Before and after the pandemic, coastal North Carolina represented a strong magnet for vacationers of all ages, as well as individuals aged 60 and over from other states looking to work remotely or retire in a pleasant climate.
In its seventh annual study of where retirees are moving, updated in April, SmartAsset examined U.S. Census Bureau data and found that the Wilmington area remained highly attractive to seniors. The group’s survey encompassed 146 of the country’s largest cities.
The good news? Wilmington placed sixth out of the country’s top 10 markets for in-migration by seniors and was the highest-ranking coastal city for relocation.
No city in the top 10 had a higher percentage of residents 60 and older than Wilmington, the SmartAsset survey stated.
In 2021, it added, “subtropical and beachy Wilmington had a net migration of 992 seniors” and “only 453 people aged 60 and up left Wilmington for another state – the lowest emigration rate for our top ten.”
Many seniors hold sizeable assets that are plowed back into the community for housing, food, health services and other uses, stimulating local businesses and helping create jobs, said Mouhcine Guettabi, an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business and regional economist, in a June WilmingtonBiz Magazine opinion piece.
But since Guettabi wrote those words, the economic worm has turned, especially in the housing sector. In the past several months, uncertainty over the nation’s economy has led many seniors to stay put as they stretch their dollars to fight inflation, avoid high mortgage rates and cross their fingers that a recession won’t materialize.
KEEPING AN EDGE
In Brunswick County, where 33% of the population is over 65 – a more than 12-point increase over 10 years – the number of housing units sold dropped by 8.9% in September 2023 compared to September 2022, while the average sales price month-over-month rose by 4.7%, according to the Brunswick County Association of Realtors.
The Cape Fear Realtors Association reports a similar pullback. In September, closed sales were down 16.58% compared to the previous year, while the median sales price was up 10.53%.
Despite market changes, Guettabi thinks Brunswick County is poised to continue to have an edge in attracting seniors to the region.
“The most likely explanation is the availability of land, relatively cheaper real estate, and proximity to the amenities available in Wilmington. It is also clear that many of the developments built in Brunswick are tailored towards that population,” he told the Business Journal on Nov. 19.
But while prices rose and sales ebbed, the financial profile of seniors who had already migrated into the Wilmington MSA continued to support the area’s economy, Guettabi told Leland Town Council recently. He said relatively hefty checks from Social Security and pensions, along with other assets, can create a floor of sorts for the local economy.
CATERING TO SENIORS
Like Brunswick County, the other area municipalities – New Hanover County, Pender County, and the city of Wilmington – also enjoy some economic buffers as a result of their senior populations, but less so, with the percentage of persons 65 and older who reside in the three jurisdictions weighing in substantially below Brunswick’s 33%: 19.4% in New Hanover, 18.6% in Pender and 17.5% in the city of Wilmington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quick Facts page, based on population estimates as of July 2022.
As for downtown Wilmington, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, Guettabi said there is no hard data on how much individuals or couples in their senior years have helped the riverfront district.
“I don’t have access to great data on this question, but the ‘luxury’ apartment trend has certainly allowed walkability and access to bars, restaurants. I don’t know the mix of residents, but the ‘eye test’ certainly indicates that a nonnegligible share of residents are people over the age of 65 … the over-65 population is also much better able to afford the high prices of downtown apartments,” the UNCW economist said.
Across the region, municipalities appear to be committed to meeting the core needs of seniors who currently call or will call the area home.
According to an AARP Public Policy Institute Community Preference Survey, 47% of seniors polled nationally seek proximity to a grocery store, 42% to a pharmacy, 42% to a park, 29% to a hospital and 29% to a place of worship.
With post-COVID ridership up on Wave’s fixed-route transit and plans for public outreach on a short-term transit plan, drug stores and green space popping up alongside new developments, Novant Health’s expanding area footprint, and a spectrum of houses of worship, the greater Wilmington area appears to be well along in satisfying the needs and preferences of seniors.
Yet, current economic conditions will put a damper on robust growth, according to Guettabi.
“In terms of forecasting growth, I think the area is slated for continued growth, but we can’t expect the pandemic area growth to continue in an era of higher interest rates.
“I think it would be a mistake to take the migration rates and extrapolate them forward,” he continued. “There is considerable research showing that high-interest rates dissuade people from migrating because it would mean selling homes where they have low-interest rates and trading them for higher interest rate homes. While the area is slated for continued growth, the macroeconomic uncertainty/high-interest rates coupled with the declines in excess savings will likely mean that migration rates will resemble the pre-pandemic era (rather) than the last couple of years.”
FROM THERE TO HERE
One local business has differentiated itself for individuals in their 60s who may still want to move to coastal Carolina.
While there’s no disputing that moving from one home to another can be one of life’s most stressful events, Carolina Move Managers has carved a niche within the relocation business that continues to assist over-60 individuals and families. The company aims to reduce the stress felt by seniors who confront everything from decluttering to packing to space planning and decorating at a new home, said Jane Roberts, the company’s owner and operator.
In 2009, Roberts joined the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers, which offers training and certification services to affiliates. The association has about 1100 members nationwide.
“Most of Carolina Move Managers’ clients are moving into retirement communities, either following family members to the area or having retired here a decade ago … While it is rarely the only reason for the move, COVID helped families everywhere realize that they missed one another and needed to consider living within easy reach rather than farther away from others. We have seen a slight uptick in this pattern, which has helped our own area boom in recent years at an unprecedented pace,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ crew reviews household possessions, helps with donations and consignment arrangements, and packs and unpacks the items clients want to keep as they move forward.
“This hand-holding approach gives most clients the confidence to move forward to a simpler home and a simpler lifestyle to go along with it,” Roberts said.
Jim and Peggy Mathis, who migrated to the area from Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2013, ended up using Roberts’ firm for five different in-market moves, the last one to Riverlights.
“Wilmington is alive and well, and with so much to offer working and retired people,” Jim Mathis said. “The beaches, the many companies, and the many retirement communities have something for everyone. I think that the economic conditions are well above most of the other communities in the country.”
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