Property: Elderly find market is shy about retiring

Retirement homes are a closed door to estate agents. Felicity Cannell reports
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Property developers and estate agents are always keen to exploit a housing boom, but one of the greatest growth areas - somewhat ignored it must be said - is the retirement property market.

The over-55s account for 40 per cent of the country's wealth, and by the year 2021 nearly 20 per cent of the population will be over 65 with two-thirds of them owning their own homes. The biggest retirement home builder is McCarthy & Stone, with nearly 70 per cent of the market, but other smaller developers and housing associations are now joining in.

Retirement homes are usually available to those over 55, but many potential buyers are often put off the idea of such housing as it smacks of nursing homes. Residents are lumped together with a bunch of elderly people nodding off in front of the television in the communal lounge, with whom there is nothing in common other than remembering - or increasingly forgetting - how they took an active part in the swinging Sixties. They also lose a number of rights: no pets, no overnight visitors, no underwear hanging up to dry in the window, all in a modern unappealing development. But developers are aware of this public perception and are striving to appeal to increasingly discerning buyers, who, at 55, are "in the prime of life" and simply want a smaller home, but one which will suit them for the next 30 years. Some developments have access to higher levels of support and medical care to enable residents to stay in their own home, even if they can no longer look after themselves.

There are about 90,000 private retirement homes in the UK, in a wide range of developments, from small clusters of bungalows or cottages to blocks of flats. Most offer independent self-contained homes with their own front door, and most are designed for the needs of older people, with easy mobility and personal safety being paramount.

Category II sheltered housing developments have support services in varying degrees - a manager or warden, who either lives on site or nearby, and will check on the well-being of residents, connection into an alarm service in case of accidents, access to meal deliveries, and maybe communal facilities - lounge, laundry, guest flat and garden.

Properties, generally leasehold, are either bought new from the developer, or "second-hand" from previous residential owners. Prices start around pounds 25,000 and developments with swimming pools, fishing rights, golf courses can reach well into six figures.

In addition, there are service charges to cover maintenance and support services. In a non-sheltered development (without a warden) this may be around pounds 300, but reaching into thousands depending on the services available. In the majority of sheltered developments, charges are around pounds 20-25 per week.

Properties can be bought outright, which gives owners the right to resale (to over-55s), or on a part-buy basis, through housing associations, which retain a stake in the property. Some private developers offer "equity sharing" or "lifetime leases", although this may turn out to be no better than renting.

With more properties being built, and indeed being sold "secondhand", the problem for buyers and sellers is the lack of estate agent expertise. Although such properties are marketed at prices compatible with the housing market, the market value may not rise in tandem, and not simply because of the restricted market. "In terms of resales, there have been hitches, not least because estate agents have not yet adapted to what is, after all, a growth market," says David Wagstaffe, of the Elderly Accommodation Council. "If a vendor places the property with an average high street estate agent, he will get an average high street service. If the property is not directed exclusively to the retirement market, the vendor misses out." What tends to happen at present is that the original developer, who is still the freeholder, markets the resale to enquirers.

Help the Aged now runs a property service (HARPS), which can computer- match buyers with properties for sale. This is useful when buying a secondhand property which is being sold privately rather than through the developer. The service is free to buyers, with a two per cent charge to vendors.

The Elderly Accommodation Council provides information on all aspects of retirement housing. "We get about 150 enquiries a week, both from fit, able retired people, as well as relatives trying to find a suitable property for a parent suffering from Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease, for example," says David Wagstaffe. From its contacts with some 32,000 developments, it aims to match enquirers to the right accommodation.

In Chingford, London E4, one bedroom flats in Homebush House, a development of 57 flats, start at pounds 38,000, with a resident warden, communal lounge, laundry and guest accommodation. In Weybridge, Surrey, similar flats start at pounds 63,000, both available through Peverel Services. For something rather different in a retirement development are apartments in a newly-built miniature "French chateau" in Poundbury, the Prince of Wales' vision of a village on the outskirts of Dorchester. The building is in keeping with the Prince's architectural ideas, with hand-carved local stone. Prices range from pounds 80,000 to pounds 180,000, from Renaissance Retirement.

McCarthy & Stone has until now concentrated on building standard retirement homes for those with modest means. Its new "Signature Collection", however, provides luxury two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments, in Leeds, from pounds 115,000.

The same company's development, Nevyll Court, in Thorpe Bay, Essex, has flats from pounds 64,950, one of which Ronald and Dorothy Pickering chose after Dorothy's stroke in December last year. "We had a dream bungalow in the Cotswolds," says Mr Pickering, "but moving here has contributed to my wife's recovery. I thought it would be better to get somewhere smaller to cut down the housework. We haven't got the worry of looking after the garden and we like the security. When my wife accidentally hit the panic button, we received an instant response, so we know that works too!"

However, this may not the case in all developments. Problems with absentee or unsympathetic wardens, or unreasonable service charges may only be solved by taking action, but reputable management companies should be members of the Association of Retirement Housing Managers (ARHM) and thus bound by a strict code of practice. Problems are rare, but with new developers entering the market buyers should ask solicitors to pay particular attention to conditions of resale, and maintenance and service charges, including exactly what they cover.

Age Concern's handbook, A Buyer's Guide to Sheltered Housing, covers purchase options, charges and legal aspects of buying, as well as other relevant topics.

McCarthy & Stone: 0800 919132; Peverel Services Ltd: 01425 638863; Renaissance Retirement: 0800 216754; Elderly Accommodation Council: 0181 742 1182; HARPS helpline: 0800 592605; Age Concern's Handbook (pounds 4.95): 0181 679 8000 or through libraries.