Opportunity of a Lifetime

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The senior boom hasn’t hit the market yet, but it’s coming. It’s time to decide what you’re going to do about it.

October 01, 2001

America is aging; we know that. Scientific and medical advances mean that we live decades longer than we did a century ago. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that since 1990 the number of people age 50 and older has grown from 63,804,088 to 77,794,000, increasing from 25.7% of the population to 28%.

Much of that has to do with the baby boomersÆ leading edge hitting 50 - young, but still old enough to qualify for a seniorsÆ discount - during the past five years.

By the time the rest of their generation has achieved senior status in 2014, about 34% of the population, well over 100 million people, will be 50 or older.

Take into account that AARP studies have consistently shown during the past 10 years that the vast majority of the over-45 population wants to stay at home as long as possible. Keep in mind that those homes are aging, too. According to Harvard UniversityÆs Joint Center for Housing Studies, 22% of homeowners age 45 to 64 live in homes built before 1950. That figure rises to 25% for 65-74-year-olds, 31% for 74-84-year-olds and 41% for homeowners 85 and older.

 

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Combine those two factors with the fact that physical abilities tend to diminish as people age, and the 50-plus age group looks like a very promising pool of potential remodeling clients.

But nothing is ever as simple as it looks. For one thing, this isnÆt a homogenous group - itÆs at least two different generations, with different attitudes toward their homes and their money. Regardless of generation, their physical abilities vary: A 50-year-old might have crippling arthritis while a 75-year-old bounds down the street in jogging gear. Some live alone and want to retain their independence, others are moving in with children and grandchildren and need separate space, and still others are enjoying empty nests but want friends and family of all ages and abilities to be able to visit.

ThatÆs a lot of different needs. On top of that, no one in a culture as youth-driven as ours wants to admit to getting older and having to accommodate the changes that age brings.

In fact, many experts say that even though the need for remodeling to help people age in place is great, the demand isnÆt that big - at least not yet.

"So far, middle-aged audiences have not been flocking to remodelers demanding these features," says Dick Duncan, interim acting director of North Carolina State UniversityÆs Center for Universal Design. As for older seniors, "they want to make the changes, but donÆt want to look sick and frail and donÆt want their homes to look like an institution," says Leon Harper, senior housing specialist with the AARP.

Even so, Duncan and Harper foresee continued growth in the field simply because of the sheer numbers of seniors on the way. Consumer acceptance, they say, has been and will be aided by increased coverage of senior housing issues in the mainstream media as well as by the educational efforts of aging and housing organizations, remodelers and builders.

"We see ourselves as setting up the industry for work over the next 50 years, not just the next two or three," Duncan says.

Lucky you - thereÆs still time left. NowÆs the time to learn more about the construction, design, marketing and management challenges the aging-in-place niche presents and to decide what works for your company.

"The boomers are coming of age," says Bob Black, CGR, president of Access of Sarasota in Florida. "The remodelers who get in now are going to be on the cutting edge, and when people start asking for these services, theyÆll know how to do it."

First, some background

Remodeling a home so its owners can age in place encompasses a wide range of projects and approaches. Accessible remodeling generally applies to installing chairlifts or ramps for people in wheelchairs or with disabilities.

New product offerings and skilled designers can make home modifications and universal design beautiful, not institutional.

More broadly speaking, home modifications refers to adaptations made to a personÆs existing environment, including making a home accessible. According to University of Southern California professor Jon Pynoos, director of the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, these changes are made to promote independence, safety and comfort. For instance, someone with poor eyesight might require a redesigned lighting system. An active person in a wheelchair might need more of a whole-house remodel, with cabinets lowered, doorways widened and raised ledges removed. Because younger people with disabilities often share similar needs with the elderly, many remodelers who specialize in home mods find that their customer base is split between the elderly and the disabled, including some overlap.

Not that elderly and disabled are synonymous. Nor are elderly and senior. Younger seniors who have yet to develop specific age-related needs but are thinking ahead are most likely to be interested in universal design, a broad set of design concepts intended to make objects usable by the majority of people. Designers apply these techniques to everything from furniture to city buses.

When it comes to residential construction, this means building and remodeling homes to be user-friendly for children and adults of all ages, regardless of abilities. The most common applications include grab bars, curbless showers and shower seats in the bathroom; widened doorways throughout the house; lower cabinets and countertops in the kitchen; easy-to-push levers for door and sink handles; placing a bedroom and bath on the first floor; and using slopes instead of steps to lead up to exterior doors.

Another major advantage of universal design is that it increases a homeÆs "visitability," or how easily a home can be visited by guests. This can be a plus for boomers who want their parents to stay with them during vacations or for elderly people who want friends to come over for dinner. Universal design, Harper claims, can accommodate 80%-90% of peopleÆs needs.

Assessing the market

Currently, market demand for aging-in-place solutions varies by geography and by socioeconomic status, but most particularly by generation. In general, however, customers donÆt ask for these services unless theyÆve already developed a need for them. "ItÆs hard to force things down peopleÆs throat unless theyÆve had a problem," Pynoos says, "and even then they can be resistant." He wryly adds, "Nobody has saved money for the beautiful 20-foot ramp theyÆre going to need when they get older."

Joanie and Allan Browne, owners of Extended Home Living Services in Wheeling, Ill., couldnÆt agree more. When the Brownes started EHLS 13 years ago, they anticipated that most of their clients would be 50 to 60 years old, remodeling their homes for their future. But a mailing to 6,000 to 8,000 prospects in that age group in their region drew only one response - and it was a question about getting snow shoveled.

Specializing in home modification, the firm now divides its clientele between people older than 60 and younger people with special needs. Most come from nearby blue-collar suburbs of Chicago.

Their older clients, Joanie notes, donÆt want to acknowledge their frailties and want to save their money to leave to their children. Even if they call EHLS for an assessment, theyÆre not ready to commit to the project until nine to 18 months later, she says, usually once their need has become dire.

"There are people butt-bumping up the stairs," she says. Her customers donÆt have the money to do more than the most crucial modifications, which usually means a chairlift, ramp or grab bars. In her opinion, remodeling entire rooms or homes with universal design in preparation for aging is a nice idea but not practical for most people.

That might be true of the "old old," says Harper, but not so with the "young old." While the Brownes havenÆt found much of an active-adult remodeling market in Chicago, Harper says itÆs out there. He has found that while boomers might not be looking for a total home makeover, they are interested in some home modifications and appreciate that universal design helps make those modifications attractive and long-lasting.

Unlike prior generations, says Pynoos, baby boomers have experienced the aging of their own parents and struggled with decisions regarding their abil-ity to live in their own homes. As a result, he says, theyÆre ready to think about aging in place.

Connecticut-based designer Mary Jo Peterson, a leader in universal design, testifies to seeing growth in demand for universal design during the past five years: "Boomers have the attitude, æI deserve to have better. I deserve to be comfortable.Æ"

Both she and Black make a point of incorporating universal design into every project they do, something that customers have become more open to as universal design infiltrates new home construction. In Florida, Black already has the older population base that other remodelers wonÆt see for a while. He has been in the field since 1966 but decided to focus full time on accessible work in 1994. Unlike the BrownesÆ clients, BlackÆs older clients often remodel regardless of immediate physical need, and are willing to spend a little extra for wider doors, anti-skid flooring and grab bars, especially if they have grandchildren who also will benefit from them.

Even so, everyone interviewed for this article agrees that education and outreach efforts need to continue across the industry.

Marketing, then sales

At the national level, the AARP is making concerted efforts to educate its 50 million members about aging-in-place options, and theyÆre paying attention. A recent AARP article on homes for all ages drew 130,000 requests for more information, says Harper. The problem for remodelers is trust: A recent AARP study shows that 28% of people older than 45 view finding a reliable contractor as an obstacle to remodeling. As a result of that study, the Remodelors Council has joined with the AARP and other organizations to develop a training program for remodelers who want to specialize in aging in place.

Dan Bawden, CGR, of Legal Eagle Contractors in Texas, heads the Remodelors Council committee working on the program. "IÆve always done some of this kind of work," he says. "ItÆs been a trickle thatÆs growing." He expects the course to be available in spring 2002.

Closer to home, experienced remodelers recommend marketing to health-care professionals who advise older clients on living options. The Brownes distribute their brochures at libraries, senior centers and disability associations, but also offer in-service presentations to occupational and physical therapists, social workers and hospital discharge staff. Black advertises "barrier-free remodeling" under Disabled Services in the Yellow Pages.

Russell Kennefick, CR, of The Accessibility Contractor in San Mateo, Calif., takes on insurance jobs and also networks within his community, which has a large number of seniors. According to Peterson, itÆs more important to spend time than money on promoting your work to this audience. She recommends getting involved with community projects such as remodeling a senior center. Once you have some jobs, she suggests allocating extra money in your project budgets for service.

While Kennefick insists that older clients need to be treated as individuals, there are a few broad characteristics of which to be aware. For instance, family members are likely to play into the decision-making process with elderly clients, especially if they have power of attorney. You might have to set expectations and reach consensus with the entire family in addition to a health-care provider, Pynoos says. Adult children can be argumentative because of concern for their parents, says Kennefick. On the other hand, he notes, they sometimes donÆt want mom and dad to spend too much of their inheritance.

The elderly are more reluctant than the average customer to part with money having lived through the Depression. "They have to see the paybacks," Black says. He advises showing potential clients numbers on how their investment will pay off in the long run.

He also says that "senior seniors" tend to be less trusting and recommends presenting proof of license, insurance, liability, professional designations and membership in professional organizations.

Perhaps most important, be conscious in sales and marketing of the publicÆs sensitivity about aging and anything remotely institutional. Harper suggests that remodelers be careful with their terminology, changing the emphasis from the person to the home by saying something like, "ItÆs not you thatÆs the problem, itÆs the way the home is built." He likes to claim that most houses are designed for 18- to 25-year-olds and are "hostile" to children and most adults.

"You have to make them realize theyÆre not losing their independence, theyÆre maintaining it," Kennefick says. A remodeler for 25 years, he has specialized in home mods for six years and made it his full-time business in September. Making sure potential clients know that the design can be beautiful - that grab bars come in colors that match their decor and not just stainless steel - is also key. "ThatÆs where a good remodeler who knows about products and knows whatÆs possible can make a huge difference," Pynoos says.

Accessible or universally designed products tend to cost about 5% more than standard products, but they also tend to last longer and save clients money in the long run on maintenance and replacement. That can be a hard sell to the very old but appealing to a younger person. "This may be their last remodel on their home, and they want it to last," Black says.

The number of available accessible products has increased enormously during the past 10 years, Black says, as has the attractiveness of those products. That means itÆs much easier to purchase ready-made items instead of adapting standard products or creating custom pieces.

Black says his "brag book," which includes pictures of his work, makes selling universal design a breeze. He also likes to pitch universal design as common-sense design: putting a recess rather than a shelf into a shower, for instance, keeps kids as well as grown-ups from bumping into or knocking over the bath supplies. The grab bars he installs sometimes get used as washcloth racks, he says, but will be there to serve their intended purpose when the homeowners need them.

"The hardest sell is putting a grab bar in a shower," says Black, "I think it should be added to new construction codes. Young people slip and fall, too - I meet them coming out of rehab."

Finally, the gerontologists say that if clients are worried about whether modifications will lower the resale value of their homes, they shouldnÆt be. As with any remodeling, Duncan says, well-done universal design will increase the value, while poor work will decrease the value. Plus, thereÆs a huge market of people with disabilities looking for housing, says Pynoos, in addition to young families with kids whoÆd love to have homes with ramps for strollers and low shelves for the children.

Is this line of work for you?

Remodeling for aging homeowners might require more psychological energy than you have to spare, the experts warn. It probably also requires more knowledge than you currently have. The construction skills are the same; the design and planning are the tough part.

Following Americans with Disabilities Act standards wonÆt cut it. Not only do these not apply to residential construction, theyÆre not always practical in someoneÆs home. A ramp that rises 1 foot in height for every 12 feet in length was still too steep for his mother to push his fatherÆs wheelchair up, says Pynoos.

"ItÆs hard to evaluate an individualÆs particular needs and not come in with a rubber-stamp solution," Harper says. For that reason, Peterson, the Brownes and Black have branched into consulting work. EHLS even received a grant to develop its Comprehensive Assessment and Solution Process for Aging Residents, a program for inexperienced remodelers, remodelers who donÆt have time to keep up with the latest developments in aging in place and remodelers faced with particularly tough jobs.

Medical knowledge is essential to success. No doubt some remodelers have their own bad-back experiences to draw upon, but having a health-care professional as part of your team is even better. BlackÆs wife, Marie, owns Access of Sarasota and is a registered nurse. She works with occupational and physical therapists to translate peopleÆs needs into remodeling terms, while Bob focuses on construction. Kennefick recently hired a nurse to help with business development and project assessments, while the Brownes employ a social worker who does their marketing.

To those willing to take on these challenges and make the necessary changes, the personal and professional rewards are plentiful. Even in an economic downturn, niches do well because the need remains. On top of that, the profit margins are better. "If only three remodelers can do something well, they can charge for it," Allan Browne explains. His firm does nearly $4 million each year in sales by completing about 60 to 70 jobs a month, with most job prices running between $3,000 and $4,000.

"ItÆs getting you into another market where youÆre selling additional things," says Black, whose business does about $500,000 in annual sales, many of them bathroom remodels of $5,000 to $10,000. "They call you in for a bathroom, you may end up replacing all the hardware in the house and adding lighting. Sometimes they ask, sometimes you suggest." Kennefick, whose business is a similar size in a similar market, says he thinks he can quadruple his business within the next year with his new business plan.

Personally, the work can be incredibly fulfilling. "Older customers are so happy when youÆre done," Black says, "and youÆve changed their whole life. They can stay in their neighborhood with their friends and their same church, their same bank, the same stores."

Advantages and disadvantages aside, youÆd probably do well to at least explore the possibilities of aging in place. "In this case," says gerontologist Pynoos, "demography is destiny for remodelers."

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