Could a new wave of retirement housing trigger a property chain reaction?

The recently-launched 'Campaign for Housing in Later Life' raises the profile of this issue

We know that we’re living in an ageing population.  It’s also widely understood that there’s a current shortage of suitable housing for first-time buyers – much has been made of this recently.


Interestingly, there has been little reference to the connection between this current shortage of suitable housing and to the large numbers of homes which could potentially be released to the market, creating a huge positive knock-on effect across the housing chain.  These homes are owned by a large number of older people who are potentially interested in downsizing or moving to retirement properties.  Unfortunately, a sufficient quantity of appropriate retirement housing does not exist.


You may be aware of a report recently launched by DEMOS ((a leading cross-party think-tank), written by Claudia Wood, which has brought together evidence for what is claimed could be the UK’s “‘next housing crisis’ – the chronic undersupply of appropriate housing for older people.”¹  It’s an issue which is rarely mentioned, as much more is currently made of the plight of first-time buyers & so the ‘whole-chain’ property effect is therefore not considered: "while all eyes are on those struggling to get on the bottom of the property ladder, those at the top are often trapped in homes that are too big & unmanageable"¹. 

The report was released at the launch of the ‘Campaign for Housing in Later Life’ in October 2013, backed by Esther Rantzen.  Its aim is to raise the profile of housing in later life so older people are aware of its benefits, and calls upon national & local government to encourage more building within this sector.


The report, cleverly titled ‘Top of the Ladder’, is a reference to those that are often ‘trapped’ in homes that are too big & unmanageable.  It suggests that “A lack of choice of suitable homes to downsize into is having a negative effect not just on older people’s health & well-being, but on the rest of the housing chain, as 85% of larger family homes owned by older people only become available when someone dies.”¹ 


Evidence already exists that there are many benefits for older people moving to specialist retirement housing – they often enjoy a higher quality of life, improve their social networks, & have reduced feelings of loneliness & isolation.  The report explains that evaluations also show positive outcomes in health, and safety and wellbeing tends to improve, bringing potential cost savings to acute care services in social care & the NHS.  The housing market would also stand to gain, with more housing being released into the property chain, and of course local economies would profit from the building of more retirement properties, with increases in growth stimulation & job creation - a win-win-win as the report suggests.


Nonetheless, research brought together in the report shows that retirement properties make up just 2% of the UK housing stock, or 533,000 homes, with just over 100,000 to buy – this is dwarfed by an over-65 population of 10 million.  It also found that:


  • 58% of people over 60 were interested in moving (downsizing & otherwise), and if half of these were able to move, £356 billion worth of (mainly family-sized) property would be released¹
  • 33% of of over 60’s want to downsize (equalling 4.6 million people)¹
  • estimates are that if all those interested in buying retirement property were able to do so, 3.5 million older people would be able to move, freeing up 3.29 million properties¹.


We were particularly interested to read that “while retirement housing is not for everyone, there are clear reasons why people are unnecessarily discouraged from even considering this as an option”¹.  Some do not understand the concept of ‘retirement housing’ & the lifestyle it offers (possibly due to preconceived ideas), and so would not consider this an option unless forced to do so.  Some do not think about the future or do not plan ahead for care as this requires a potential acceptance of help & support, and this can intensify a reluctance to move. 


There are many emotional & practical barriers to overcome when considering a move, highlighting the fact that external help is often required as borne out by the quotes: "We should not underestimate other pull factors - perhaps practical or emotional issues which discourage older people from moving even if they recognize their current home is too large or unmanageable for them."¹  "The process of packing & moving seemed to put people off the idea the most, with 63% of people who would not choose to move highlighting this as a barrier."¹


So, why has little been done at national or local level to remedy this under-supply of retirement housing, especially when the benefits are seemingly obvious?  The report recognises that much has been written, discussed & proposed, but that very little action has been taken & policies have not been implemented, especially since the recent economic downturn. 


The report’s recommendations, whilst offering no quick-fix solutions, are a series of fairly logical issues which, if addressed, could make a huge difference. 


Firstly, touching on issues of supply, it suggests that the government clarify a national strategy & adopt a ‘whole chain’ focus on the property market, rather than solely looking at first-time buyers.  It should also bring together key government decision-makers to work towards building the homes required by an ageing population.  Assuming a clear national strategy is in place, it recommends strong guidance & leadership at local level where the needs of local housing for older people should be communicated across all departments, and not just across housing & adult services.  Changes to planning policy should also be considered, which could lead to a larger number of more affordable schemes, and perhaps more developers entering the market.


Secondly, it recommends that more is done to encourage demand by ensuring the quality of retirement housing is right, in suitable locations, using appropriate design, and at the right price.  Although the building of social housing requires further government funding, development by the private sector would be self-funding & at little cost to the government.  Addressing issues of practicality & emotion is also required – there’s little point fulfilling supply if there’s no support for those people who wish to move but would find it difficult to do so.  It’s suggested that councils provide support & advice to  help with these issues.  Financial incentives such as removing stamp duty on retirement housing purchases would also prove beneficial.


The Top of the Ladder report is thought-provoking, and whilst specifically covering the issue of retirement housing options for older adults, is interesting to consider in many contexts – our ageing population in general, the property market, housing & care options for the elderly, as well as wider issues concerning government policy & the UK economy.  To read more about the Campaign for Housing in Later Life, to watch the launch video, or to download a copy of Claudia Wood’s Top of the Ladder report please visit our News page.


A home move can be especially daunting, emotional & stressful for older people who can find themselves unable or unwilling to cope with the huge amount of organisation required – that’s why we offer both practical help & emotional support.  We’re also committed to involving ourselves in the wider issues concerning housing in later life and to doing all we can to raise the profile of the Campaign, and this subject in general.


Claire Jordan -  General Manager

Moving On Ltd© January 2014


¹Source:  ‘The Top of the Ladder’:  report author Claudia Wood - DEMOS, September 2013

Moving On - January Newsletter.pdf
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