At least a few local housing developments are stuck in disputes over whether to allow them to build homes for everyone or only for those 55 years and older as originally planned.

The latest survey by the National Association of Home Builders might clarify some of the issues in these disputes, which are generally between builders who want to give their projects the greatest chance of success and taxpayers who want seniors who pay taxes rather than children who cost money to educate.

The news is this: The over-55 housing market is still quite depressed, as builders have said, but it is showing signs of improvement.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, the NAHB’s 55+ Housing Market Index for single-family homes jumped 10 points to 28, the fifth quarter in a row of improvement over the prior year, the association said Thursday.

The index is based on a survey of NAHB members, asking them whether current sales, prospective buyer traffic and anticipated sales in the next six months are good, fair or poor. Answers to all three of those questions improved significantly from the fourth quarter of 2011.

Bob Karen, chairman of the association’s 50+ Housing Council, said the trend is toward greater optimism among builders of age-restricted housing.

“Those customers who had been on the sidelines waiting for more stability in their local markets are starting to make their move toward either purchasing a home or renting an apartment that is designed to more specifically suit their lifestyle,” Karen said in a statement accompanying the survey results.

Before opponents of lifting age restrictions grab the survey and run to the next council or planning board meeting, they might consider a few significant factors that complicate this picture of a senior-housing rebound.

The first is that the improvement is uneven within the 55-plus housing segment.

Builders of multifamily condominium projects for senior citizens were much less optimistic, with their index rising about half as much to 19 points, compared with the single-family index of 28. The condo sales part of the index was 17 points, compared with 27 for single-family sales.

So developers of condo projects have a stronger case that success depends on removing the age restriction.

While the trend is improving, the 55-plus market remains poor in the view of the vast majority of builders.

In the 55+ Housing Market Index, a reading of 50 would indicate that as many builders are reporting a good market as a poor one — so a healthy market would have an index substantially above 50 and more than double the current reading.

Finally, while the overall new-home market nationwide remains far below normal, the 55-plus segment is much worse off than the rest.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Market Index for January, which surveys builders about all new single-family homes, was 47. That’s nearly double the 28 reading for 55-plus housing builders alone.

So, yes, the market for age-restricted housing is showing some signs of life, but it lags far behind the overall new-home market — which itself is only just starting to exit the worst downturn since before the NAHB was founded in 1942.

Making a success of an unrestricted housing development in the decade ahead will be quite challenging, especially in the Northeast, where the builders confidence index was only 36 last month.

Completing an age-restricted development will be far more difficult — perhaps even impossible — but maybe that’s what some opponents actually want.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250