THE BLOG
08/11/2015 09:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Baby Boomers Are The First Tech-Savvy Retirees -- And Have The Home Renovations To Prove It

Newest retirees want state-of-the-art technologies in homes and home offices for consulting work.

Time to throw out the notion of the "stuffy" grandparents houses like we used to visit in our childhoods. Who doesn't remember as kids going to visit the grandparents, and how the house seemed to us more like a museum than a place to live?

Nothing had changed in years.

You couldn't touch anything.

Plastic covered the sofa so you couldn't sweat or spill anything on it -- even though you weren't allowed to have a drink in what grandma called her parlor anyway.

As for shoes, you'd better take them off before you go into to the house.

These days, however, Baby Boomer retirees are leading the way with large-scale home renovations. And they're not scared of new, state-of-the-art technologies either.

Some 80 percent are interested in innovative ways of reducing their home expenses, such as using smart thermostats or apps to control appliances. Another 58 percent are interested in technologies to help maintain their home, such as cleaning robots or heated driveways, says David Baxter, a senior vice president with Age Wave, a research and consulting company that teamed with Merrill Lynch to gauge what retirees are doing with their living arrangements.

"This idea that people are renovating and innovating in their home in retirement is such a cool thing, and it's contrary to what people expect and is portrayed in the media," Baxter says. There's a lot of action here."

That includes the notion that all retirees are downsizing, a subject I recently dispelled after reports came out that many home owners are choosing to buy bigger for their retirement.

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In fact, Baxter says 47 percent of home renovations -- about $90 billion a year -- comes from households 55 and above. Retirees are renovating their homes to make them safer as they age, but they're also trying to make their homes more attractive and versatile with the hope they can stay in them rather than move in with family or to an institutionalized setting when they are elderly.

"We were quite fascinated to see what was happening," Baxter says. "Often when we think of older adults, their home is what it used to be. I think of my grandparents' home, and it was kind of the same every year I visited. They didn't change it or renovate it. What we're increasingly seeing for today's retirees is innovation and renovation of their homes. That's something important to the industry to recognize, because a typical home improvement show on television often depicts [only] younger couples and newlyweds and how they're fixing up their homes and making a new room for a child."

Baxter says the driving point behind the renovations by older generations is that people are living longer, and with that comes a vision for what's ahead. People aren't focusing just on declining and winding down as they did in the past -- but are searching for new ambitions in their later years, he says.

"People are looking to create the best home of their lives, and that's driving a lot of the renovation," Baxter says. "They are finding that they have disposable income and more free time, and that gives them the freedom to reshape their home the way they want it to be."

As homeowners age, especially into their 80s and 90s, they do become concerned about health issues -- and want their home retrofitted to accommodate their health challenges.

"We saw that 85 percent of people want to stay in their home rather than move to an institutional setting," Baxter says. "What we're seeing is the beginning of new technology, from telemedicine and home sensors, that help people live independently."

 

So what's the focus of those retirees 50 and older when it comes to making renovations?

No. 1: the creation of a home office. Baxter calls that a surprise because many would think the focus would be on installing ramps and handrails in the home and bathrooms.

"I think that it's reflective of another trend we have seen of people wanting to continue working in some way in retirement," Baxter says. "Half of retirees say they are working or plan to work at some point in their retirement years, but it has to be on their own terms. A lot of people are working out of their own homes and starting a consultant business or working more flexibly. That's the driver behind that."

No. 2: improving curb appeal. Since their children have moved out, couples have more time and money and want to make their home as pleasant and as beautiful as possible.

No. 3: upgrading the kitchen. In talking with focus groups and industry experts, retirees want to upgrade them for socializing and entertainment.

"The retirement home has become a gathering point, especially for families around the holidays, but of course when they have friends over as well," Baxter says. "One focus group shows the grandparents are competing for who's going to host the grandkids for the holidays. The focus group talked about making the house into a grandkid magnet and making it accommodating and entertaining."

No. 4: adding safety features to accommodate aging. That includes safety features such as handrails and grab bars. People are encouraged to add no-step entries, make hallways and doors wider, improve accessibility to electrical controls, install level-style handles on doors and faucets and lower cabinets and countertops.

No. 6: modifying the home to live on one floor to prevent difficulties in dealing with stairs. Among people age 85+, 74 percent have difficulties with daily activities, including housework or getting around the home.

"Stairs are a big issue, and a lot of people we talked to express some awareness as you get into your later years that navigating up and down stairs becomes more of a problem," Baxter says. "Some people make accommodations for single-floor living or when they're buying homes for retirement to select ranch style single-story homes."

 

As for adding the newest technologies to the homes, Baxter says it's interesting that most of them are marketed to only younger people. Because the survey shows there is interest among Baby Boomers for smart thermostats, sensors and other technologies.

"I often see that there's this presumption that young people want the technologies and the apps, and the older people want the old style," Baxter says. "I think what we're seeing now, especially as the boomer generation moves into retirement, they are the first generation that used technology in the work place. The Silent Generation that preceded the boomers didn't use the computer and internet. It wasn't all that prevalent in the work place. The boomers did and, what we're seeing now is a more tech-savvy generation moving into their retirement years, and they're more open technology and innovations."

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