55+ Households are Nearly Everywhere

Special Studies, July 5, 2012
By Paul Emrath, Ph.D.
Economics and Housing Policy Group
National Association of Home Builders

Report available to the public as a courtesy of HousingEconomics.com

As more baby boomers approach retirement and the average age of the U.S. population increases, many businesses—including home builders—are showing increased interest in designing products that appeal to customers age 55 or older. According to NAHB’s long-term forecast, the share of households headed by someone age 55+ will grow every year through 2019, when the 55+ category will account for nearly 45 percent of all U.S. households.

How is this growing 55+ housing market segment distributed across the country? Although parts of the sunbelt have successfully managed to attract older Americans, the effect of this on other parts of the country can be overstated. With a few exceptions, the age distribution doesn’t change drastically depending on location, so most places with a substantial number of households also have a substantial number that are age 55+.

Looking at the incidence of 55+ households with data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), this article finds that

  • About 38 percent of U.S. households are headed by some age 55+.
  • In every state, the 55+ category accounts for over 30 percent of all households.
  • The 55+ household share is also over 30 percent in 97 percent of all counties.
  • At the high end, 44 counties have a 55+ household share of over 60 percent.
  • Five Florida counties stand out, combining a 55+ household share over 60 percent with relatively large populations (at least 38,000 total households).

The Data

The data used in this article come from the ACS, which has replaced the decennial census long form questionnaire (last used in 2000). An advantage of the ACS is that it collects data on a continual basis every year. A complication is that the ACS needs to accumulate data for 5 years to generate a sample large enough to generate tables for the smaller geographic areas.

This article is based on 5-year ACS estimates from data collected over the 2006-2010 period, providing detail on all counties (and county equivalents such as parishes in Louisiana, independent cities in the Northeast, and areas defined by the Census Bureau were there technically are no counties in Alaska). Data from the ACS come in several forms. For housing studies that involve geographic detail, NAHB maintains a data base of ACS “summary files” on its network. The latest, 2006-2010 summary files became available in a form that could be downloaded and processed early in 2012.

The article looks at ACS summary file estimates of households headed by someone age 55 or older. Fifty-five is a natural cut-off for studying housing markets established by federal law that governs age-restricted housing. Amendments to the 1968 Fair Housing Act passed in 1988 and 1995 now allow housing to be age restricted under one of three conditions. The condition that’s easiest to use in a typical single-family community is that it demonstrates the intent to house people age 55 or older and has at least one person age 55+ in 80 percent of its occupied units.[1] Even if not explicitly age-restricted, a community may include amenities that the developer suspects will appeal to 55+ buyers, but it is not legal to target or market the homes exclusively to households without children unless the community is age-restricted in accordance with the amended Fair Housing Act.

55+ by State

Overall, the 2006-2010 ACS estimates show 43.9 million households headed by someone age 55+, accounting for roughly 38 percent of all U.S. households. Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the differences in the 55+ share are relatively modest, confined to a fairly narrow band of 31 to 45 percent (rounded to the nearest full percentage point). Thirty-two of the states are clustered in a particularly tight band between 37 and 40 percent (Figure 1).

 Figure 1 shows number of households headed by someone age 55 plus, by state

At the top end of the scale , the 55+ share of households is 45 percent in West Virginia, followed by Florida (44 percent), Hawaii and Maine (43 percent each), and Pennsylvania and Montana (42 percent each). Within this group, Florida and Pennsylvania stand out as two of the largest states in the country, in terms of total population and households. The two are growing at different rates, however. From 2000 to 2010 the population of Florida increased by 18 percent, compared to only 3 percent for Pennsylvania.[2]

At the other end of the scale, Utah and Alaska are the only states where fewer than one- third of the households are age 55+. This still seems sufficient to support 55+ development, based on web advertisements for 55+ communities in Utah and Alaska.

None of the eight states with a 55+ household share lower than 37 percent are located in the Northeast or Midwest regions (although Minnesota comes close). Other than this, there is no strong geographic pattern to the incidence of 55+ households by state. New Mexico is one of the “older” states (with a 55+ household share of 41 percent), but borders two of the “younger” states, Texas and Colorado (each with 55+ shares under 34 percent).

Table 1, available in the “Additional Resources” box at the top of the article, shows the percentages (55+ share) and number of households in each state. For readers interested primarily in either owner-occupied or rental housing, the number of 55+ homeowners and renters are shown separately. In every state (excluding the District of Columbia), more than 70 percent of 55+ households are homeowners[3]. Because some developers of active adult properties believe their communities appeal most strongly to residents under age 75, Table 1 also shows separate counts of owners and renters in the 55 to 74 age bracket. These show few drastic differences from the counts of all 55+ households, as a large majority (at least 69 percent) of 55+ households are under age 75 in every state.

55+ by County

Because individual counties in general contain fewer households than individual states, the 55+ shares for counties naturally show a wider range of variation. Even so, for 90 percent of all 3,143 counties and county equivalents, the share of households age 55 or older lies between 32 and 55 percent.

The extreme cases tend to be scattered geographically. Even the “youngest” states of Utah and Alaska contain at least one county (or county equivalent) where more than half of the households are 55+. The “oldest” states of West Virginia and Florida both contain counties where the 55+ share is well under 35 percent. Counties with relatively low 55+ shares are often interspersed with counties where the 55+ share is quite high, especially in the western part of the country (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Incidence of 55+ Households by County

Gunnison County in Colorado, where only 29 percent of the households are age 55+, lies adjacent to Hinsdale County, one of a handful of counties in the southern part of the state where the 55+ share is over 60 percent.

Some of the extreme cases of "young" and "old" counties don’t contain many households. At the low end of the scale, only the least populous county in the country—Loving County in Texas, with a total of 22 households—has no households at all age 55+. Next is Chattahoochee County in Georgia, with 2,537 total households and a 55+ share of 15 percent. Except for these two cases, at least 22 percent of the households are 55+ in every other county.

At the other extreme are two counties where 55+ accounts for over three-fourths of all households: Mineral County, Colorado and Sumter County, Florida. Mineral County contains only 440 total households, but Sumter County has well over 30,000. In fact, of the 44 counties in the country with a 55+ household share of at least 60 percent, each of the 5 located in Florida (shown in Figure 3) contains at least 38,000 households. None of the remaining 39 outside of Florida has as many as 12,000.

Figure 3. Only U.S. Counties with Over 30,000 Households & 60% Age 55 or Older

Table 2, also available under “Additional Resources,” shows the total households and the 55+ share for all counties. The table also shows where each county ranks in terms of its 55+ share, both within each state and for the country as whole. Again the number of 55+ owners and renters, and the 55-74 bracket, are shown separately, although the results offer few surprises. The outliers tend to be counties with small populations or places where the anomalies are well understood. For example, the 55+ homeownership rate is under 30 percent in Manhattan and the Bronx, where apartment renting in general is known to be prevalent.

Summary and Conclusion

Using data from the 2006-2010 ACS summary files, this article provides information on the incidence of 55+ households in every state (Table 1) and county (Table 2). At the state level, the ACS-based tables show that 55+ households are virtually everywhere, in the sense that the 55+ age bracket accounts for over 30 percent of all households in every state. If we define 55+ communities as those that offer either recreational or supportive services, 55+ development should be possible in every state where population density is sufficient to support new communities of a size that can provide such amenities—with the important caveat that the amenities need to be attractive enough to entice residents away from other housing options.

At the county level the situation is more variable, but even here 97 percent of the 3,143 counties (and county equivalents) in the U.S. have a 55+ household share of at least 30 percent.

At the top end, there are 44 counties where the 55+category accounts for more than 60 percent of all households—and not exclusively counties with extremely small populations. For developers trying to locate 55+ markets that are exceptional in some sense, the 5 counties in Florida that have both a 55+ household share above 60% and more than 38,000 total households form a distinct category.

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Table 1 (PDF)
Table 2 (PDF)
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[1] For more detail, see HUD’s “Questions and Answers Concerning the Final Rule Implementing the Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995.”

[2] State Population - Rank, Percent Change, and Population Density: 1980 to 2010

[3] The homeowner percentages are based on households—i.e., occupants of housing units—so older citizens living in a dwelling the Census Bureau considers to be group quarters (e.g., skilled nursing facilities) rather that a housing units are excluded from both the numerator and denominator of the percentage. The Census Bureau now consistently tries to count most assisted living facilities (which often seem to straddle the boundary between housing units and group quarters) as housing units.