In Cary, SearStone is one man’s dream – and a symbol of the senior-living housing market

aspecht@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2013 

  • Continuing care retirement communities in Wake county

    There are six continuing care retirement communities in Wake County, including SearStone.

    • The Cypress of Raleigh, 2008

    • Windsor Point, Fuquay-Varina, 1998

    • Glenaire, Cary, 1993

    • Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community, Raleigh, 1984

    • The Oaks at Whitaker Glen, Raleigh, 1984

— Bill Sears smiles at the sight of asphalt and high-density housing on the tobacco farm he grew up on.

He’s waited a long time for this: Sears invested millions into his 75 acres on Davis Drive in western Cary to set his family’s name in stone.

Sears, a 70-year-old architect, was there at sunrise Friday morning to help open SearStone, a multimillion-dollar continuing care retirement community that he first started planning in 1998.

He had been ready to build in 2005, but investors pulled out. As the project gained momentum again, the recession hit.

“We’ve been fighting the economy for years,” Sears said. “But now, we’ve established a new standard for senior living in the U.S.”

Aside from being the realization of one man’s dream, SearStone is the first continuing care retirement community to open in North Carolina since 2008.

Unlike other types of senior living, which residents pay rent to live in, continuing care retirement communities require an equity buy-in. So they are more closely bound to the real estate market and, in turn, were the last type of senior living to bounce back from the recession.

“As the housing markets come back, CCRCs come back because people can sell their homes and move in,” said Andy Cohen, chief executive of Caring.com, a website with reviews and ratings of senior living facilities across the country.

There are four types of senior-living facilities: independent living, which typically doesn’t incorporate health-care services; assisted living, which provides some health and living services; skilled nursing facilities, which provide 24-hour services and medical care; and continuing care retirement communities, which house each of the three other types of services.

Demand is strong in Wake County for such facilities. About 88,000 of Wake’s 950,000 residents are 65 or older, and about 85,000 are disabled, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.

Al Port, 79, and his wife Greta, 75, were the first couple to make a deposit with SearStone back in 2006. Despite their commitment to move, the Ports didn’t consider putting their Apex home on the market until this year.

Before they could put a sign in their yard, someone knocked on their door, toured their home and agreed to the asking price.

“I know it sounds too good to be true, but it happened,” Al Port said, taking a break from moving into the couple’s new apartment. “I’m looking forward to not having to take care of a house.”

Judy Stivland and her husband, Gary, also moved to SearStone from Apex. Though they’re on the independent living side of campus, Judy, 72, said the couple was attracted to SearStone’s variety of facilities.

“The fact that the nursing home is part of the same community was a big selling point,” she said.

Phase one of the project includes 169 units – enough for 300 couples – and is already 90 percent booked.

When it’s finished, SearStone will have a clubhouse, swimming pool, fitness center, dining services, transportation, walking trails and a conservatory. Stivland said she cried the day she and her husband visited the clubhouse.

“I had focused so much on selling our own house, I hadn’t taken in the clubhouse and how immaculate it was,” she said.

Last week was emotional for Sears, too. He had always wanted to build a home for his parents on the family’s property. His parents – John Sears, 91, and Maggie Sears, 90 – were among the first residents to move in to SearStone.

Soon, Bill Sears will move in, too.

On Friday, he thought about how far the family had come and how much the land had changed in his lifetime. He’s proud of what it is, but he’ll also have a special place in his heart for what it was.

He’ll miss fishing in the ponds that used to dot the property.

“At sunrise, when I was a kid, you’d find me on the edge of one of those ponds,” Sears said. “Everyone should experience that.”

The ponds may be gone, but Sears is preserving the big red barn on the property. Seeing it there, still upright amid his retirement campus, brings him a new kind of peace and satisfaction.

One that won’t fade with age.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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