March 14, 2016

Millennials, Boomers test builders’ marketing skills

PHOTO | Pablo Robles
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
Home builder Elizabeth “Liz’’ Verna, right, has found dwellings she’s building in Southington’s HillCrest Village appeal to both Millennials and Baby Boomers. Verna and other Connecticut builders say the right blend of amenities, marketing messages and patience are keys.
PHOTOs | Pablo Robles
A completed Verna Homes dwelling at Southington’s HillCrest Village.
Builders say interiors with luxe open areas and stone kitchen countertops are among popular amenities for Millennial and Boomer buyers.

Like many U.S. home builders, Elizabeth "Liz'' Verna is doing all she can to satisfy the nesting needs of two of today's most influential buyers — Baby Boomers and Millennials.

So, at HillCrest Village, the Southington subdivision in which Verna Homes is active, detached single-family dwellings, sized 1,700 square feet to 2,600 square feet, and priced from $369,000, are going up. Of its 98 lots, four are occupied and eight more are sold — half to Millennials, half to Boomers, Verna said.

"It truly is a Millennials subdivision and a Boomer subdivision,'' said the Wallingford-based home builder.

Like Verna, home builders in Connecticut and nationwide are weighing how to satisfy the needs of two buying groups that now make up the majority (63 percent) of U.S. home purchasers — Boomers born from 1945 to 1964, most whom are at or nearing retirement, and have sizable nest eggs; and Millennials, the oldest of whom turned 35 and still have their career and earnings peaks ahead of them.

Verna says she offers features she knows appeal to both groups, whether they be first-time or move-up buyers, or downsizers: Open, amenity-laden, luxe interiors for watching big-screen TVs or entertaining grandkids; smaller front- and backyards.

Other central Connecticut home builders paint similar portraits of Boomers and Millennials: Although decades separate the youngest of both groups, they are more alike in their housing tastes and preferences than they are different, which some Connecticut builders admit, makes it relatively easy to satisfy both.

Builders, too, say they have witnessed one defining characteristic of Millennials that separates them from, and makes them a more challenging sell than, their Baby-Boomer parents: Patience.

"The sense of urgency is no longer there with Millennials,'' said Torrington home builder Greg Ugalde, president of T&M Building Co. Inc. "They are very patient buyers who don't feel the need to have to jump into a home purchase.''

Of the eight neighborhoods in the state where T&M is active, Ugalde said, one in South Windsor appeals to both generational groups with a mix of 15 single-family houses, priced from $250,000 to $400,000; 12 duplexes; and 128 units of attached housing.

There, T&M pitches buyers/renters, he said, on the development's "maintenance-free'' aspects, plus choices of appliances and lighting packages, and amenities such as a wine chiller.

"They may be motivated in slightly different ways,'' Ugalde said, " … but at the end of the day, the most cost-effective buildings that we can introduce to the market are going to be welcomed by both groups.''

Vernon builder Santini Homes is concentrating mostly on building large, spacious apartments — 48-unit The Grand Lofts and 48-unit Deer Valley North — to rent at $950 to $2,500 a month predominately to Millennials, Vice President Kevin Santini said. As a hedge, it, too, is constructing a handful of single-family houses, priced around $600,000 and targeted at Boomers.

"We still get a ton of Baby Boomers on the high-end stuff,'' Santini said.

But the second-generation builder says it's just a matter of time before Millennials — who have been on the buying sidelines due to high student loan debt and a desire to rent — really begin flexing their fiscal and sartorial muscles on housing markets in Connecticut and across the U.S.

"The Millennials in the next five years will be buying lots of homes,'' Santini said.

The reason is that rising apartment rents in Greater Hartford, Connecticut and the nation increase Millennials' desire to own a home, said Joanne Carroll, chair of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut's Sales and Marketing Council.

This year, Carroll said, should be the first in some time in which permits for single-family homes increase as a percentage of all building permits. Last year, one of every three building permits issued statewide was for a single-family home; the rest were for dwellings with two or more living units.

"2016 home sales are off to an unusually strong start in the Hartford area, with January being the third consecutive month that both sales and prices of single-family homes and condominiums have increased,'' said Carroll, publisher/editor of the association's magazine, Connecticut Builder.

In Simsbury, Nelson Construction is marketing its new, 20-unit condo community — Mill Pond Crossing. Nearby, Nelson also is developing its 74-lot subdivision, Carson Way, off Stratton Brook Road.

President Chris Nelson said he's pitching both developments to empty-nesters and Millennials. So far, 10 condos priced $365,000 to $450,000 have sold, along with 16 single-family houses ranging from $420,000 to $550,000.

Nelson said that aside from pricing and features in the dwellings he's marketing, his company also pitches the town itself as an amenity, a concept embraced by buyers young and old alike.

In a nod to Millennials' comfort with technology, Nelson Construction's marketing homepage, for example, is laced with informational text, including details about the efficiency and sustainability of its homes' energy systems, and a photo gallery of its models. The website eventually will be upgraded with more and better photos, including video, Chris Nelson said.

"Millennials, in general, aren't reading print materials, because they do more online,'' he said.

Back at HillCrest Village, Christine Conroy, 26, and fiancÚ Matt Cassidy, 30, are settling into the three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot, two-story home they moved into last November. They were the first HillCrest buyers to close on their $399,000 dwelling, Liz Verna said.

Both from Seymour, Conroy was living with her parents, while Cassidy resided in a family condo in town. They originally were shopping for a condo of their own, but were losing hope of finding one with all the features they wanted until fate stepped in.

Conroy said her grandfather had spied HillCrest Village and suggested they go for a look. They attended an "open house,'' and within two hours, "we fell in love with everything and put down a deposit,'' said Conroy, who works in the estimating department of a Farmington electrical contractor. Cassidy is a pediatric nurse in Hartford.

"Yes, we spent a little bit more than the condo,'' Conroy said, " … but we know can stay there 10 to 20 years. It's something we can grow into.''

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