Baby boomer empty nesters are bringing new life to 1950s and 1960s ranch homes in established communities.
"Over the last two years, in particular, we are seeing empty nesters who are still working and living active lives coming to us because they want to purchase an older ranch home on a large lot that they can rework," said Roseann Schumacher, a real estate broker and owner of Century 21 Langos and Christian in Mount Prospect.
"For the most part, they are between the ages of 45 and 64. They want to stay in the same area because of work and family but most of them no longer want to live in a two-story colonial. They want one-floor living, the privacy and security of a single-family home, low maintenance and an attached garage," she continued.
"When we take them out, they are literally looking at each home with a different set of eyes than other buyers. They want a big lot so that they have room to expand the home and they are buying it with the intention of removing walls and totally reworking the insides," Schumacher said.
These buyers want to downsize, but they want to create open floor plans with wide doorways. They know which rooms they actually use and concentrate on them in their renovations -- family rooms, kitchen and master bedroom/bathroom suites.
"This group of buyers is not interested in resale because they don't anticipate leaving the home. So, they do what they, personally, want to do and that is to create an easy living space where they can move from room to room with ease and without stairs," she said. "In most cases they have lots of equity from their old homes so cost is not a big issue and they are wanting to get away from old colonial homes, which usually have no more than a powder room on the first floor."
The creation several decades ago of age-restricted communities on the edges of metropolitan areas tipped baby boomers off to what can be done in homes to make their lives more comfortable and convenient. But many of them don't want to leave their longtime communities.
They may plan to travel or go to a second home part of the year, but coming back to friends and family is important to them. Therefore, they aren't likely to pick up and move wholesale to a warmer climate, for instance, or to a far-flung community, Schumacher said.
Marty Meadow, vice president of the design department at Airoom Architects Builders Remodelers, with locations in Naperville and Lincolnwood, said he is seeing some of the same thing, although additions of first-floor master suites to existing two-story homes are still more common among empty-nesters, in his experience.
"We do have a retired teacher in Arlington Heights right now who bought a dated ranch home especially so that she could remodel it. She is having us add an attached garage and update the kitchen, laundry room and windows," Meadow said. "She doesn't want to leave (living near) the Arlington Heights library.
"We also see our well-healed clients adding exercise areas, hobby/craft rooms and doing major retrofits of the insulation since many of these homes built in the '50s and '60s are very poorly insulated," he said.
In essence, Meadow said, these homeowners are hiring companies like Airoom to transform ranch homes into the home of their dreams -- without stairs. And many want to stay in the more mature communities because they are familiar with them, but also because of the quality of those cities and villages' libraries, park districts and senior programming.
Ed and Linda Burns of Mount Prospect are perfect examples. They had raised their two children in a 1940s colonial in that village, living in the home for 17 years. But it was becoming more and more onerous for Ed to navigate the narrow stairs because he had ruined both knees playing years of recreational basketball.
"The old house also desperately needed to be updated because it had a very small kitchen with little storage and no bathroom or powder room on the first floor," Linda said, "so rather than renovating it, we started looking for a ranch home."
"Ed's knees were a big factor and we wanted to move to a house that we could enjoy for many years to come. So we started looking at ranch homes in the same general area because we wanted to stay in Mount Prospect," she said.
They weren't originally looking for a "project." They just wanted a three-bedroom ranch home with an open floor plan and an attached 2½-car garage. But they couldn't find one that fit the bill.
Then they found the home that they eventually purchased. It was located less than a mile from their longtime home and in an area they knew well. It was solidly built, had a huge yard, an attached two-car-plus garage and big windows. And, Linda added, it had great potential for being transformed into an open floor plan.
"This was the spring of 2008 and the market was crashing. We felt this house had a ton of potential and it was right where we wanted to be," she said.
"We had an inspector look it and he felt that the house had 'good bones' and wouldn't turn into a money pit. We also liked the fact that it had large windows, which is rather unusual in a ranch," Ed said.
So they listed their colonial and put in a contingent offer on the ranch. The road wasn't smooth, however. Others tried for the house, too, but in the end, the Burnses got the custom-built 1959 ranch with its two bedrooms, 1½ baths, living room, spacious dining room, outdated kitchen, three-season room and utility basement. They purchased it from an estate.
Ed and Linda, both of whom were 50 at the time, along with their 23-year-old daughter, moved into the house and lived in the outdated structure for six months while plans for the update were made. They hired Airoom to do the renovation, which started in the fall of 2008 and was completed six months later with the three of them living through the construction mess and havoc, knowing that the best was yet to come.
They removed the three-season room and added a master-bedroom suite, family room and informal dining space to the rear of the home. They also reconfigured and expanded the kitchen and laundry room area and created a hallway through part of the original second bedroom to provide easy access to the new master suite.
Hardwood floors were installed in all the new rooms.
The home grew from its original 2,000 square feet to its current 2,900 square feet and was completed by the spring of 2009.
They also removed the outdated half wall next to the front door, replastered ceilings, removed a large firebox next to the living room fireplace to further open up the living room/dining room connection, transformed a tiny office next to the kitchen into a spacious pantry, replaced the existing hardwood floors with wider planks, replaced the kitchen floor with hardwood and repainted every room.
"Airoom was great with the design of the kitchen area. We just couldn't figure out how to do it and they were wonderful," Linda said.
"Linda had a vision and Airoom understood it. They were totally in sync with what she wanted and it was great," Ed added.
"The house isn't huge but it fits us perfectly. At least once a week we still say to each other that this was the greatest thing we could have done," Linda said.
As for their advice to those who are contemplating renovating and expanding an existing ranch home, Linda smiled and said, "go for it, but don't try to live there during the construction."