Households age 55 or older form an important part of the housing market. They define a distinct class of housing, as 55 is the youngest age cutoff mentioned in any of the criteria under which it’s possible legally to build age-restricted housing for older persons.
This article looks at how many households headed by someone age 55+ there are in the United States and where they’re located. The article is based on new American Community Survey data released by the U.S. Census Bureau at the end of 2015. The data show that, in the U.S. as a whole, about 42% of all households are headed by someone age 55+.
Other highlights include:
In every state, the 55+ category accounts for over 34% of all households.
In every county, 55+ category accounts for over 20% of all households.
In 99% of the counties, 55+ accounts for over 30%.
At the high end, 112 counties have a 55+ household share of over 60%.
In the U.S. there are 13 “top 55+” counties, where 55+ not only accounts for over 60% of all households, but where there are more than 20,000 55+ households in total. Ten of these are in Florida, two in Arizona, and one in Massachusetts.
The American Community Survey (ACS) has taken the place of the decennial Census long form questionnaire that, up until 2000, collected basic data on housing, income and other characteristics of the U.S. population. The ACS was first fully implemented in 2005 and therefore just passed its 10th birthday. Strengths of the ACS include its large budget (over $200 million a year) with a carefully designed and correspondingly large sample size (over 3.5 million homes a year) that covers the entire country in a consistent way and allows for tabulations at a detailed level of geography.
The main advantage of the ACS over the decennial Census is that new data become available once a year instead of once a decade. The trade-off is that the ACS needs to accumulate data over a five-year period to produce a sample roughly equivalent to that of the decennial Census. If you want to look at smaller geographic areas, like all counties in the country, you need to use these “5-year Estimates.”
Because this article includes statistics for all counties in the country, it uses the 5-year ACS estimates from data collected over the 2006-2010 period that were released by the Census Bureau on Dec. 3.
The article looks at five-year ACS estimates of households by age, with an emphasis on households headed by someone age 55 or older. As mentioned in the introduction, 55 is a natural cut-off for studying housing markets due to the 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% of its occupied units, and complies with HUD guidelines for verifying the age of its occupants. 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 accord with the amended Fair Housing Act.
55+ Households by State
Overall, the 2006-2010 ACS estimates show a little over 48 million households headed by someone age 55+ in the U.S., accounting for roughly 42% of all U.S. households. Although the percentage is different in different states, the variation is relatively modest. Of the 51 states (including the District of Columbia), 35 are clustered in in a very narrow band with a 55+ share of all households between 40 and 45%, and no state has a 55+ share under 30% or over 50% (Figure 1).
At the top end of the scale, the 55+ share of all households is over 45 percent in seven states: West Virginia (48.3), Florida (47.7), Maine (47.1), Hawaii (46.2), Vermont (46.1), Montana (46.0) and Pennsylvania (45.7). This list includes a couple of large states, like Florida and Pennsylvania, each of which has population well over 10 million, as well as couple that are relatively fast growing. According to the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates, Florida has been the sixth fastest growing state in the country (with a population that increased by 5.8 percent from 2010 to 2014), and Hawaii is twelfth fastest (population increase of 4.4 percent).
At the other end of the scale, only in Utah and the District of Columbia are the 55+ household shares under 35 percent—and only slightly under. Households headed by someone age 55 or older account 34.3 percent of all households in the District, and 34.8 percent of all households in Utah.
Table 1, available in the “Additional Resources” box at the top of the article, shows the number of 55+ households in each state, along with the 55+ category as a share of all households. As a group, 55+ households have a tendency to be owners rather than renters. The ACS data in Table 1 can be used to show that over 70 percent of 55+ households own their own homes in every state (excluding the District of Columbia).
55+ Households by County
The 5-year ACS release contains estimates of households by age for every county in the country. Compared to states, counties are considerably smaller and more variable. Even so, in every one of the 3,142 counties (including county equivalents like the parishes in Louisiana, independent cities in Virginia and Census designated Areas in Alaska) in the U.S., 55+ accounts for over 20 percent of all households. In fact, for 3,114 of the 3,142 (more than 99 percent of them), 55+ accounts for more than 30 percent of all households. Even the “youngest” state of Utah has a county (Daggett) where nearly three-fourths of the households are 55+.
Among the 3,142 county and county equivalents, the “oldest” on a percentage basis is Sumter County in Florida, where 84.8 percent of the households are 55+. Sumter is a relatively large county (with over 45,000 households) that contains most of The Villages, which is essentially an entire city of age-restricted housing. Some of the counties with high particularly 55+ shares are much smaller. Daggett County in Utah, for instance, is the third oldest county in the country, with 74.6 percent of its households age 55+, but there are fewer than 300 households total in the entire country. Because of their small populations, some of these counties will be of limited interest to developers.
From a developer’s viewpoint, top 55+ counties should probably combine a high share and number of 55+ households. Figure 3 shows the counties with top 55+ housing markets, defined as counties that satisfy two criteria: 1), over 60 percent of the households are headed by someone age 55+, 2) the county has a minimum of 20,000 of these 55+ households. Only 13 counties satisfy both criteria. Ten of them (Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Martin, Sarasota and Sumter) are in Florida. Two (Mohave and Yavapai) are in Arizona, and the remaining one is Barnstable County in Massachusetts.
Barnstable County consists of Cape Cod (along with some nearby islands) and is a well-known as a retirement destination. The two counties in Arizona are adjacent to each other in the northeast part of the state. Each has a population of about 200,000 spread over a relatively large geographic area (over 8,000 square miles for Yavapai, and over 13,000 square miles for Mohave).
The 55+ household counts and shares for these and all counties are shown in Table 2, also available in the “Additional Resources” box. In addition, Table 2 shows where each county ranks in terms of its 55+ share, both within each state and for the country as whole.
The 13 counties in Figure 3 are probably of special interest to developers and others looking for exceptional 55+ housing markets. However, as the first two figures have shown, 55+ households are spread across the entire country. The 55+ age bracket accounting for over a third of the households in every state and over 30 percent in 99 percent of the counties. This suggests that, if you can build housing with the right amenities at the right price (not a trivial undertaking), successful 55+ communities (including those that are explicitly age restricted as well as those with features like walking trails, a clubhouse or an outdoor maintenance service suspected of appealing especially to 55+ residents) should be possible pretty much anywhere population density is sufficient to support development with significant community amenities.
 More detail, including the other two criteria under which it’s legal to age restrict housing, is available on HUD's web site.
 Table 2. Cumulative Estimates of Resident Population Change for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico and Region and State Rankings: April 1, 2010 to Jul1 1, 2014 (MST-EST2014-02), U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division.
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