empty nesters want in a home? For Sally and James Gavin, formerly of Lake Forest, it's a lofty perch in an apartment at 500 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. For Fred and Stephanie Bishop, it's a comfy roost in a remodeled Glencoe condo near their old home.
As their children move out, many empty nesters desire to relocate to smaller, maintenance-free homes with high-quality finishes and amenities, according to The National Association of Home Builders' 2013 survey of "What Home Buyers Really Want." This mature demographic values quality in the details of a home, with energy efficiency and flexible living spaces driving the trend.
"They don't want the same five-bedroom footprint. But when they are looking at a kitchen, they want the good design, dimensional lighting and Energy Star appliances," said Stephen Melman, the association's director of economic services. "These empty nesters are willing to settle for no less than any other buyer. Being experienced homeowners, they may be more demanding."
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One-story living is also on their checklist, Melman said. Among those 65 and older, 69 percent favor a single-story home. Buyers 55 to 64 feel the same way, with 68 percent saying no to stairs.
While older homeowners are looking to downsize, they don't see their next place to live as their last home, said Joe Giampa, director of sales at Meadow Ridge in Northbrook, which offers attached ranch-style duplexes and town houses.
"They want to feel this is the next step, rather than the last chapter," he said. "They want a vibrant lifestyle and a maintenance-free home so they can pursue that vibrant lifestyle."
Many empty nesters see their next home as a new beginning, said Elissa Morgante, partner at Morgante-Wilson Architects.
"Our clients are downsizing to smaller spaces, simplifying and making their lives a little cleaner and less cluttered," she said.
For instance, in designing the Bishops' condo, the Evanston-based firm did a gut rehab and replaced a formal dining room with an open floor plan in which the kitchen, living room and dining room flow together. The home has two offices, one with a trundle bed for sleepovers by their grandchildren.
The condo is designed to fit the Bishops' needs, Morgante said.
"The home is not focused on the grandchildren, it's focused on (the Bishops') lives," she said. "It seems our clients are more focused on using every part of their new homes, being able to accommodate children and grandchildren, but not having the house be so centered on children."
Court Airhart, president of Wheaton-based Airhart Construction, said open floor plans provide more opportunity for flexible use. Empty nesters are attracted to the builder's efficient floor plans at Courthouse Square row houses in downtown Wheaton and Fisher Farm single-family homes in Winfield, he said.
Placing a great room, dining room and kitchen in one space ensures flexibility to extend tables and add chairs as needs require.
"(Empty nesters) are also thinking about how spaces can flex, for instance, from a home office to a TV room, exercise room or bedroom," Airhart said.
Not all rooms will shrink in an empty nester home.
"Downsizing the kitchen is not something they want to do," Airhart said. "They still want that kitchen island. In many cases, the island is actually growing for the social gatherings."
The bedrooms in houses by Deerfield-based Meritus Homes are designed to meet empty nesters' changing needs, said Meritus President Brian Brunhofer.
In ranch or master-down floor plans, three bedrooms and a flex-space den, as opposed to four or five bedrooms and a den, will suffice, he said.
"Everyone wants to make sure even the secondary bedrooms are good enough sized to accommodate easy living," Brunhofer said. "But there's not as much focus on large bedrooms with large walk-in closets. There's a bigger focus on a little smaller bedroom with the same ample storage."
For some baby boomers, traditional furnishings are vanishing along with formal living and dining rooms.
Morgante has seen a shift in home-furnishings tastes toward a cleaner, simpler aesthetic. In four out of five empty-nester projects the firm has tackled in recent years, contemporary furnishings have replaced traditional decor.
Ultimately, empty nesters' homes must reflect their lifestyles. For the Gavins, downtown Chicago's walkability influenced their decision to rent at 500 Lake Shore Drive.
"Living in this area, you would not need a car at all," Sally Gavin said. Shopping for anything, going to restaurants — everything's close."
The Bishops, on the other hand, initially thought they'd move far from their country French-style house in Glencoe.
"I always thought we would sell that and move to Idaho or Montana," Fred Bishop said. "(But) we wanted to be close to our children, allow our dog to have a central place in our lives, and be able to have our own space. We wanted our memories to be here, but with a new and completely different look. … It was an evolution, not a revolution."