There are about 1.5 million Baby Boomers in Greater Washington, representing 26 percent of its population. The housing choices of these individuals will have a profound effect on the region over the next 30 years. Where do they live now, and where will they live in the future?

Photo by LancerE on Flickr.

Where do Boomers live today?

The Baby Boom generation is defined as those born between the years of 1946 and 1964, The vast majority of Boomers in the Washington area are homeowners: as of 2010, there were about 823,000 households in the region with a Baby Boomer householder, 629,000 or 76% of which own their homes.

Boomer homeownership rates by jurisdiction. All images by the author unless noted.

While Boomers account for 26 percent of the region’s population, they make up 47 percent of all homeowners. In Calvert, Fairfax, and Fauquier counties, Boomers make up more than half of all homeowner households, and slightly less than half in Stafford, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties. The concentration of Boomer homeowners was lowest in close-in jurisdictions like DC, Arlington, and Alexandria, and in Loudoun County, where younger homeowners drive most growth.

Boomers as share of homeowners by jurisdiction.

More specifically, Boomer homeowners can be found in affluent areas located outside the Beltway dominated by large-lot, single-family housing units. Over 60 percent of homeowners are Boomers in places like Brookeville in Montgomery County, Oakton in Fairfax County, and Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County. Less affluent inner suburban areas like Annandale and Bladensburg also have high concentrations of Boomer homeowners.

Boomer homeowner share by Census tract.

Where will they live in the future?

According to several national research studies, most Boomers plan to stay exactly where they are, as long as they can. A 2011 study by AARP found that 84 percent of Boomers want to stay in their current homes. A 2010 survey by retirement community developer Del Webb found that 64 percent of Boomers had not even thought about where they will live during retirement.

Due to the effects of the Great Recession, many Boomers plan to postpone retirement and remain in their current homes. In 1996, Del Webb found that 85 percent of 50 year olds surveyed thought they would be financially prepared to retire by the age of 65. In a 2010 survey of the same group, now 64, only 46 percent thought they would ever be able to retire.

But many aging Boomers won’t be able to stay put. AARP found that 41 percent of Boomers surveyed thought they would always be in good health, and 35 percent expect to always be able to drive their own cars. But the National Association of Home Builders’ “Characteristics of Home Buyers” report suggests that health issues will increasingly determine Boomers’ housing choices, especially after age 75.

If Boomers do begin to move from their single-family houses in the suburbs in large numbers, where will they go? The Del Webb survey found that 56 percent of those who planned to leave their homes would move out of state, while the remaining 44 percent planned to stay local. This could mean a smaller home in the same suburban community, a retirement community or continuing care facility, or, as many have suggested, an apartment or condo in a more urban environment.

However, even those who suggest that Boomers will embrace city life concede that this only a “mini-trend” at this point. In all likelihood, most Boomer homeowners in the Washington metro area will stay put and continue to live in their single-family houses in the suburbs for at least the next 10 to 20 years. While this stability may appear to be a positive thing, it actually raises several key concerns about the future.

What will happen to the areas where they are currently concentrated?

Boomers who “age in place” will create major spillover effects for the suburban communities where they first moved to raise families.

Suburban jurisdictions will need to address the reality of having large elderly populations. If large numbers of Boomers do choose to age in place, the neighborhoods that once served as havens for families with children will suddenly become naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs).

This will drive increased needs for public services for the elderly, including recreational and social service programs, demand for paratransit for those who live in car-dependent areas but are not able to drive, and declining school enrollments. Perhaps more importantly, political priorities will shift, as older voters are more likely to advocate for lower taxes instead of making investments in infrastructure, schools, or parks.

Aging homeowners will struggle to maintain their properties. As the oldest Boomers reach 75, most will have to rely on retirement income and savings even as their health care costs increase. As a result, investment in the upkeep and maintenance on aging houses will become more difficult for many homeowners to afford.

This will be a particular issue in older suburbs where income levels tend to be lower and houses require more upkeep. Neglect of homes may become widespread in these areas, leading to permanent decline.

Boomers will shut Millennials out. The Millennial generation, currently aged between 15 and 35, is just starting to reach prime homebuying age. The conventional wisdom is that Millennials will reject the values of their Boomer parents and rent smaller units in urban environments.

While that may be true today, a 2011 Urban Land Institute study generated two contrary conclusions. First, three-quarters of older Millennials (those currently aged 28-35) expected to buy a home within five years. Second, 82 percent of all Millennials expected to live in a single-family detached house in five years.

Assuming that at least some Millennials do want to buy houses, there are few affordable options for them. The region’s median home price in July 2013 was $425,000, and the median price for a single-family home was $541,750.

The ULI study found that the median income level for Millennials with full-time jobs was less than $50,000. Though the income level for Millennials in this region is undoubtedly higher, few Millennials can afford new single-family homes anywhere in the area. So long as Boomers stay put in their homes, the supply of existing homes will be limited, making it more difficult for younger buyers to find places to live.

The crash could be swift and painful. In 2040, just 27 years from now, the age range of the Baby Boom generation will be from 76 to 94. By that time, there will obviously no longer be 1.5 million Boomers living in metro Washington, and there will certainly not be 629,000 Boomer homeowners. Twenty years later, in 2060, all but the hardiest of Boomers will have passed away.

While Boomers seem to be committed to living in their suburban homes, at some point age and health will take their toll. If Boomers do intend to stay in their homes for the duration, their eventual departures from their homes and neighborhoods will likely occur under difficult circumstances. Most will either leave quickly due to health issues, or their surviving family members will need to sell their homes after they are gone.

As difficult as it may be to consider, the years from 2030 to 2050 will bring wholesale changes to the communities where Boomers are now living. As discussed above, many Boomers will have let their homes fall into disrepair by that point, so many of the stable suburban neighborhoods they currently inhabit are likely to decline. Local governments around the region need to understand and plan for these trends now so they do not have to face very difficult problems down the road.