Bingo never appealed to Roz Muney. So when she was scouting out retirement communities in Seattle, she opted for one aimed at brainy types—the 146-unit University House Wallingford, developed in partnership with the University of Washington Retirement Association. Now, Muney can join a dizzying array of lectures given by university professors or in-house academics.
“People are looking for ways to stay young,” says Muney, 87. “If you play bingo here, they’d throw you out.”
Niche retirement communities like University House are growing fast. There are now about 50 university-based communities and dozens more are planned. But that’s not all. Communities aimed at affinity groups like LGBT and Asians are also being added. And hobbyists have their own versions for equestrians, fliers, astronomers and more.
Demand will only increase as 78 million baby boomers age, say experts.
“Niche communities are in their infancy stage,” says Andrew Carle, director of George Mason University’s senior housing administration program. “And they offer lots of upsides.”
Take university-based communities. They are located near college campuses like Stanford, Oberlin, Cornell and Penn State. For example, the Oak Hammock at the University of Florida in Gainesville has an in-house Institute for Learning in Retirement, developed with the University of Florida. Courses, with nominal fees, include Managing the Global Economy and the Debate on Net Neutrality.
These university-based communities are great deals, says Carle. “Courses don’t cost much, and you get lots of cool stuff like discounts at the college bookstore.”
Other more fanciful niche communities appeal to hobbyists. The 141-unit Burbank Senior Artists Colony in Burbank, Calif., has full film-making facilities, where residents can use digital cameras to shoot a film, edit it in a digital editing bay and screen it in a 45-seat theater. Other amenities include a computer lab and two fine arts studios.
Lake Weir Living in central Florida is for toy-friendly baby boomers. The custom homes can be built with three-car garages for stashing RVs, hot rods or boats. And at Arizona-based Competitive Ridge, you can even own a private road racing track.
These communities all have lots of upsides, says Carle, since they draw people from thousands of miles away.
University-based retirement communities started the niche retirement trend, says John Migliaccio, director of research and gerontology at the MetLife Mature Market Institute. “They had one thing that developers were looking for — land,” he says.
These days, lots of variations mean more buying choices — and parsing out fees.
For starters, most niche retirement communities offer rentals. They also charge large upfront fees of $100,000 to $1 million before moving in, which amortize years of future care.
These one-time fees are usually up to 90 percent refundable if you leave, though. “Developers need sufficient finances to provide services like health care,” says Migliaccio.
On top of these costs, monthly rents average $1,500 to $4,000.
Amenities vary widely. Take Aegis Gardens, an Asian-American community in Fremont, Calif., which is specially attuned to its residents.
"Feng shui consultants helped us with construction and decoration," says Jerry Meyer, president of Seattle-based Aegis Living, which owns the residence. Several features were eventually tweaked, such as ditching the color white, which means death in the Asian culture, adding a fountain with curves rather than angles and putting guardian fu dogs with red eyes in front of the building.
Aegis Gardens apartments in assisted living cost $3,600 per month. That’s only a tad above the average monthly national rent for an assisted living facility of $3,500, according to a recent MetLife Market Survey.
“Fitting the specific needs of each resident is important,” says Meyer, who is also constructing a Chinese-focused community.
Some exotic communities do have added costs, though. The World of Residency is a privately owned luxury yacht with 165 residences that sails the world. And a studio can cost $600,000, says Jan Cullinane, author of "The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life." Monthly fees are steep — running up to $20,000 for full-time residents, she adds.
Because niche retirement communities are structured differently, prices can vary widely, she says. She recommends having an attorney or CPA scrutinize a community’s financials and any contracts that you sign.
Communities with themes that are too narrow require extra scrutiny, says Carle. If you’re buying into one, think about your ability to resell it, he adds.
“Still, niche communities haven’t drilled down half as much as they could,” adds Migliaccio. And more variations are on their way as baby boomers hit retirement age.
Muney, who once lived in Fort Myers, Fla., isn’t looking back. “Activities at University House are keeping me young,” she says.