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Silver surfers hit real estate

Graham Norwood finds more and more OAPs are using the net to find property

It is Silver Surfer Week. The initiative - sponsored by Age Concern, BT, AOL, Microsoft and other internet companies - aims to raise awareness and use of the world wide web by older people in the UK. But it has an unusual level of importance to the property world because of the influence of the internet on house hunting.

The older population appears to scarcely need encouragement to use the web. Recent research by Nielsen Netratings, an internet survey firm, showed that users over 50 years old represented 24 per cent of the UK's internet-surfing community, the same proportion as for under-20 year olds.

Whereas children and teenagers were found to use the web for social networking and playing games, and 20 to 49 years olds used it mainly for shopping and working out financial matters, the 50-plus community used it for obtaining information.

This is especially critical for buying property. Research by Propertyfinder, a sales website, suggests that more than 80 per cent of potential home buyers now start their searches on the internet.

Specialist retirement developers have responded to these trends by producing, arguably, far more informative websites than those of mainstream house builders or estate agents.

For example, the upmarket retirement home company English Courtyard ( www.englishcourtyard.co.uk) earlier this year won the Best Website award from the property journal New Homes.

EC's website is fast to access, has clear maps showing where developments are located, and has a high level of information about designs and local areas.

Other distinctive elements include a confidence-boosting "before and after" feature that shows architects' drawings of a new scheme and then images of the finished product. They are very similar.

There is also a "site in progress" feature showing up-to-date images of schemes being built, allowing buyers to make checks on the progress of their properties.

The New Homes judges heaped praise on English Courtyard in a competition where it beat rival entries from mainstream house builders and retirement niche companies.

McCarthy & Stone, Britain's largest retirement property builder, has an unusual "special offers" section of its website, www.mccarthyandstone.co.uk.

It lists the show-homes and the last remaining properties for sale on schemes around the UK - these homes are often reduced in price to secure a quick sale that will make the development complete.

The website for Retirement Homesearch ( www.retirementhomesearch.co.uk), owned by the Peverel retirement company, offers "virtual tours", sets of 360-degree pictures panning across different rooms inside what it calls a typical retirement property.

New developments can be searched by developer or by county if older surfers are looking at availability of retirement schemes. The site's Hot Property section lists second-hand retirement flats and houses.

Pegasus Homes, one of the larger retirement sector builders, includes a section on www.pegasus-homes.co.uk that lists schemes at an early stage of planning permission but not yet being built.

Although the site reveals few details of each scheme, apart from its location, it allows you to register for information as the development progresses so allowing you to buy at an early stage if that suits you.

Scores of other websites offer other facilities for older buyers.

More details for Silver Surfer Week can be found on www.silversurfer.org.uk