Modern retirement: Where to live?

Is it for us? That’s the question most of us ask ourselves, browsing through the Retirement Living issue of CARPNews FiftyPlus.

This, after all, is new territory. A generation ago, when they left the workplace, people stayed put, moved into an apartment or smaller house, opted for the cottage or perhaps even went south for the winter. Some moved in with their children… imagine!

Now the choices are infinite. Thanks to increased prosperity, better mobility and the high-tech revolution (cable television, the Internet, cheap long distance phone calls) we can live where we darn well please – from picturesque P.E.I. to balmy Vancouver Island to quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake – without sacrificing any of the comforts we’re used to.

How’s the experiment going? I asked residents that question in a dozen or so retirement communities I visited recently. I was in for some surprises Nearly everyone I spoke to is blissfully content with their new surroundings. And this satisfaction is evident right across the board, from low-cost modular home parks to up-scale, clubby gated communities.

Find what suits you
The trick is to find wt suits you.

Bill and Fiona Turner hunted long and hard for their perfect community, and found it when they saw a tiny sign directing them to Royal Oak Estates, a modular home development tucked away in a corner of Cookstown, a pretty town 45 minutes north of Toronto.

Facilities are minimal. There’s a modest community centre but no pool, but that did not worry Fiona, 70, and Bill, 69. “We aren’t joiners,” says Fiona. What pleased them was that a good library is within walking distance and shops are nearby.

And the price was right: homes at Royal Oak today cost $80,000 to $104,000 (partly because homeowners pay $400 a month to lease their lots).

Their home, cozy as can be, is on one level – ideal for Fiona, who has had knee operations – and backs on to open land where they watch hawks and a friendly rabbit.

Total involvement
Just as content are Barb and John Heard who last July moved into a loft bungalow at Swan Lake Village, an architectural gem located in Markham, on the outskirts of Toronto, with a lakeside setting that could hardly be more different from Royal Oak Estates.

The Heards’ 2,200-square foot home — with soaring windows, bright vistas and wide-open living areas — cost over $400,000 and involvement was exactly what this couple was looking for.

As soon as they moved in, Barbara threw a cocktail party for other newcomers on the street. They’re now part of a bridge marathon with 25 other couples, and Barb can’t wait for the indoor pool and 18-hole putting course to be finished.

Although gated communities like Swan Lake have been criticized by some as overly insular, John, 70, and Barb, 65, like the feeling of security and purchased knowing their place would be safe if, as in the past, they spent winters down south.

The restrictions
Not everyone, however, is completely happy with the retirement community lifestyle. “I’m not the one to ask,” says the first man I talked to at Leacock. “I don’t like it here.” Why? “One word: restrictions!”

Like any condo, there are rules and regulations about what owners can do to the outside of their properties, and this man had undergone a run-in with the developer over planting trees. Why doesn’t he move? “I don’t think I would get my money out,” he says.

“But there have to be rules, or there would be chaos,” argued one neighbour.

Couples don’t always see eye-to-eye about their retirement home choice either. At Black Creek, a gated modular home development near Niagara Falls, Bill Murray tells of the shock he had when he was laid off at age 57 after 39 years at the same firm.

At his wife, Thelma’s, suggestion, they put their house in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, on the market and went looking for a cheaper alternative.  They had an $80,000 cushion after buying their double-size two-bedroom home at Black Creek.

Bill loves sitting in the four-season room they’ve added on, watching the stars at night, and has a part-time job driving to the airport for Niagara Air Bus. 

However, when Thelma arrives home from her aquafit class at the spiffy Blue Heron community centre, it turns out she has reservations. She loves the range of social activities at Black Creek, but objects to paying the $400 a month rental fee for their land-lease lot.

Re-sale prospects
She’d prefer to move to a retirement community where they would own their lot and be nearer their grandchildren.

But 32 out of the 200 Black Creek homes are on the resale market, most for about $20,000 or $30,000 less than new units cost.

“We haven’t a hope in hell of getting what we paid. And he’s not moving,” she says with a nod in Bill’s direction. “I’m happy here,” she insists, “but I want to see more of my grandchildren.”

Resale values are a sore point in some communities, yet at Vineland’s Heritage Village there’s actually a waiting list of potential buyers. Partly because the development is completed and sold.

Also the architecture – the condo bungalows are built around courtyards reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia – is attractive, the recreation facilities, including a gorgeous pool, are in place, and the location, among peach and apple orchards, is hard to beat.
I find Audrey and Bob Day carpet bowling with their friends at the Heritage Club (a $40 a month fee).

“We came here to get rid of a big garden and snow-shoveling,” says Audrey. “I wouldn’t go back to the city if you paid me. The traffic is terrible.”

Proudly they show me their loft bungalow, a charming two-bedroom home with wood-paneled sunroom looking out on landscaped grounds, and talk of the value of good neighbours, one of whom had come over and taken down their Christmas icicle lights that morning without having to be asked.

It’s a theme you hear in every retirement community – neighbours who have time for each other. Perhaps it’s the best medicine of all for a long and healthy life.

Next page: Fewer crowds, more beauty?

Less crowded places
Equally happy, it seems, are people who reject the elaborate recreational facilities found in places like Briar Hill and opt for back-to-nature. The Barrows had lived in some Ontario’s beauty spots during Dave’s career with provincial parks. But when he took early retirement and they went looking for a place to settle, they found many of these Shangri-las were crowded and over-developed.

Instead, they found their little bit of paradise on the remote and starkly beautiful Bruce Peninsula at a development called Lakewood. Although promoted to 50-plussers, Lakewood also has young families.

“We didn’t feel a traditional retirement community was for us,” says Dave, 55.
“We enjoy seeing kids around,” says wife Laureen. “I also love the idea we have nearly a two-acre lot with trees,” she says.

They had their low-maintenance 1,200 square foot house custom built, total cost $154,000, enjoy walking on six miles of trails and lakeside boardwalk, and, in summer, spending time at nearby provincial parks.

Modular homes
If you want to keep it really simple, you can buy a comfortable retirement home for remarkably little today in Canada’s modular home parks.

Units at Georgian Glen Estates in Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, for instance, cost less than $50,000 plus about $400 a month for taxes and land lease.

There’s no clubhouse, but the display of plaques on the wall at Ric and Carole Hawley’s place attest to their community involvement. He’s in the Kinsmen, she’s a Lioness, and living in a small town, says Ric, makes it easy to get involved: “How many towns are there where the mayor fills up your gas tank!”

Wasaga can be noisy and crowded on summer long weekends, and residents learn to do their shopping at other times. Winters they have it to themselves, and Carole, Ric and their family celebrated New Year’s gathered in a tent for a barbecue on the beach. It was wonderful.

Who says the retirement years can’t be golden?