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Marketing to the Generations

Are you adapting your marketing to reach everyone from seniors to Generation Y? You should. Here’s why and how.   

Marketing to the Generations In the Jacksonville market, Generation Y buyers, who are in their 20s, typically buy inexpensive condos or town homes close to the beaches, shopping and clubs, according to Jan Shields, a 21-year sales associate with Watson Realty’s Atlantic Beach office. For Generation X buyers, who are in their 30s and 40s and usually raising families, finding the right suburban home with a good school system tends to be a top priority. High-income baby boomers, who are in their 50s and early 60s, are likely to snap up country club or waterfront homes, while seniors, who are age 65 and up may prefer secure condominiums or age-restricted communities.

Like many Florida sales associates, Shields serves customers and clients from all four generations and adjusts her approach accordingly. “We always sell a lifestyle,” she says. “That seems to be as important as the home for different age groups.”

Just 10 to 15 years ago, Florida’s real estate market was dominated by the postwar baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964). Today, these buyers share the stage with the Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1978), the fast-growing “echo boomers” (Generation Y, born between 1979 and 1994) and the senior generation (born before 1946).

“In Florida, you can sell real estate to buyers from their 20s to their 80s, and we have them all,” says Mike Pappas, president of The Keyes Co./Realtors® in Miami.

To market yourself effectively, you need to adapt your communication style to the age of the client, Pappas adds. “In talking with older clients, [sales associates] generally need to be more personal, more patient and more supportive. With younger clients, it’s all about quickness and speed. You have to be available and respond immediately when they want you.”

Younger buyers often move quickly to buy a home because they anticipate moving again in a few years. “They’re not looking for the perfect place,” says Beth Butler, chief operating officer of Esslinger Wooten Maxwell (EWM) in Coral Gables. “On the other hand, older buyers may be making a last-home purchase, and they want to feel secure with their decision—it definitely won’t be an impulse buy.”

Cover All Your Bases
In preparing their marketing plans, Florida sales professionals need to consider the age of their target audience, adds Butler. In general, older buyers prefer traditional media, such as newspapers and home magazines, while younger buyers primarily use the Internet. “Your marketing plan needs to include the right mix of media,” Butler says. “You need to cover all the bases, if you want to reach all four generations.”

Another key to successful marketing—especially in today’s stabilizing market—is knowing the most appropriate financing options for customers at different stages of their lives. A Gen Y buyer might need a low-rate mortgage to complete the transaction, while a downsizing senior buyer might need advice about estate planning or the tax consequences of selling an expensive home.

“Younger buyers typically need a lot more information on financing,” says Shields. “Retirees often pay cash, and the baby boomers usually have accumulated enough assets so they don’t worry about a loan.”

But Pappas says it’s important to remember that to be successful, sales professionals need to understand that real estate remains an individual business, despite similarities among clients and customers in different age bands. “Our profession is all about understanding each client and meeting those specific needs,” he says. “That’s what Real Estate 101 is all about.”

Here’s a closer look at the four generations now active in the Florida marketplace:

Generation Y
Veronica Pratile, a sales associate with Total Realty in DeLand, says Gen Y buyers are her favorite customers. “They’re starting from scratch and need a lot of attention,” she says. “It’s very satisfying to help them buy that first home.” For instance, Pratile enjoyed finding a lender who provided a 100 percent loan to one couple in their early 20s.

Throughout the state, a growing number of these “echo boomers” are becoming first-time buyers. In April, Century 21® released the results of a multigenerational national online survey that found Gen Y buyers are buying their first homes when they are younger (average age 26) than were their counterparts in Gen X (average age 29) and the baby boom (average age 29). However, since the youngest Gen Y’s were born in 1994 and are now only 11 or 12, it’s tough to say what the whole generation will do.

And Gen Y buyers will become an increasingly important part of the market in the next five to 10 years, according to another recent study, “State of the Nation’s Housing Market 2006,” by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University. That study notes that the rising number of younger, childless couples will strengthen the market for smaller homes.

Pappas says that Gen Y buyers tend to be hard workers who have been “multitasking” since childhood. “They’re very attuned to the balance of life,” he says, “and many young buyers are getting financial help from their parents and grandparents.”

Gen Y buyers include unmarried couples living together or friends who want to pool their financial resources to make an investment. “These are not just traditional married couples thinking about having a child,” says Pappas, “so you need to understand their motivations [if you are] to come up with the right solution.”

To reach Gen Y customers, real estate professionals need to use all the technology tools at their disposal. “You need a Web presence and you need to be accessible,” says Butler. “Along with e-mails, you’re likely to get a text message about wanting to see a property tomorrow morning. These buyers are used to instant gratification.”

Generation X
Kathy Lollis says Gen X buyers tend to be self-reliant and resourceful when looking for a home. “They’ve done a lot of research on the Internet and often know exactly what they want,” says Lollis, a sales associate with Century 21 First Realty in Tallahassee. “As a result, they require a lot less handholding.”

In Tallahassee, as in other metropolitan areas, the working-age Gen X buyer is an important component of the relocation and move-up markets. “We’ve seen younger buyers who are able to purchase larger, more expensive homes than was the case five years ago,” Lollis says.

A typical Gen X buyer might be a mid-range executive couple with young children that wants a home close to work and to good schools, adds Shields. “The layout of the home in terms of bedrooms and baths is also very important,” she says. “And they love media rooms.”

But not all Gen X buyers fit into a “traditional” suburban lifestyle. In Florida, the group of 30-somethings is highly diverse, including a large number of Hispanics and recent immigrants, who may be making their first home purchases at an older age.

The Harvard University study notes that foreign-born residents constituted 37 percent of the net growth in U.S. households from 1995 to 2005, bolstering the market for entry-level housing. “As the share of immigrant households in their 20s and 30s climbs, their presence in these housing markets will continue to grow,” the report said.

In serving Gen X clients, Florida sales professionals typically need to downplay the emotional side of the buying process, says Pappas. “Generally speaking, they’re the least likely generation to get swept up in the excitement of buying a home,” he says. “You need to take a very factual approach with them. Gen Xers tend to be skeptical people, and you need to be well prepared in advance.”

Gen Xers are likely to have spent a great deal of time researching neighborhoods and homes on the Internet before contacting a real estate professional. And they prefer communicating through online technology, Butler says.

“Any technology you use for reaching clients in their 20s, you can present to those in their 30s as well,” she says. “But the Gen Xers are a little more affluent, so you might want to supplement your online marketing by using upscale, trendy magazines.”

Baby Boomers
In marketing beachfront second homes, prestigious country club communities and luxurious urban condominiums, there’s one primary target: the baby boom generation. Buyers in their 40s and 50s tend to be affluent—in fact, one in four boomers owns more than one property, according to a recent study by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR).

“As a group, boomers are in their peak earning years and continue to wield great influence in the U.S. economy,” says David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist. “But they’re not homogeneous—there are significant variances in needs, behavior, attitudes and resources—and many have not adequately planned for retirement.”

Despite their numbers, the baby boomers, in some ways, are the most difficult clients and customers to reach effectively, says Butler. “You have to try everything with these clients,” she says. “There are still some boomers who don’t use computers, so you need to do direct mail and newspaper ads—but others are more comfortable with Web sites and e-mail. They’re all different.”

Christine Marriott, a sales associate with Century 21 Sunshine Realty in Clearwater Beach, says boomers—who make up the largest share of second-home buyers in her market—are increasingly comfortable with online technology. “I will set them up with a ‘flash’ application that keeps them updated on new listings,” she says. “Today, I get most of my leads from the Internet.”

For sales professionals, it’s essential to understand a baby boomer’s reasons for making a home purchase—upsizing, downsizing or investment. “Some buyers are doing well and want to move up to their dream home,” Pappas says. “Others have sent their kids off to college and don’t want to cut the lawn anymore. Still others are looking ahead to the next stage in life and thinking about retirement.”

Thanks to their numbers and affluence, the baby boom generation will continue to dominate the state’s high-end and preretirement markets for another decade. As Shields says, “Baby boomers are my most expensive clients. They want it all, and they can afford it. It’s a fun market to serve right now.”

Seniors
Since the 1950s, seniors have been a vital part of Florida’s real estate market. The Harvard University study notes that households age 70 and over are growing in number, thanks to longer life expectancy. That will intensify demand for second homes and active-adult communities, as well as for assisted-living housing.

Senior buyers enter the state’s market for a number of reasons: retiring to Florida, purchasing a second home or downsizing from a “high-maintenance” single-family house. Whatever the reason, they tend to move more slowly than younger generations— and they may not be tied to any specific local market.

“These buyers require more reassurance and want to know that you understand their needs,” says Lollis. “They often want to see more homes, so you can expect to do more driving around.”

Jassamine B. Redington, a sales associate with Condos & Castles Real Estate Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, says pricing may be more important to seniors than to baby boomers—although “sticker shock” can affect buyers of any age. “You need to take your time with older buyers,” she says. “You also need to do more advertising in magazines; while many of them are Internet savvy, others don’t have that expertise.”

In some cases, sales professionals will be working with a senior’s children or caretaker to identify an appropriate home near family members or a local hospital, says Pappas. “Don’t neglect those relationships with younger relatives.”

No matter how you slice it, serving each generation boils down to one thing—service.

Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer.