The single-level home — that staple of post World War II suburbia — appears to be making a healthy comeback.

While single-story houses fell out of favor with ever-expanding families in the 1980s and '90s — in other words, those who favored McMansions where the kids could practically disappear into the upper level rooms — the trend is now reversing. Chalk it up to a need for aging baby boomers to simplify and downsize, and a desire to avoid falling on stairs — the most common cause of injuries among Cincinnatians of a certain age group.

The Avalon by Otterbein — a set of four “small house neighborhoods” in Warren County — is representative of the trend. “These are single-level ranches,” points out Don Gilmore, president and CEO of Otterbein Retirement Living Communities.  The Avalon is a residential community setting with all the health care services of a traditional nursing home, but with a twist: Each Avalon neighborhood is designed as a cul-de-sac of five houses with 10 residents in each house. A maximum of 50 residents will share each neighborhood.

“The small house model will be much more acceptable to boomers than the traditional nursing home setting,” continues Gilmore. “You get up when you want to get up, you eat lunch when you want to eat lunch. The focus is on autonomy and choice.”

James Burton, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Mason, totally agrees: “It’s often the case that people have to move out of their home of 30 or 40 years expressly because of the stairs.”

Retirement communities aren’t the only example of single-level living. Now homebuilders are getting into the

“The trends for baby boomers is to downsize from a current large home and move into a single-story home with lots of upgrades available to them,” says Susan Neff, sales and marketing director for Liberty Grand Villas in West Chester. “We like to say ‘upgrade your downsize’ because this group is looking for a new lifestyle.”

At the Woods on Wilkens, a $30-million condominium development from Gridiron Developers in Deerfield Township, the single-level aspect figures very much in the marketing of the community. The two-bedroom, single-floor condos feature cathedral ceilings, comfy dens and sun rooms, and such features as low bathtubs and cabinet space to accommodate aging homeowners. General manager Peggy Singson notes that a clubhouse and fitness center assures “there’s a sense of community here. The clubhouse, which is open 24/7, is where residents can meet other seniors and even have coffee together at breakfast.”

“We serve the empty-nesters, ages 60 to 80,” adds Gridiron President Mike Gates, explaing The Woods’ mission.
Residents such as Elizabeth and Cliff Klutts, both in their mid 60s, put a face on the lifestyle decision. Upon buying their condo at The Woods for $300,000, they quickly sold off their two-story, five-bedroom home in Lebanon.

Other local development companies are following suit, offering ranch condominiums at subdivisions such as the Heritage Pointe community in Mason, The Grove of Montgomery, Villages of Classic Way in Hamilton Township, and Walden Ponds in Fairfield Township.
A recent study by Vista Market Intelligence, in fact, indicated that 89 percent of the baby boomers surveyed said they’d prefer a master bedroom on the main floor of their next home, and 79 percent wanted a one-level house. As boomers turn into their 50s, 60s and 70s, the appeal of the single-story home is obvious: Homeowners can save on heating bills, get rid of the household clutter, and perhaps most importantly, cut down the risk of falling.

Older buyers and empty nesters who are looking to devote less upkeep on the exterior also contribute to the trend. A condominium “will provide them more leisure time, in that they no longer want to worry about shoveling snow, mowing grass and exterior repairs,” agrees Neff at Liberty Grand Villas. “A condominium community serves this purpose in allowing them a new home, freedom from the daily exterior work and, best of all, new friends and a clubhouse with pool, fitness center, media room and a social calendar.”
“One-level living is an exciting new trend in real estate that offers home-buyers a variety of options from smaller spaces to conveniently accessible floor plans to sprawling open spaces,” suggests Realtor Phyllis Alexander abut the homebuying trend among aging boomers.
In fact, the Census Bureau reports that 74 percent of all boomers spent at least some of their childhood in a one-level home, meaning the decision now to return to a single level is a means of coming full circle.

The ranch style has its origins in the Spanish colonial ranchos of the early 19th century, which were adobe dwellings with deep overhangs to block out summer sun. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright developed the style into his broad, horizontal Prairie School homes, especially the modern Usonian homes he designed for his middle-class clients (including one such home in the Gaslight Clifton district).

As American soldiers returned from World War II and received federal help to purchase their starter homes, builders sought to fill the tremendous need by favoring the ranch as simple to design and economical and quick to construct. The GI Bill helped finance the suburban home trend as well as the boom in babies.

Flash forward to 2006, when the Census Bureau announced the oldest of the baby boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 – officially began to enter their 60s. Some 7,918 Americans now turn 60 every day, and all are looking to chip away at the average $2,695 they spend on medical expenses every year.
The single-level lifestyle can be, at least in part, a medical decision. Among the materials that at least one builder hands out to prospective homeowners is a photocopy of a report that states falls account for 90 percent of all hip fractures among seniors.

Consider this: In Hamilton County alone, falls are responsible for more emergency room hospitalizations of older adults than any other cause, even outpacing traffic accidents. The highest rate of Cincinnati hospital stays due to falling occurred among females ages 55 to 64 years, according to a Hamilton County Health Department survey of hospital records for the years 2000 to 2004.

As older adults look to reduce their risk of falling and cope with the realities of aging (knee surgeries, arthritis and other impediments to climbing up to a second story), single-level homes seem an obvious way to go.

Some developers are using the catchphrase “transitional living,” which is defined as a floor plan connecting into one flowing space. Spaces in a transitonal home as largely clean and straight, with only a few curves.
The transition to the single-story house has even spawned its own magazine, Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Marvels, devoted to celebrating stylish living in what was the most popular style of home for half a century. Stories in the current issue include “Atomic Aussie: New Construction Down Under Channels the 1950s” and “Russel Wright, 20th-Century Tastemaker: The Designer’s Daughter on Growing Up Wright.”
The magazine’s editors seek to bust the myth that all such homes are simple single-story boxes with uncomplicated angles and no sense of style. In other words, ranches don’t necessarily have to be humble.

“My belief is the boomer population will really redefine retirement living,” concludes Gilmore of Otterbein Retirement Living Communities. “It will be entirely different than that of their parents or grandparents.”

Or to put it another way, flat is just fine by them. 
Retirement Checklist
As you plan for your retirement, keep these agenda items in mind:
Update wills, put in place trust agreements, and powers of attorney for healthcare and financial concerns
Explore long-term disability care insurance
Review life insurance policies
Estate planning – make sure all beneficiary designations are correct (I.e. “current spouse”) and minor children are covered by custodial account or trust
Understand that insurance (like an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) can be a great tool for replacing some of the wealth lost by Federal estate taxes