David Allison, founder of Vancouver-based B/A Marketing Buildings
David Allison is the Founder of B/A Marketing Buildings, a real estate development branding and marketing firm that works with developers and owners in the residential and commercial sectors. He is the author of The Stackable Boomer. 

As the oldest baby boomers turn 69 this year, some of them are expected to make the jump into multifamily housing—but not all of them are racing to put up a for-sale sign in the front yard.  

David Allison, founder of Vancouver-based BA Marketing Buildings, calls them “the reluctants”. This subset of baby boomers don’t want to sell their single family homes, but they have no choice since their equity—and therefore often their retirement savings plan—is wrapped up in their home. The industry must figure out how to market units to this challenging group of boomers who are finding difficulty not only with downsizing, but with the change in lifestyle that comes with it. 

“In the development industry we tend to think that our product is the answer. And in this case our product is not the answer,” says Allison. “We can build the smartest buildings in the world and think we know as much as possible about the boomers as we are able to, but at the end of the day the biggest issue the boomers are having are the psychological issues around this change about going to a smaller space.” 

Developers are faced with a hard problem—how to make this generation fall in love with the idea of multifamily living while giving up their 3,000 square-foot suburban home.

While there isn’t one solution, research conducted by Allison’s firm pinpointed the areas of concern for this generation when faced with the looming issue of downsizing into rentals.

What Boomers Want, and Fear

In his survey of 1,000 baby boomers, a majority of participants reported they were most worried about the loss of family and friends upon leaving their single-family home in the suburbs.

Researchers also found that developers are pouring money into flashy upgrades —like soaker tubs and marble counter tops for “spa-like” bathrooms—they assume boomers want, but boomers report they’re more interested in what Allison calls the “showoff triangle”. The living room, dining room, and kitchen are the three areas of a home where friends, family, and guests spend the most time while visiting.

Making these rooms look luxurious—and places boomers can boast about to their friends—is an easy fix. Built-in shelving and sculpture nooks are inexpensive additions that provide a seamless space for boomers to proudly display their possessions. Fancier light fixtures and flooring finishes are other easy upgrades.  

Lack of storage was another highly voiced fear among the demographic, but is another quick fix on the builder’s end. 

“We have to think like boat builders,” says Allison, who suggests filling the unit’s empty nooks and crannies with closets or built-in shelves to accommodate the number of belongings boomers have collected over the years. He says simple additions like a traditional linen closet can make a smaller space more versatile. 

The less baby boomers feel like they are giving up, the more comfortable they will be with leaving their existing home. 

It's About the Neighborhood Too

They also worry about downsizing to significantly smaller spaces, but are unconvinced that the new urban playground outside their door will fill the void left by their roomy home. 

Apartment managers need to show boomers how the lack of square footage in their unit is made up for by all the services, restaurants and retail in their new community. The neighborhood has the potential to be a selling point for boomers, but isn’t always presented as such.

“We throw a page in a brochure with a map and say, we’re done, now let me show your more pictures of the beautiful kitchen,” says Allison. “I think they’re actually more interested in the neighborhood than in the kitchen.”

When asked after the move, most baby boomers responded that the neighborhood is the best part of their new lifestyle. 

“We have to stop thinking of ourselves as builders and start thinking about ourselves as facilitators,” says Allison. “It’s not just about our buildings, and we have to realize that boomers and their problems, issues, and concerns aren’t things that bricks and mortar are going to solve.”