Just as reaching ages 18 and 21 are rites of passage for many young adults, attaining age 55 offers a new lease for certain homeowners, perhaps even more so in the Lowcountry than many metro centers. It's the minimum age to move into 55-plus communities — enclaves brimming with recreational amenities and geared to a demographic marketers call "active adults."

Locally, a quarter of residents are 55 and older, according to Census Bureau figures. "We have a large population in the area moving into the communities and folks from all over the country," says Diana Johnson, broker-in-charge of Realty One Group in Summerville. The sizable share of people born in or before 1963 mirrors the jump in neighborhoods designed for active adults as well as the emergence of real estate specialties aimed at seniors.

"Over the past 10 years, it has become a large part of the market," Johnson says. National 55-plus community pioneer Del Webb laid out a village in Cane Bay in the mid 2000s — Del Webb Charleston — and kicked off a new neighborhood at Nexton in the past year. More active adult communities large and small opened in the 2010s, including K. Hovnanian's Lakes at Cane Bay and Cresswind at The Ponds.

"Before Del Webb, we really only had Elms Plantation (in North Charleston). We have seven communities (now) in the tri-county area," she says.

Places such as The Elms, which dates to the 1980s, are expected to see a rise in sale prices as the number of existing homes on the market declines, says Debra Whitfield, real estate associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage who specializes in senior real estate. "I just sold the last home (currently on the market) in The Elms," she says. "That's going to be a hot little community. With all the the homes sold, prices are rising rapidly."

Whitfield sees costs escalating in newer 55-plus communities, as well. Del Webb Nexton, which kicked off sales six months ago, offers similar-styled homes to the builder's original community at Cane Bay yet listings average $50,000 higher, she says. Del Webb Charleston has about 15 homes for sale, or 1.5 percent of total homes there. "It's just a lack of inventory and people selling," she says.

The surge in 55-plus communities hastened the launch of real estate professionals who steer their business toward active adults. "We have three agents — Rich Walker, Jean Bullock and Sharon Rodgers — that primarily focus on the 55-plus communities," Johnson says. "They are becoming more of a specialty." Realtors can earn a senior real estate specialist, or SRES, credential for focusing on active adult neighborhoods.

According to Johnson, the senior communities tend to showcase smaller-than-average-sized homes, since residents in most cases are singles or couples and not families; ranch-style as seniors prefer not dealing with stairs; and special interior designs to make it easier to get around. "I assume one-story houses (or elevators) can be a preference, larger door widths can be important for wheelchair accessibility and maybe handicapped-accessible features in homes such as grab bars," Johnson says.

Barbara Delia, a Realtor with Southern Shores Real Estate who advocates for accessible housing, questions the residential industry's desire to make properties wheelchair-accessible or with wide enough entries, even in neighborhoods focused on senior residents. "You have to be able to get in," she says.

To be fair, older residents live all over, and some prefer to reside in enclaves without age preferences. Johnson says the choice of neighborhoods for retirees and older residents "varies widely depending on affordability." The 55-plus communities are more popular with active adults who like to congregate with fellow older, on-the-go residents.

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"There is a huge demand for the active lifestyle communities for seniors who live among their peers with more things in common and do not have to worry about the outside maintenance that comes with owning a home," she says. "The indoor/outdoor pools, golf and lawn care that is provided are huge draws for this consumer. They also like to join social clubs that include hobbies that they have such as bridge, dancing, arts and crafts," Johnson says.

Whitfield says she's noticed a downward trend in seniors who retire and relocate to warm weather South Carolina, although this spring and summer may be an exception as Northeastern natives thaw out from an unusually cold and stormy winter. "What I see, people out of the area, they come here to live the good life for so many years. (Then) they get pulled back to where their roots are from," she says.

For more information and photos, visit www.postandcourier.com/business/real_estate/jim-parker.

Reach Jim Parker at 843-937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.