Property: New homes for retiring types: Sixtysomethings with money to spend are being courted by developers, says Anne Spackman

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How would you prefer to die? 'Peacefully, in my own bed,' is the usual answer. No doubt people mean their bed at home. However, most of us have had some insight - often through parents or grandparents - into the problems of the elderly not coping.

In the United States and Australia, housing for the elderly ranges from individual homes to towns built exclusively for old people. In Britain, so far, we have only the 'retirement development'.

According to McCarthy & Stone, pioneers in this field, very few potential customers have ever seen a retirement home. My mother, who is of potential customer age, hadn't, so we went on a recce.

There are two kinds of retirement home. Most people expect houses adapted to suit the elderly, but to builders and planners they are developments needing fewer parking spaces and are therefore more profitable. This was the case with the first place we visited, in Southampton, a one-bedroom flat in a two-storey development. To get in we pressed the tradesman's buzzer - which opened the communal door. Presumably it is programmed to recognise burglars.

The flat had a living-room with a kitchen area at one end, a bedroom and a bathroom. There was no lift, no garden, half a parking space, and the front door did not benefit from the sort of heavy security lock fitted to the builder's own office. The price was pounds 45,500.

What made it different from any other small flat, apart from the guarantee that you would have elderly neighbours? Graham Barker, managing director of the builder, H W Small, was candid: 'We got 16 retirement flats where we would only have got 13 ordinary flats, because of the parking spaces, and they sell for the same price.'

Two adaptations had been made to the flats: door chains had been added and you could turn on the light in the outer hallway from inside the flat. 'These were aimed at the 'early retired',' Mr Barker said. 'If we had done a warden-assisted scheme we would have put in things such as extra-width doors, communal lounge and washing facilities.'

The 'early retired' is a relatively new concept and it is here that the market is expanding. The second scheme we saw was Buckler's Place in Lymington, Hampshire, one of McCarthy & Stone's flagship developments (the other is in Harrogate). It consists of a mews development of cottages and a block of one- and two-bedroom flats with extra facilities. They are in a plum position at the top of the high street.

Despite the 'early retired' label, the cottages include features particularly suitable for old people: power points are at hand level; doorways are extra wide; the basins have lever taps; security at windows and doors is very good. All except the one-bedroom cottages have a shower room on the ground floor as well as a bathroom upstairs. The company's Careline service, which provides a pull-cord link to a computer-based emergency service, can be fitted. Prices range from pounds 89,950 to pounds 114,950.

In Buckler's Court, the one- and two-bedroom flats are already equipped with Careline and all the other design features. There is a residents' lounge, a lift, a communal laundry and a guest suite; the block is served by an 'estate manager' (ie, warden).

Service charges vary considerably between the cottages and the block. In the former they are just over pounds 500 a year and include water rates, building insurance, window-cleaning and upkeep of the grounds. In the latter they are nearer pounds 1,500 a year because of the cost of the manager and emergency service. The flats start at pounds 61,450.

At one time, the company included extra facilities such as bath seats. But it found that customers flinched from such aids, however helpful. Some residents tie up their Careline cord rather than have it dangle like a symbol of dependency.

The nursing-home end of the market has not taken off. Instead, companies are turning to the wealthier, younger retireds and offering them the kind of facilities they have become used to on holidays abroad. Beechcroft Developments now has three sites with indoor swimming pools, at Moreton-in--Marsh in the Cotswolds, Odiham in Hampshire and Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Despite prices of more than pounds 200,000 for the best properties, they have been selling 'off plan' - prior to completion - for the first time since the start of the recession.

Pegasus Retirement Group is also pushing forward the range of services offered to the elderly. At its Brackley development in Northamptonshire, the company has put in a restaurant and a library. Services offered include cleaning, shopping and transport.

This is the area which John McCarthy, founder of McCarthy & Stone, predicts will expand over the next few years. His company has to make up ground lost during the recession, which doomed many of his competitors and nearly claimed him too. Now the company is pulling back from the brink. Last week it won three Daily Express House Builder of the Year awards.

The Buckler's Place scheme is well thought-out. My mother cited proximity to the shops as a crucial plus point. A friend of hers has just moved from their village into a larger one because she cannot drive and needs more shops within walking distance. Good retirement developments should always be centrally located, which raises the land cost and therefore the price. Barratt has just completed a retirement development near the centre of Weybridge in Surrey, where prices for two-bedroom, two-bathroom cottages start at pounds 139,950.

John McCarthy took his lead from the US, where the trend for retirement homes is well established. Does he think we will follow all the way down the road to a Sun City- style town of 60,000 old folk? 'The planning authorities here don't think old people should live on their own. But the research we have carried out shows that the elderly prefer to socialise with people of like age and like interests. I've no doubt if you could build one it would be a success.'

McCarthy & Stone (0202 292480); Pegasus Retirement Group (0234 240044); Beechcroft Developments (0491 834975).

(Photograph omitted)