Are Second Homeowners The Next Wave Of New Hampshire’s “Silver Tsunami?”

One out of ten houses in New Hampshire is a seasonal home; the homeowners pay taxes, just like everyone else, while demanding only a handful of services.  But that could change if aging owners decide to retire here, turning their vacation homes into year-round residences.

Meet Jane

Amanda Loder / StateImpact New Hampshire

Retiree Jane Harrington loves her new home in New Hampshire, which offers some small town amenities and easy access to Lake Winnipesaukee

In her own way, Jane Harrington’s been a godsend for Moultonborough.  We’re walking along a stretch of lakefront properties when Harrington takes a deep breath and proclaims, “So we’re looking at Winnipesaukee here.  You can hear it.  It’s an absolute Zen moment!  If there’s a reason to move to New Hampshire, this is it!”

Harrington’s a 66-year-old retired school teacher from Boston.  About 10 years ago, she and her husband bought a second home in the woods within easy walking distance of Lake Winnipesaukee.  Although they started using it on weekends as a vacation home, Harrington says the endgame was always retirement. “Our location to me is perfect,” she says. “My husband wanted wilderness, and I wanted the feel of wilderness.  So he can feel he’s in the wilderness, but I know I’m just a few miles from a supermarket, a restaurant, and a movie theater!”

Then she lets loose with a long, good-humored laugh.  It’s the sound of someone who’s relaxed, comfortable, and happy with her new home.

The town of Moultonborough, where Harrington lives, has more second homes than any other town in the state.  According to the US Census Bureau, more than half the houses here—about 3,000—are seasonal homes.  Many of them are owned by out-of-state Baby Boomers with money to spend.  Pretty much everyone’s happy with this situation.  For a few months a year, people from outside New Hampshire pump a bunch of money into the town, pay taxes for schools their kids don’t use, and then they leave.  In terms of funding town services, for places like Moultonborough, it’s a good deal.

Floodgates Opening?

“The real question is how are these homes going to be occupied ten years from now?  Are they going to continue to be vacation homes, or are they going to become, in effect, retirement homes?”

That’s Russ Thibeault, the president of Applied Economic Research.  He studies New Hampshire’s real estate markets and economic issues, and raises questions like this, “If they become retirement homes, is there going to be a greater burden put on particularly social services and health care in the state, than we’re accustomed to?”

One thing’s for sure, communities like Moultonborough don’t offer a lot of services.  After all, only about 4,000 people live there all year.  They just don’t need a lot.  That might change.  But since Baby Boomers are just starting to retire, we don’t have a lot of concrete data right now on how many actually are turning their vacation houses into full-time retirement homes.  Anecdotally, Jane Harrington says she sees a demographic shift happening in her town.  She says she’s been meeting women who’ve owned vacation homes nearby for a few decades and have recently made the decision to live in town full-time.  “I think the floodgates are to open very shortly,” she says.

Demographer Peter Francese: An Alternative Perspective

Peter Francese is a demographic forecaster for the New England Economic Partnership.

“Belknap County, Carroll County…and…Grafton County… show extremely high growth in the 65 and older [demographic]. And coincidentally, they have very high percentages of dwellings that are second homes.

“It’s a lot like the fact that the consumption of ice cream and the commission of violent crime goes up together, precisely together. The two of them are obviously not related. Ice cream and crime are not related, except that they’re both related to temperature. It’s the same phenomenon here. The attraction of Belknap, Carroll, and Grafton Counties is they’re beautiful places to live. And in the case of Grafton County, it also has…very excellent medical care facilities…So they’re attractive to retirees for those two reasons. But the beautiful landscape makes them attractive for second homeowners. In other words, there’s this third factor that allows both of those to rise together.”

You can see county-by-county demographic tables created by Francese with Census 2010 data here.

But Are The Boomers Here To Stay?

In a recent community survey, Moultonborough’s seniors gave low ratings to the services catering to them.  That’s suggestive of the forces working on the town.  “But I think no one really knows what Baby Boomers want to have for their community well enough to say how they’re going to respond,” Steve Norton says.  He’s director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

“And that’s really who’s going to be driving these local decisions,” Norton says, “the Baby Boomers who are close to retirement or in retirement.”

Right now, a lot of Norton’s research is focused on how the state is aging.  But, he notes, not only do we not know the services these seniors will want—even if they do move here year-round—we don’t know how long they’ll stay.

“My grandmother hated this place.  Oh, she hated shoveling snow, she hated not being able to get where she wanted to go, for six months out of the year.  But she only started to hate it after she turned 70.  So we’re beginning to look at the migratory patterns of those over the age of 70.”

Norton notes that vacation communities are just one example of a demographic change the whole state faces.  Right now, Baby Boomers account for one-out-of-three state residents.  As they age, Norton says a “silver tsunami” will wash over communities in different ways.  It’s unclear what this will mean in the long term for individual towns like Moultonborough.  But for a state that’s historically lean on government services, it’s not too far-fetched to think that as the supply of seniors goes up—so will the demand for services.

(You can check out other stories from StateImpact’s vacation home series here, here, and here.)

Moultonborough Demographic Changes 2000-2010

Year Population 45-65 Percent Total Population Median Age
2000 1,462 32.6 4,484 46.6
2010 1,526 37.7 4,044 50.5
2000-10 Change 4.38% 9.81%


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »