Have you ever craved the ease, convenience, and walkability of urban life, but wished you could have it without all the hustle, bustle, and noise that comes with living directly in the middle of a major metroplex?

After all, wouldn’t starting your morning with a few laps at the pool or a good workout at the gym feel more tempting if these amenities were a walkable distance from your front door? Or maybe you like the thought of winding down your day with a stroll through a nearby wooded trail, meet-up with your favorite hobby club, or a quick walk to a local market to pick up something fresh for dinner?

If this all sounds like a pretty sweet deal to you, then you may enjoy the lifestyle provided by living in a planned community. You’ve probably heard of planned communities before … but they may have left you wondering, what exactly are they, anyway?

Planned communities are like self-contained mini-cities that prioritize convenience and luxury for their residents. They’re craftily “planned out” neighborhoods where amenities and entertainment like grocery stores, shopping centers, trail systems, fitness facilities, public transportation (and much more!) are easily accessible.

There’s certainly a lot of perks to living in a planned community, but are they the right living option for you?

To help you decide, we’re sizing up the benefits, potential challenges, and discussing all the important considerations you’ll want to know about living in one of these progressively popular neighborhoods.

Understand what a planned community is
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What is a planned community?

A planned community is a large, suburban housing development that’s often located just outside of a major city. On average, they span over a carefully planned area larger than 2,500 acres. Though planned communities are nationwide, they’re especially popular in the south and coastal states, with the top-selling communities in Texas, Florida, and California.

At first, a planned community can sound similar to a traditional suburb, but the two are quite different – especially in their initial design.

With traditional neighborhoods, most builders simply construct row-after-row of houses on an available plot of land. Over time, businesses eventually move into the area and build around these neighborhoods with no forethought or input from the residents.

For planned communities, each house, amenity, and piece of land is carefully mapped ahead of time to provide maximum convenience and comfort for its residents. Many communities also own the land surrounding their plot, so they remain in control of future nearby development.

Early planned communities mainly centered around golf courses and country clubs, but as buyers’ interests have changed, many now offer favored urban amenities like shopping centers, private gyms, and outdoor recreational activities. While retirees or pre-retirees have always been a large demographic in planned communities, Tim Peirce, a 2020 award-winning top agent in Bluffton, South Carolina, says the market is expanding.

“So many people are coming from other areas where they’re not used to high-amenity communities, so it’s a major lifestyle shift for them. They’re oftentimes able to really just enjoy everything the community has to offer, and the lifestyle contained within it.”

When asked why he believes the market is changing, Peirce says COVID has undoubtedly had an impact.

“Many young families with more remote possibilities for work tentatively sold their homes in major metropolitan areas and moved to warmer climates like ours. They’re looking at communities with a lot of amenities.”

Larger communities, called master-planned communities, are often so vast that they’re broken down into sub-divided, interconnected villages depending, but not limited to, housing size, price range, or amenities offered. These larger communities typically have a greater number of urban offerings like local coffee shops, art galleries, and even water parks and zip lines.

As for the most sought-after amenities in 2021? Peirce says many buyers are interested in fitness facilities, trails, and water access for activities like boating.

“And you know … Pickleball has been a big deal lately,” Peirce adds with a chuckle. “Everybody seems to be all over it.”

In case you’re wondering what exactly Pickleball is, it’s a cross between tennis, ping pong, and badminton, and it’s quickly becoming one of America’s fastest-growing sports. Many communities are getting on board with the trend and building indoor and outdoor courts, creating clubs, and offering up friendly weekend competitions for residents.

History of planned communities

Located west of Chicago in the suburbs lies Riverside, the first planned community in the United States. The famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also collaborated on designing Central Park in New York City, created the community in 1869.

Before building Riverside, Olmsted and Vaux spent two years drafting their layout: A suburban neighborhood that prioritized convenient living, scenic greenery, and recreational space. In their plan, they pushed houses farther back from major streets and created charming, gently curved roads that naturally wound through trees and foliage.

In 1991, Riverside was designated a National Planning Landmark. Several buildings within Riverside, including the Avery Coonley House and the F. F. Tomek House, are also now National Historic Landmarks.

Today, Riverside is a chic, luxurious Chicago suburb that’s as popular as ever and home to more than 8,800 residents. It encompasses 1600 acres and sports gas-lit street lamps and a range of housing styles from charming cottages to majestic Victorian mansions.

Olmsted and Vaux’s success with Riverside was only the beginning of planned communities. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, an increasing number of architects drew from Riverside’s design, and one after another, planned communities blazed their way through the rest of the nation.

The planned community at Eastmark
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Planned communities today

It’s not often you’ll find two planned communities exactly alike; amenities, housing prices, dues owed and lifestyle can vary greatly. Where some communities have a more traditional, neighborhood feel, others offer an abundance of activities that’ll keep the whole family entertained.

Eastmark, a 3,200-acre best-selling master-planned community in Mesa, Arizona, for example, likes to provide a little bit of everything for its residents. A few of its noteworthy attractions include an organic commercial farm, award-winning private schools, and a local diner. Soon, Eastmark also plans to add an expansive disk golf course, a skate park, and a catch-and-release fishing pond.

“We just have a multitude of opportunities,” says Ken Noland, Eastmark’s community representative. “We create opportunities through our community live teams. If someone wants to form a basketball club, we help them and then residents take that over.”

Come spring, there are also concerts in the park, food trucks, and ongoing seasonal festivities to bring the community together.

Currently, there are more than 15,000 residential units available in Eastmark, with new-build townhomes starting in the high $200,000s and single-family homes starting in the low $400,000s. When it comes to buying, Noland said that one thing buyers should know is that since early 2020 their market has been “on fire.”    

“A lot of the builders have waiting lists,” Noland explains, mentioning how some of their seven different homebuilders are even having to do a drawing system for buyers interested in lot releases. To put this in better perspective, Noland describes how there are usually around four to eight available lots released in Eastmark a month, while there may be as many as 25 to 50 people on a waiting list.

His advice to interested buyers is to get pre-qualified with your preferred lender ahead of time, and know that though it may take a few months, if you get on a list, you’ll get your home.

To offer further perspective into purchasing in a master-planned community, we spoke with Adam Torrez, a home lending adviser for Chase Mortgage out of Bedford, Texas, who gives a few words of advice on how to avoid surprises during the buying process.

“The surprises that I am hearing about is coming from how hot the market is and how much competition that buyer will face. In a planned community purchase, for a buyer who is at the high end of their purchase price qualification limits, just be sure to understand how much in HOA dues can be absorbed by your debt-to-income needs.”

Torrez mentions how he’s seen just how greatly clients’ monthly dues can vary, and notes that there have been dues that average around an extra $50 a month, and others that are well more than $250 a month.

Benefits of planned communities

Less traffic and clever road planning

Planned communities often have gated entries that lighten and limit through-traffic to only residents and their guests. In fact, significant consideration goes into traffic flow and road system planning to eliminate chances for backups and traffic jams.

Walkable layout and easy access to public transportation

Convenience and walkability are of the utmost importance in a planned community’s infrastructure. Residential areas are within walking distance to stores, shops, and other community amenities to provide a true urban environment. Location is another important factor for long-term success, and communities are in desirable locations close to major cities and public transportation for easy commuting options.

Amenities for all

Amenities are one of the big-ticket items that draw residents. Today, many communities offer a variety:

  • Parks
  • Clubhouses
  • Shopping centers
  • Restaurants
  • Lakes
  • Pools
  • Golf courses
  •  Bowling alleys
  •  Fitness centers
  • Tennis Courts
  • Pickleball

Green Space

Preserved green space adds to the beauty and peaceful feel of neighborhoods, and it’s a high priority on many buyers’ lists. Residents can expect nearby wooded areas filled with trail systems, bike paths, parks, sports fields, trees, flowers, and scenic greenery along street fronts.

Community and events

If you love the idea of living in a place with a strong community feel, then a planned community is the right spot for you! With shared amenities and regularly scheduled events for residents of all ages, the communal culture offers plenty of opportunities for fun, friendly interaction with neighbors.

Flexibility in home choices

Planned communities typically include homes built by several builders. This allows for a variety of homes and floor plans at different price points.

Safety and security

For families with young children, safety is one of the top concerns when purchasing a new home. To offer much needed peace of mind, many planned communities have gated entries and local watch organizations, while some even include 24/7 patrols.

Don't forget about the HOA fees for a planned community
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Challenges of planned communities

Less privacy

Those who enjoy their fair share of space and privacy likely won’t enjoy the dense population, closer housing proximity, and communal vibe of planned community living.

Community development district

A Community Development District (CDD) is a governing body within a community that handles general upkeep, while a Homeowners Associations (HOA) oversees enforcing rules and regulations to keep homes and neighborhoods well maintained. This can cost buyers additional fees (also known as dues) that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.

Not all communities include both CDD and HOAs, though it’s common to have at least one of these governing bodies in place. With all planned communities, buyers should expect to pay some form of dues, whether they be monthly, quarterly, or annually.

On top of the added cost, the restrictions that generally come along with such governing bodies can be a real hassle for some homebuyers as their rules commonly include limits on landscaping styles, paint colors, and holiday decorations.

Extra fees

Planned communities require homeowners to pay additional fees for the extra perks they provide, and the amount owed can vary depending on the offerings of each community.

Peirce mentions how the community he lives in recently did a capital reserve study that had engineers evaluate and predict “improvements needed” during the next 20 to 30 years.

“Most of these communities will have either a combination of an initiation fee and a capital reserve fee,” Peirce explains. “And that’s to build up the capital reserve that covers when they need to do capital improvements; paving, redoing sidewalks, things like that.”

Is a planned community right for you?

Master-planned communities have been a big hit in the housing market since Riverside’s first construction more than a century ago, and in recent years their popularity has only grown.

Could it be the level of safety they provide compared to traditional neighborhoods? Or maybe the growing amenities offered to residents? Or perhaps it’s how historically, market trends have shown that master-planned communities are a stable investment through market fluctuations.

They undoubtedly have their perks, but when it comes to finding your perfect home, it’s all about personal preference, location, and lifestyle. Not sure where to begin the search? Here are three easy steps to get you started.

Buying in a planned community
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Tips for buying in a planned community

Thinking the planned community life sounds pretty good? One piece of advice Peirce recommends to interested buyers is to always thoroughly research into the community beforehand, and meet with the general manager or sales team member to get all the upfront insight on what exactly you’re paying for.

“Oftentimes, one thing buyers may not know stepping into a planned community is that all the infrastructure, and everything that’s built within that community, is the responsibility of the community.”

Peirce notes further how planned communities can come with surprising fees compared to traditional neighborhoods.

“The last thing you want to do is buy in one of these communities, and the next thing you know, you’ve got an assessment that you weren’t aware of,” he says. “For example, there’s a community that one of my buyer’s agents is writing an offer on right now, and there’s a $20,000 assessment in this community for club renovations.”

Peirce explains that what this initially means is that if the buyer closes on the property, a portion of those additional assessment fees is ultimately going to fall on them. A good detail to know, indeed.

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