Shy and retiring no longer

A new generation of older people shouldn't have to settle for a typical retirement home. Graham Norwood reviews the options
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The Independent Online

Retirement is a big issue for estate agents and property developers. No, they are not thinking of putting their feet up yet - although with so few buyers these days, agents in particular might be tempted. But the retired population is a growing force in the property market.

Retirement is a big issue for estate agents and property developers. No, they are not thinking of putting their feet up yet - although with so few buyers these days, agents in particular might be tempted. But the retired population is a growing force in the property market.

There are 11 million UK pensioners, predicted to hit 12.2 million by 2011 and 17 million by 2030. There are 2.5 million over-eighties today, set to rise to 4.9 million by 2030. Only 5 per cent of over-sixties ever enter residential nursing or care homes, so the vast majority will be in the broader housing market.

The number of specialist retirement developments for rent far outweighs those that are for sale - 21,917 against 3,417, according to the Elderly Accommodation Counsel (EAC), the leading authority on this issue. But that balance is changing fast. "The people about to become old are the first who were large-scale owner-occupiers in their earlier lives. They have assets and can afford to downsize or buy their own retirement accommodation. These days it's not uncommon for people to buy a retirement flat in the UK and a pad in Spain or Cyprus," says an EAC spokeswoman.

So what types of property can the current or soon-to-be retired population look for? Three sectors have emerged:

Age-specific new homes

These are blocks or estates where you must be a minimum age to live there - usually 55 or 60, sometimes older. The best-known retirement developer is McCarthy & Stone, with 100 schemes now selling in the UK and 60 more opening this year. It builds 65 per cent of the country's retirement properties, mainly flats with adapted interiors featuring ramps, handrails and alarms.

Similar approaches have been taken by more upmarket developers such as English Courtyard and Beechcroft, which build larger proportions of houses. Some foreign developments are being built for older buyers, too. One is The Lakes in Barbados, calling itself a "continuing care retirement community". Advantages of these developments include warden and security systems, good transport routes and easy-to-maintain fixtures and gardens. Some schemes targeting older owners even have on-site doctors' surgeries.

But the downsides are that they are expensive (sometimes 15 to 45 per cent more than comparable mainstream homes, because of their unusual specification) and you are surrounded by other older people - not what every retired person wants.

A typical example is Blundellsands, near Crosby, on Merseyside, with a 24-hour restaurant, care call system and owners' association (Classic Retirements Living, £212,500 to £355,950, 0151 728 8088).

Downsizing to a city-centre flat

If you believe the property PR machine, many older people retire to uber-expensive penthouses in city centres to spend their pensions on what they couldn't do while they worked - visit theatres and cinemas, and eat out.

Some really do make such a move, but even if the lifestyle is appealing in early retirement, there is little evidence that older buyers stay for long. The advantages are that you live in a regenerated city centre which has good facilities and entertainment. And even mainstream flats are now well equipped for older users, thanks to changes in building regulations.

But the disadvantages are that most of these properties have been designed for investors to buy and rent out to young professionals, who form the vast majority of residents in many developments. Capital appreciation is also uncertain as many city centres are seeing gluts of identical apartments coming on sale at the same time.

A typical example is Clarence Dock, in Leeds city centre, a Crosby development with many older downsizers among its residents enjoying local bars, restaurants and a canal water-taxi. (£115,000 to £430,000, Knight Frank, 0113 297 9040).

The bungalow by the sea

This is the retiree's dream, but these days a bungalow is hard to come by.

"People want bungalows more than any other property. But the drive for more high-density building means the proportion of detached houses built privately fell from 46 per cent in 1999, to 27 per cent in 2003, and probably less last year," says Pierre Williams, of the House Builders' Federation.

"The retired pay highly for this type of property on a price-per-square-foot basis, because a bungalow takes so much land," says Hamptons estate agency.

Bungalows are also a dying breed because developers love to buy them, knock them down and use the sites for small blocks of flats, usually with the support of planners anxious to meet local housing targets. But if you can get one, the advantages are numerous. Appreciation is high, bungalows are easy to modify as owners get older, and most are in mixed-age communities near local facilities. The downside is the cost and shortage.

A typical example is Clay Cottage, a three-bedroom bungalow on sale at Organford, near Poole, in Dorset, a popular retirement town on the south coast (£430,000, Savills, 01202 856806).

Thirty years ago, most retirees would either have stayed where they lived or looked to sheltered council housing. But the surge of owner-occupation in the 1970s and 1980s increased people's wealth in later life and changed the property world for ever.

Older people today want the same choices in property as everyone else - and they are beginning to get them.