Home sweet homes

Baby boomers looking for an escape - or a status symbol - are buying vacation homes.

Three years ago Deva and Stan Taffel, eager for temporary escapes from telephones and computers, began looking for a vacation home. When they found a 1926 two-bedroom cabin on a creek in the mountains three hours from their home near Los Angeles, they say it was a domestic version of love at first sight.

"It's a welcome respite from our busy lives," says Mrs. Taffel, a life-enrichment coach for women. "We go to the mountains and sit outside and listen to the stillness."

With that purchase the couple joined a growing number of Americans, dubbed "splitters," who divide their time between two homes. Sales of vacation homes have surged in the past few years, accounting for 13 percent of all homes purchased in 2004, according to the National Association of Realtors in Washington. The median price of vacation properties purchased that year was $190,000.

"We think 2006 will be another record for second-home sales," says Walter Molony, an analyst at the association. He describes the typical vacation-home buyer as a middle-aged, middle-income baby boomer.

A new survey of second-home owners finds that for those with families scattered around the country, a vacation home "gives them a central hub," says Kyle Reinson, a spokesman for WCI Communities, a housing developer in Bonita Springs, Fla. "The family seems to be a prevailing reason why folks are splitting their time, so they can bring those connections back together."

If the vacation-home trend continues, Mr. Reinson adds, it will "signal a sea change in American lifestyles."

Some owners buy a second home as an investment. For others, it offers a place for physical activity - skiing, snowboarding, waterskiing. Many in the WCI survey want amenities such as a swimming pool, nature trails, boating, and golfing. A growing number also want a home office.

Others use it as a badge to proclaim status. "Some people buy second homes for what we call 'badging,' " says Patricia Breman, a senior consultant for VALS, a market research firm in Menlo Park, Calif. "It's a way of saying 'I've arrived, I'm successful, I can afford to do this.' "

These "badgers," she says, "want to be in a place where there are other people like them. They want nice restaurants, nice shops, and things to do to entertain the kids."

Other splitters prefer a rustic setting that allows them to get back to nature and live a simpler life. Ms. Breman has spent time with a friend who owns a vacation cabin in West Virginia with no electricity or plumbing.

"It was so far back in the woods that there was no cellphone service," she says. "It allowed me to become invisible. So many people are wired 24/7 that becoming invisible is a new luxury."

Whatever the reason for the second address, owners acknowledge that maintaining two places brings challenges.

Last year, to maximize the time they could spend at their cabin, the Taffels sold their house and moved to an apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "It was a means to make the whole second-home lifestyle more enjoyable," she says. "When we owned our house, my husband would say, 'Do you want to go to the cabin this weekend?' I'd look at my garden and say, 'I can't.' You don't want to be tied to the place you're trying to get away from."

More than one-quarter of vacation homes will become primary residences after retirement, the National Association of Realtors says.

Carol and John Tenedine commuted for a year between their residence in Connecticut and a seasonal home in Florida. They made about four trips a year, spending up to 10 days per visit. Eventually they sold both homes and bought a bigger house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. They expect to buy a second home in Pennsylvania, where their son lives.

"It was important to us to have a place when our families and close friends come down to visit," Mrs. Tenedine says. They chose a home in a gated community with a clubhouse, exercise facilities, and a garage. They did not want a golf or tennis community. Like other splitters, they're home is close to an airport.

Even snowbirds are changing their routines. Instead of one extended stay in the Sun Belt during the winter - the typical pattern - some, like Tom Voell, shuttle between north and south.

Three years ago, after renting a condo in Florida for a decade, the Voells, of Wauwatosa, Wis., bought a condo on Marco Island, Fla. They make at least five trips during the winter, staying up to three weeks every month. While they're away, they rely on their daughter and friends to shovel snow, pick up mail, and look after the house.

They return to Milwaukee to take care of business and spend time with family and friends.

"I'm from a large extended family," Mr. Voell says. "You miss things if you're not there. All of a sudden you're unengaged from some of these family things."

Having two addresses also means having two sets of friends, although some splitters find that it takes time to make new connections. "We haven't gotten into things here [in Florida] yet," Voell says. "We'd like to, but we're just not that engaged in the community yet." He checks the Internet for cultural and recreational activities.

WCI's survey of splitters finds that, on average, the idea of owning a second home begins at age 45 and the purchase takes place two years later. At least half visit their second home five times a year. More than half average one to three days at their second home per visit. Those who live out of state stay at least a week.

Asked about the worst aspects of owning a second home, one-third of survey respondents listed maintenance, repairs, and upkeep. Fifteen percent cited taxes as the biggest drawback.

Splitters spend nearly $1,000 a year on repairs and maintenance at their second home, WCI finds. They also spend about $800 annually on remodeling, accessories, and necessities.

To minimize the hassles of a second home, some developers, including WCI, offer a concierge service. Owners can hire a concierge to come in before they arrive to clean, remove dust covers from furniture, and be sure the phone and electricity are on. They can even arrange for groceries to be delivered.

For some owners, "splitting" may be a solo act. Four times a year Mark Miller drives his Toyota Prius between Lancaster, Pa., and Green Valley, Ariz. He relishes the warm climate for swimming, walking, and biking. His wife prefers Pennsylvania, so they talk every day via a computer picture phone.

For others, like Scott Testa of Blue Bell, Pa., the best solution is to sell. For 10 years he and his wife have owned a vacation house on the New Jersey shore, two hours from their home in suburban Philadelphia. They spend three or four weeks a year there.

"The thrill has worn off," he says. "We have found that it's more hassle than it's worth. Stuff breaks. You have renters. It's a responsibility." He feels obligated to use the vacation home when it is not rented, but adds, "I want to go to other parts of the country and the world, and not be obligated to go to one house."

The couple is considering selling both houses and buying a larger primary home.

Susan Newman, who commutes between two houses in New Jersey, also describes the routine as hard work. Noting that she and her husband have "oodles of company," she says, "It's a lot of food preparation."

Beyond that there is the transition between houses - leaving one life for another life. "You just don't walk into one place and settle down immediately," she says.

As an author, most recently of "The Book of No," Newman can work in both places. But, she says, "You don't always have to go. You can say no. You don't want to be a prisoner of your second home. It's an inanimate object. You don't want it to be running your life."

Summing up her own balancing act, Taffel says, "It is important to realize that you probably will feel divided. Inevitably something you want is at the other house, or a project you want to work on is pulling you from one place to the other. You do have to decide which is most meaningful and relaxing. It takes a great deal of organization to keep track of all that goes into running two homes and having twice as much to take care of. To us, it is worth it and has changed our life for the better. It has brought a great deal of peace and tranquility."

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