When people move to a new city, far away from where they once lived, the popular wisdom is to rent for a year before buying a home. That way, you have plenty of time to scope out numerous neighborhoods to determine exactly where you'd like to reside.
Seniors, though, have a different perspective. When they're checking out places to retire -- or join the 55-and-over "active adult" set -- their question is often, "How do I know I'm going to like the community I'm considering?"
That's the dilemma Mike and Robyn Bonitz faced when looking for a place to retire. After narrowing their choices to four retirement communities -- one in Summerville, South Carolina; one in Ocala, Florida; and two in Arizona -- the Connecticut couple gave all four a try, for a few days each. Now they're trying to decide between the two Arizona locations.
Staying at the properties for a few days "was extremely helpful," Mike says. "I would highly recommend it. You need a deep dive to see if these places live up to their reputations."
As it turns out, many major retirement properties offer so-called "discovery packages" similar to the ones the Bonitzes took advantage of. These "try before you buy" programs are an excellent way to experience the lifestyle as a resident.
I recently visited Sun City Festival in Buckeye, Arizona, which is one of the communities the Bonitzes are considering. I stayed with friends for six days, just across the street from the clubhouse and pool complex. I made great use of the workout room -- it was nice to lift weights with people my own age, as opposed to a bunch of young, muscular studs who make us old guys feel puny -- and the hot tub.
But had I known the Del Webb property offered a discovery package, I might have made use of that instead of inconveniencing my friends.
To attract buyers to Sun City Festival, the company offers furnished homes for two to four days, for up to four guests. They're not free, but the cost, depending on the time of year, ranges from just $49 a day for one or two people (in the summer) to $134 (in the high season, from February to April).
For that fee, you can live like an owner for a short while. The deal includes a golf cart, Wi-Fi, free use of the rec center, and golf at the residents' rate. The houses are outfitted with linens, towels, basic cookware and practically everything else you might need. Just turn the key and enjoy.
Sun City Festival opened in 2006, and some 3,000 people now live at the property. Residents enjoy amenities such as a golf course, tennis courts, cyber cafe, crafts center, classes sponsored by Arizona State University, numerous clubs and a playground for the grandkids.
Del Webb promises no high-pressure sales pitch with its discovery packages, but part of the deal is that you do have to meet with a sales consultant. Still, it beats staying in a hotel, and there's hardly a better way to relax and experience the property.
Sun City Festival is hardly the only place to offer a deal like this. Go to privatecommunites.com and click on the Discovery Packages tab to find dozens of others. Florida alone lists more than 30 places with "get acquainted" programs.
Here's the lowdown on a few other properties:
-- You can stay for four days and three nights at Retama Village, which is part of the Bentsen Palm gated community in Mission, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. No charge for folks 55 or older. The property has four unique neighborhoods designed for people of all ages. For sale are homes from $129,000 to $140,000, and lots from $20,000 to $90,000.
-- Shea Homes offers try-before-you-buy packages at all three of its Trilogy projects in California. For $299 at Trilogy at the Polo Club near Palm Springs, the "Taste the Good Life" program includes a three-day, two-night stay in a standard two-room hotel, plus a pair of spa tickets, a $100 dinner voucher -- and, of course, a tour with a sales rep. This active lifestyle resort will have 750 residences adjacent to two polo clubs. Prices range from the mid-$200,000s to more than $800,000.
-- At Soleil Laurel Canyon in the Georgia foothills in Canton, you can stay for three days, two nights in a fully furnished home with at least two bedrooms and two baths. For $79, you'll also get to enjoy a round of golf or tennis lessons for two, breakfast or lunch for two, and the obligatory private tour of the eight model homes, clubhouse and tennis center. The gated community has bocce ball, an arts and crafts center, greenhouse, outdoor amphitheater, walking trails and a horticulture center. Two- and three-bedroom ranch-style homes are priced from the low $200,000s into the $400,000s.