Home alone

Home alone

PATRICIA VINE reports on a huge rise in the ‘singleton’ lifestyle

Whatever you want to call it there is a huge rise in the number of people who are living alone.

The number of households occupied by just one person rose by more than half a million over a decade, new data from the Office for National Statistics reveals.

According to the ONS, 3.5 million people over 65 live alone and over 2 million of all people over 75 live on their own. This not only creates problems of loneliness and isolation, which brings its own health problems, but increases the strain on Britain’s housing stock which is causing a severe shortage of suitable housing.

Under occupation

Britain has about 530,000 retirement properties, of which only a fifth can be purchased, according to the findings of the think tank Demos in 2013.

In April 2014 there were 128,445 in England and Wales with new schemes and development adding approximately 3,000 each year, creating a huge shortfall.

A new research study released recently by Legal & General and Cebr, the economics consultancy, has looked at the UK’s “Last Time Buyer” (LTB) market for the first time, and in doing so has identified 5.3m under-occupied homes in the UK, with 3.3m LTBs looking to downsize.

The study of “Last Time Buyers” also concludes that there are 7.7 million spare bedrooms and a typical LTB lives in a 4-bed house, but really wants a 2-bed property. Almost a third of older homeowners considered downsizing in the last five years; but only 7% actually managed to and the majority (58%) put it off until after 70; a quarter until over aged 80.

The most common reason for considering downsizing by over 55s is that their property no longer meets their needs. Many older homeowners allow inertia to keep them in their current home, which is no longer fit for purpose and expensive to maintain. This is a particular issue for older homeowners, many of whom no longer work.

This indicates that developers should meet this need and a “help to move” government scheme offering over 65s stamp duty breaks on properties under £250,000 and loans to bridge any gap between their previous and new home.

According to Esther Rantzen, founder of ‘The Silver Line’, “There is a disgraceful lack of housing appropriate for older people. Older people who are in the wrong home who are lonely and do not want to be a burden to others. They struggle to live in their home that no longer meets their needs and is too big to look after and more importantly, in these energy conscious times, costs too much to heat.”

Shortage of appropriate housing

Retirement housing is falling out of favour. The number of people choosing to live in sheltered or managed accommodation is falling, despite our ageing population. Research by Demos suggests that more than half of over-60s (58%) want to find a more suitable home. So why aren’t they on the move?

A Shelter study also found that most older people wish to move within their own communities, but when they try, they find there is very little available for them.

New design concepts for flexible living for three generations were also suggested, offering both shared and independent spaces in the design of new large properties so they can be tailored to the needs of generations living together.

Indeed, in its own report into ageing, the Royal Institute of British Architects proposed the “mansion block for the third age”, designed with shared living for older people in mind. “As a 21st century iteration of the 19th century mansion block, this metropolitan housing type will be a synthesis of privacy and sociability,” the report outlines.

Stephen Burke of United for All Ages says he is not surprised the current lack of choice is a turn off for potential downsizers, but questions why the private sector is failing to innovate. “I don’t think there are many options for older people. If I was setting up a new company today I would think this is one part of the housing market you would look at. There is guaranteed demand out there if you get the right options.”


Today, McCarthy and Stone holds 70% of the private retirement market. Paul Teverson, the company’s head of public affairs, says there are major disincentives in the planning system preventing other developers getting involved. Managed housing schemes incorporate lots of common areas: restaurants, laundries, function rooms and gardens. But these are disproportionately taxed by tools such as the community infrastructure levy.

Peter Girling, chair of Girlings Retirement Rentals, agrees that the planning lobby for mainstream general housing on Greenfield land is so strong that specialists are pushed out.

He argues for councils to be forced to release Brownfield sites for development of specialist properties. “That would have to be a government initiative, but if the government was to say, grant leases at peppercorn rents to deliver to build appropriate accommodation, that would put the land out of the question and [councils] would receive a ground rent.”

McCarthy and Stone has already begun building new types of products for the “baby boomer” generation, with bespoke designs, a concierge on site and larger apartments with up to two parking spaces per property.

Age UK’s policy adviser on housing Joe Oldman welcomes the approach: “Most people look for the same things as younger people in considering a flat. Perhaps we need to get away from the stereotype of what older people are looking for?”

Deputy Director of Demos, Claudia Wood, author of the 2013 report on housing said: “Unlike in health or social care, the costs associated with overcoming the challenges of housing our ageing society are relatively small – the money for new housing is there already – locked up in over a trillion pounds worth of assets held by older people across the country.

“The majority of older people in three, four and five-bedroom homes want to downsize. Overcoming planning barriers to supply to meet this demand would benefit the economy, younger families stuck on the housing ladder and older people themselves.

“It’s a mystery why successive governments haven’t taken this on board already.”

Perhaps now the new Government should be pressing for more initiatives to open up the housing market for older people.