Autumn Property Survey: Last time buyers return: The market in retirement homes is waking up, writes Anne Shaw

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If buying a property seems fraught with difficulty for the first-time buyer, it is no better for the so-called last-time buyer, the buyer looking for a retirement home.

Besides choosing a property to suit the individual's taste there are considerations such as safety features, security of the building and closeness to transport and shops, which are all the more important for the elderly. The condition of the property will also be important - retirement home buyers are unlikely to want to embark on a programme of home improvements. When all these factors are considered, it is little wonder that people are increasingly looking to purpose-built retirement homes.

Retirement homes were among the worst hit in the recession. Elderly people did not have the pressures on them to move, such as change of job or a growing family, so as they watched the values of their homes declining, they increasingly stayed put. This put downward pressure on prices of new homes, which were slow to sell, and on resales, where relatives of the elderly who died were anxious to offload the property quickly and often accepted low offers.

The market now seems to be turning round and the general feeling is that there could soon be a shortage of retirement housing. Simon Wynn, spokesman for McCarthy & Stone, which has about 50 per cent of the new purpose-built retirement homes market, says: 'The backlog is beginning to clear and the second-hand market is beginning to pick up. The buyer of a purpose-built retirement home has typically lost their partner and is selling the family home they may have lived in for 20 or more years. While previously these people may simply have looked for release of capital by moving to a smaller property, they are now realising that they can buy a means of putting off a higher level of care - sometimes indefinitely.

'They realise that if they stay in their own home they are going to be concerned about maintenance and security and also their own safety. They will worry about their ultimate future if anything happens to them, when they might be forced to give up their home altogether if they need nursing care. A retirement home takes away some of these concerns. In short, you can't fall down the stairs in a retirement home.'

Among the properties McCarthy & Stone is marketing at present are a former cinema site in Edinburgh, where there have been over 400 inquiries before the foundations are complete, and three developments in the south-west division at Farnborough, Taunton and Milford on Sea. All are already well subscribed; 22 of the 28 units in Farnborough, for example, have already been sold. The one and two-bedroom flats in the three developments have communal facilities, including residents' lounge, laundry, guest suites, resident or day-manager and a 24-hour care line. There is heavy emphasis on security, with intruder alarms and video entry system and all developments comply with Security by Design standards.

Other companies in the specialist retirement homes market are Beechcroft Developments, the English Courtyard Association, Pegasus and Anglia Secure Homes.

Many other builders, such as Bennett Homes of Brandon in Suffolk are marketing smaller houses suitable for retirement, but these do not have the alarm systems and wardens of purpose-built retirement homes.

McCarthy & Stone hived off its management company recently, but keeps close links. Simon Wynn says: 'Management is a very important aspect of retirement homes. Retirement housing is not like other development. You can't just walk away from it like other housebuilding. You have a continuing relationship with the client.'

McCarthy & Stone's associated companies will assist with resale and also lettings. Mr Wynn says: 'Increasingly we are seeing relatives of elderly people who have died not wanting to sell, but keeping the property for their own use later on and letting in the mean time.'

Couples nearing retirement may been tempted by the lure of a little place in the sun. Spain, Portugal and central France have proved particularly popular with British expats. In the past property has often been cheaper than similar sized homes in Britain and a favourable exchange rate and cheap local prices made the package too good to pass up.

But time has shown that some of these homes have not proved such a good buy after all. Troubles have been legion, from crooked developers taking money for services that never materialised to fluctuating exchange rates that have eaten into already stretched pensions. Two years ago the charities Age Concern, Help the Aged and the British Red Cross held a symposium in Alicante on older people resident in Spain and highlighted a number of problems.

Not least among these has been lack of adequate nursing care when health fails, not to say vunerability and isolation from family and friends when a partner dies. Many social security benefits that the elderly can take advantage of in Britain are not available to people moving abroad.

Age Concern has published a book 'Life in the Sun: A Guide to Long Stay Holidays and Retirement Abroad' by Nancy Tuft, pounds 6.95 The Sheltered Housing Association publishes a quarterly, 'The National Guide to Retirement Homes' 081-997 9313.

(Photograph omitted)