That's not to say that these empty-nesters, liberated from domestic toil, are going to be satisfied with a home of box-like proportions. Nor are they are by any means ready to head for purpose-built retirement homes. There are the grandchildren to house from time to time, to say nothing of the furniture.
Developers and agents alike have found that the key requirements for empty-nesters are security and low maintenance, combined with character and reasonable space. Beaufort Homes even makes the point of putting a huge old wardrobe in its show flat at Imperial Apartments in Cheltenham.
The buying power of the newly retired, who more often than not will have a good pension and all the financial advantages of trading down, puts them in a strong market position. At present they are selling the kind of houses that are in shortest supply, and with the huge expansion in high-quality new homes and the conversion of large, redundant buildings to residential use, empty-nesters are in a section of the market that is spoilt for choice. They can even be adventurously flexible about the area they choose.
Take David and Margaret Ormerod. They have recently moved to rural Norfolk from their home base in Kent via Bournemouth and Cornwall. Their wide-roaming search ended at a disused US Air Force base at Wicken Green, near Fakenham. The once treeless site has been planted with a thousand saplings, and the officers' bungalows renovated and painted. "We fell for the peace and quiet and the space of the homes," says David Ormerod, who is a complete newcomer to Norfolk. "We have three double-sized bedrooms and a huge living room. The ceilings are high and the loft is enormous. The garden is a good size, too."
New owners are beginning to stamp their individuality on the previously uniform village of 210 homes, described by the developers, Brunswick Homes, as having a "Continental feel". It was important to Mr Ormerod that it should evolve as a mixed community, not as a preserve for the retired, whose numbers are growing fast. "I'm not at that stage in my life. You need an assortment of people around you. I've met more people in the months here than I did in Sittingbourne the whole time I was there."
But it is security, such as cameras at the gate, that the Ormerods value above all else. "People tried to break into our house in Kent, and we could never leave the car unlocked, whereas here we have no worries," says David Ormerod. With the money saved on trading down to homes which initially sold for about pounds 30,000, he intends to invest in a place in Tenerife. "We need to be able to leave it [Norfolk] for a few months of the year."
Buyers in their sixties have a very clear idea of what they want. Berkeley Homes houses, which have solid floors and plenty of well-crafted detail, are popular with couples making the transition from old to new.
"They come and talk to us at an early stage of construction because they know exactly what has to go where," says Paul Vallone, sales and marketing director of the company. "We will put in an Aga, say, if that's what they are used to."
No one who is used to a comfortable, stylish home will compromise simply because they need something smaller. Indeed, the old-fashioned country cottage tends to lose its appeal if an attractive but more manageable alternative is on offer.
Liz White and her husband William left an old cottage in the Reading area for a new version with a garage, in a small development in Great Bedwyn. They wanted real countryside away from busy roads, a factor in many older people's decision to move. Beaufort's mixture of homes next to the church extends rather than intrudes on the village. "We have pubs, bakers, a stonemason and a basket market, just the sort of friendly village we were looking for," says Mrs White. The rail link means they do not have rely on a car. "We are also within zimmer-frame distance from the doctors," she adds.
Another rich source of smallish country homes is the barn conversion, which is emerging from its rather tattered Eighties image of slapdash and cheap workmanship. Philip Blanchard, of John D Wood, knows why barns appeal to the older buyer. "The size of the rooms means that people don't have to get rid of their furniture."
Hugh Kitchin from Hampshire, who specialises in barn conversions, says you get the feel of a period building, but with a modern interior. Barns are also spacious and secure. "We keep as much that is original as we can. At Chawton we put sitting rooms on the first floor to get the most from the vaulted ceilings." In Hampshire, good conversions start at more than pounds 200,000.
Devon and Cornwall, though, still have enormous pull with the retired. Madeline Collins, of Marchand Petit in Kingsbridge, has hundreds of enquiries from people wanting to move to the area. "Most have come for holidays for years. Their perfect house, on the Salcombe estuary with a waterfront and sea views, is not only rare, but will cost upwards of half a million." You can buy a lot of old American air base homes for that kind of money.Reuse content