Getting on, but still flexible

Britain's population is growing older - the over-65s are taking a firm hold of the economy. And the housing market is one of the first areas where grey power is set to swing into action.
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Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the... no, the old jokes are tiresome and irrelevant when you look at the growing housing options available for the young-at-heart. Scan developers' brochures and you could be forgiven for wishing your life away. Aimed at the "active retirement" or "age-exclusive market", grey haired, yet bronzed and toned, bodies perform an abundance of activities amid leafy settings. But what are retirement homes really like, how much do they cost, and are they right for you?

In 1995, just over three-fifths of households headed by someone aged 65 and over were owner-occupied, compared with 46 per cent in 1971. A common assumption is that today's older people are better off because more of them own their homes, but a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Home about ownership in later life challenged this idea.

The study found that older people in rented housing get more state help with renting costs, although ownership is a significant form of wealth which allows home owners to save during retirement. Older owner-occupiers also have the option of supplementing pension income with equity release, particularly in "hot spots" and during boom years.

The attractions of ownership are obvious, but unpredictability of maintenance and decreasing mobility are key factors which influence the difficult decision of whether or not to sell the family home. Two years ago, 72-year-old Ernest Bateman decided to sell his bungalow in Kent. Bungalows are traditionally held to be ideal for older owners, so why sell?

"The garden had one third of an acre and was getting bigger," laughs Ernest: "I thought I should look ahead and find somewhere where eventually I could have more of a sheltered environment and thought I'd take the plunge. A common mistake, made by many people, is leaving it too late."

Some of Mr Bateman's friends have fallen into this trap: "People tend to put it off. The move is traumatic, particularly as you are downsizing and will probably have furniture to dispose of, but if you leave it too late then you won't recover. I've got friends in their early fifties who have seen what I've done and are just waiting for their children to go so they can sell up and join me."

Developers are now chasing the potential of the "grey pound", and increasing numbers of developments have sprung up or are under construction to appeal to the mature market. Mr Bateman visited several schemes, including one by English Courtyard, a market leader in the retirement-home field, which he found "attractive and upmarket" but ultimately unsuitable. "It had around 30 units and was just too small. I liked the tennis court and swimming pool, but residents said they were only used when grandchildren visited, so I guessed there wasn't much of a social life there."

The social aspect of his new community was an important factor for Mr Bateman, who eventually bought a ground-floor apartment in Elmbridge Village, Cranleigh, Surrey. Established 18 years ago, more than 200 residents live in its 28 acres of grounds.

Agents Roger N. Coupe are currently selling three Elmbridge properties, including a one-bedroom bungalow with conservatory for £110,000, with an annual service charge of £1,936. Aimed at the "active elderly", Elmbridge residents must be aged between 60 and 80, but with an average age of 72 the agents are hoping to attract someone at the lower end of the age bracket: "We need new blood. These properties are extremely 'lockup-and-leaveable', as older people tend to like travel, yet they offer a degree of security."

Mr Bateman can certainly be described as active. He still skis and enjoys Elmbridge's facilities, such as the restaurant, snooker room, bar and concert hall. There's also an allotment, and a library for the more cerebral types.

Mr Bateman compares his location to "a typical English village. Its size allows it to cater for all needs, and the population is big enough for the oddbods - there are always some - to vanish into the mire."

Mr Bateman prefers large communities, but not everyone looks for that. Taywood Lifestyle Homes' John Anderson believes that developers should respond to differing needs within an increasingly sophisticated market. "House builders must make more effort to design flexible accommodation, rather than simply pigeonholing people. After all, a 55 year old who was a flower-power youngster will be different in outlook from a 75 year old who experienced food-rationing as a child."

Taywood's Amery Gardens development in Alton, Hampshire is an attempt to introduce some flexibility into the "age exclusive" market. Twelve two-bedroom bungalows, for sale at £230,000, allow for ground-floor living with an enormous 35ft x 24ft "occasional room" on the first floor, which can be used for hobbies, as a grandchildren's playroom or as a guest suite. "Fewer people are forced to trade down when they sell the family home. They want fewer bedrooms but they still want space," says Mr Anderson.

Scheme management is also a crucial consideration. Market leader Peverel currently manages over 70,000 properties in 1,500 developments, and is a founder members of the Association of Retirement Housing Managers, which promotes industry standards. Sales director Martin James advises checking that schemes hold current membership, and scrutinising service charges before deciding. "Look at charges over the years to see if there have been significant increases. Charges should increase steadily, and if they haven't, ask why not."

Choices are inevitably widening in the retirement homes market, but there will always be those who prefer to adapt their existing home and stay put, or simply downsize. Developers are trying to attract the latter through inventive schemes including Countryside Residential's Part Exchange Plus, which gives vendors the full value of their home (after valuation by two local agents) in part-exchange for a smaller Countryside property. Vendors then avoid having to face the sometimes onerous prospect of dealing with agents or of being stuck in a chain.

Back at Elmbridge, the management company and residents association regularly meet to discuss improvements and complaints. There are no wild parties, but the occasional fouling of pathways by pets was once an issue, says Ernest Bateman. "Of course, there are days when I wonder why I came here, but on the whole I'm very happy." As he looks forward to summer croquet and tailor-made "bone-loading" exercise classes designed to combat the inset of osteoporosis, you have to agree with his sentiments. "You don't come here to sit on your bum and disappear into the backwoods."

Useful sources: Guide to Retirement Housing sponsored by English Courtyard: 0800 220 858.

Roger N. Coupe: 01483 268555.

Guide to Buying Retirement Property by Peverel Retirement Homesearch: 0870 6005560.

Taywood Lifestyle Homes: 01420 543 123.

Countryside Residential: 01454 202 208.

The House Builders Federation (Retirement Housing Group): 020-7608 5107.

Age Concern Fact Sheet, call free: 0800 289 404.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation: 01904 629241.