The demand for sophisticated, safe and spacious retirement homes is on the increase.
If there is one subject easy to find people to talk to about, you would think it would be retirement. But when researchers recently contacted several hundred people on a list of those considering buying a retirement home, the vast majority of them were either travelling, or busy juggling full schedules.

The conclusion drawn by English Courtyard, the upmarket retirement-home specialist which did the research, was that retirement seems to mean taking on a consultancy, spending several months abroad, or five hours a day on a golf course. Still, a great many people want to be prepared for declining health.

Couples often want to get rid of the large family house, but don't like to think that the next move they make will be the last. They want independence, but with the fall-back of a warden on site in an emergency.

In 1982, there were only 2,500 private sheltered units in existence in the UK. Today, that figure stands at 90,000, and since the over-55s account for two-fifths of the country's wealth, they are proving to be a demanding market.

It is no longer possible, as it was in the Eighties, for developers to produce small, box-like homes for the elderly and expect them to sell. Now, the key is space and the more American notion of "service". All the problems and practicalities of running a home can be passed on to someone else - albeit at a price.

Increasingly, the service offered to people buying in the grounds of a nursing home is becoming more popular and widespread. "Close care" is similar to sheltered housing, but with the bonus of nursing care either at home or in the main house. Its greatest appeal is that the elderly stand a good chance of staying in their own homes for the rest of their lives.

Gwyneth Hodgson, now 84, moved into her flat in the grounds of Hays House, near Shaftesbury, Dorset, when she began to find the upkeep of her house and garden too much. "I didn't want to be a burden on my son, nor did I want to bother friends. When I cut my leg one day, I pressed a button and a nurse arrived at once. I wanted to stay in the area, and this is the perfect answer. I have my dog with me, which is important because I could never live without an animal, and some places don't allow them."

Many people, unused to living so closely with others, regard the prospect with some trepidation, and Mrs Hodgson admits that she likes being alone. "I look out over fields. If it were practical, I would live in a remote country spot, but this is a fair compromise. Most of us are widows and we don't mix a great deal. But there is a residents' restaurant if we do want to have lunch together or entertain."

Mrs Hodgson bought her flat from Park Healthcare on a 125-year lease. The annual service charge is pounds 2,657, but this does not cover nursing care. The company is currently selling its latest development, set in the grounds of Elliscombe House, near Wincanton, Somerset. The unusually spacious eight two-bedroom apartments and two three-bedroom gatehouses are for sale from pounds 169,500 to pounds 189,500, with an additional service charge of pounds 2,800.

Service charges are the area most buyers are warned to check out thoroughly. Some offer a minimum of maintenance and warden cover, while others will reflect a ritzy hierarchy of reception staff and services that people may well not use. The cost of running a swimming pool, for instance, may not be justified for an underused facility.

In its research, English Courtyard found that buyers felt some developers did not always disclose the full extent of service charge, and worried about the escalation of such costs.

Calls to Help the Aged on the subject were an important factor in the charity setting up its own Property Services, a commercial arm of the main campaigning body that was created a year ago. The charity now has 6,000 buyers registered with it, and a nationwide list of retirement homes.

Among any group of buyers in this sector, there will always be a "reluctant" proportion - those who will mentally tough it out, even as they become physically more fragile. Godfrey Winterson, of Hamptons International, had to work hard to persuade his mother to give up the struggle of living alone. "After a fourth fall, she started going downhill rapidly. She would not have lasted six months on her own. Now, she goes out at least three times a week and likes to have friends to stay.

"The other options we considered were nursing care of pounds 750 a week, or an establishment where she was going to be cared for 24 hours a day at a cost of pounds 3,000 a month. How many years can people afford that?" asks Winterson. A flat with a warden outside a main centre, on the othe hand, could be bought for pounds 60,000, which might leave money over for supply nurses or other forms of care.

Even the thought of moving is daunting for some. McCarthy & Stone, the largest developer of retirement properties in Britain, finds that a third of its buyers use the part-exchange scheme, often for the convenience of not hav- ing potential buyers traipsing around their homes.

The company has also noticed the growing popularity of city-centre locations where everything is on tap. In Bath, it has seen a record number of enquiries for its canalside development. Close care is not easy to find in cities but, for example, the Kensington office of John D Wood has a two-bedroom apartment for sale, for pounds 250,000, at Chartwell House, which has a nursing home attached and is one of a number owned by the Goldsborough Estates, part of Bupa. The service charges start at pounds 117.79 a week. In Richmond, Surrey, meanwhile, Bovis Retirement homes has just completed Fullerton Court, described as "very sheltered living", where service charges are pounds 4,550 a year.

There is some comfort to be taken from the resale values of good retirement properties. English Courtyard says it has beaten the nationwide indices over the past 10 years, and the property has had an annual increase of 5.69 per cent. As the population ages, this is one sector where growth must surely be guaranteed.

English Courtyard: 0171-937 4511; Help the Aged Property Services: 0800 592605; McCarthy & Stone: 0800 919132; Hays House and Elliscombe Park through the Walton Partnership: 01747 852242; Fullerton Court: 0181-977 1021; Chartwell House (John D Wood): 0171-727 0705