Lynnley Browning: Co-housing retirement — a package of home, neighbors and friends

Lynnley Browning, on

Published in Business News

Friendships and social interactions during retirement years play a key role in emotional wellbeing, physical hardiness and happiness, according to scores of scientific studies.

The National Institute on Aging says that older people with "social capital" -- a term for meaningful relationships with family, friends and neighbors -- have an 85% chance of being in very good to excellent mental health, vs. 25% for loners. As for physical health, not having friendships and social interaction is as harmful as smoking or obesity.

The challenge as you age: Friends and children move away, work connections fade, your circle of connections shrinks.

Enter co-housing (community housing). Think of it as social capital on steroids. Rooted in a dormitory-like lifestyle, co-housing revolves around like-minded homeowners living in independent households that are grouped together in a common space, usually attached condos or homes clustered together. Homeowners are typically expected, but not required, to prepare and eat weekly or monthly group meals in a communal kitchen and dining room. They share resources, like books and household tools, and organize lectures and outdoor activities.

With several dozen households each, they're much smaller than sprawling retirement communities like Leisure World or The Villages in Florida (you can check those and others out on Unlike traditional retirement villages, co-housing communities don't have resort-style amenities like tennis courts and pools, onsite medical services or assisted living centers. Some are restricted to people 50 and older, and many that aren't are mostly home to older people. The Cohousing Association of the United States lists about 170 co-housing communities as established and another 140 in development:

Ideally, assuming everyone has their own unit, there's a nice mix of privacy and togetherness. But you'd need to ask yourself (and perhaps family members) about your comfort and role in group situations. Some of us find other humans more annoying as we age. And we also tend to have thin skin -- so that being left out of a clique can be painful. Your due diligence should be as much about the fellow residents as the structure you'd be buying.

If you're looking to downsize, the adults-of-all-ages Wolf Creek Lodge in Grass Valley, Calif., as of this writing had a 630-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath condo with vaulted ceilings and a front porch for $302,000. Dedicated garage parking and storage run an extra $13,000, and homeowners association (HOA) fees start at $324 a month. The main amenity for the roughly three dozen households northeast of Sacramento, next to Tahoe National Forest, is an eight-acre nature preserve with a creek.

For comparison, a 673-square-foot, one-bedroom nearby that's not in the community is listed on Zillow at $305,000.

Bull City Commons, now under construction in downtown Durham, N.C., has a 690-square-foot, one-bedroom condo for $272,000 and a 1,295-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath unit for $510,000. A new multigenerational building of 23 condos near Duke University, it lets you choose your flooring, countertops, cabinets and appliances. HOA fees aren't listed. Notably, it asks buyers to put down 40% of the sales price.


For comparison, Zillow lists a nearby 1,500-square-feet, three-bedroom, two-bath standalone house at $435,000.

Communities in areas with a high cost of living, such as Cambridge, Mass., or California's Silicon Valley, are pricey, naturally. Trulia estimates a 1,735-square-foot, three-bedroom condo in the upscale Mountain View Cohousing Community in Mountain View, Calif., less than 10 miles from Palo Alto, at $1.8 million. Condo fees are an extra $630 to $725 per month. Amenities in the common house include a fully equipped gym and state-of-the-art media room with home theater. The adults-of-all-ages project is currently sold out.

Co-housing began organically decades ago with homeowners coming together to buy neighboring properties. Now, future homeowners are banding together to construct new buildings. AARP says 64% of residents are over age 50, and skew toward older, highly educated women with higher incomes.

You're not headed toward a lonely, early death if you don't opt for one. There are plenty of ways to stay connected to people if you downsize to another city, as my colleague Mark Stein writes about here:

But for established communities, you have to be prepared to move fast, as units tend to pop up for sale on the open market infrequently. The Cohousing Company, part of a California-based architecture firm that has designed and built 12 high-end communities, runs a workshop for people who want to create their own.

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