How it feels to be a ‘last-time buyer’
Every now and again a report comes along that tries to make a case for turning us oldies out of our much-loved homes and into grim bungalows or retirement flats. In the past, we were accused of clogging up the housing market by selfishly staying put when we’ve got – whisper it quietly – spare bedrooms.
But now, from the insurer Legal & General, there’s a new twist. It has given us a name – “last-time buyers” – and although it still says we are clogging up the housing market, this time it is conceding that it’s not our fault that we are stuck in vast houses – worth a total of £820bn – we poor old dears.
The report tells us that we would love nothing better than to downsize, but we simply can’t find anywhere suitable. All the bungalows – previously the retirees’ friend – have been razed to the ground so that luxury townhouses can be built in their place, and as for two-bedroom retirement flats, well, there aren’t any. So we stay put, depriving younger people of a decent home.
If we could only find appropriate homes to downsize to, we would free up 2.6million family houses and 7.7million unused bedrooms, according to L&G.
Whether by accident or design, we oldies are always the problem when it comes to solving the housing crisis. If we didn’t exist, so the popular wisdom goes, everybody else would be properly housed.
As it is, we are now told that far too many of us remain in the family mansion until it’s too late to move and we end up being carted out feet first. All I can say is that I have done my duty in this respect. About 10 years ago, I decided to sell my terraced house with its three spare bedrooms. I was living in it by myself and it no longer seemed the right kind of home for me. A nice family with two young children bought it and, as far as I know, are still there. So I have unclogged the family housing market by at least one property.
But instead of downsizing, I upsized, quite literally. I moved to a rather grand fourth-floor flat which has two spare bedrooms and which will probably see me out, as long as I can keep climbing the stairs – there is no lift. The spare bedrooms mean I can have guests – either paying or free – to stay but by no means is it a family home. It is quite unsuitable for children, there is no garden and you could not keep a pet in it.
So if you are considering selling the family home and moving to somewhere smaller, my advice is to forget about a country cottage in a pretty village – a popular if rose-tinted choice for downsizers – and instead go for a smart flat in the middle of town. Don’t even think about a bungalow – even if you can find one, they still tend to be in isolated places or along busy main roads.
I am perfectly happy in my flat yet many people of my age shudder and vow they will never live in an apartment. They see them as second-rate housing – perhaps remembering the grotty flatshares of their youth, or Sixties high-rise monstrosities.
But moving to a flat of the right type can make a lot of sense, especially if you are widowed, divorced or single. Even if you are a cosy couple, it can still be a good idea to spend your later years together in an easy-tomaintain, lockup-and-leave apartment, and it doesn’t have to be a designated retirement flat. Mine isn’t.
For one thing, flats are far safer and more secure than houses. When I says: “The biggest disadvantage is the service charge. This annual levy is increasing all the time and is now about £1,500 a year on average.
“Somebody nearing retirement has to be sure they can afford this compulsory sum. If you live in a house, you can let it go to rack and ruin if you can’t afford the upkeep but this can’t happen with a flat. In one Oxford block, the mainly elderly occupants were each suddenly hit with a £10,000 bill for their share of a new roof.”
For older buyers, a flat can confer a vastly better lifestyle than a house. This is particularly the case if you want to travel a lot in retirement. “For these people, a flat works so much better than a house,” adds Rob Hill. “You won’t go away to find three weeks of leaflets hanging out of the door or an unmown lawn on your return. In addition, with a flat you are on one floor, which gives a greater feeling of space, and means there are no [internal] stairs to climb. You don’t get that poky feel that can happen in a small house.
‘I often tell my older clients that flats are basically bungalows stacked on top of each other, but without the isolation you get in a bungalow. Many people coming up to retirement believe that apartment buildings will be noisy and full of people having rowdy parties. But that is only a danger with cheap flats, and most downsizers are not going to be buying a cheap flat.”
Estate agent Martin Bikhit of London agents Kay & Co advises empty-nesters to move right into the centre of town. He says: “The more central the better, and if you love the theatre, why not look for a flat in London’s West End? Older people often think about moving into the country, but a smart flat in a central location can be a much better bet.”
In fact, we could coin a new mantra: houses are for families; flats are the answer for older couples and singles, and contrary to what Legal & General might say, there are plenty to be found. They are not necessarily aimed at retirees – but they make sensible choices for retired people who don’t want to be shunted away into a retirement complex. Brunel Crescent
Apartments in this over-55s development near Bath, Wiltshire, cost from £399,000, with parking and lifts (01225 325 999; knightfrank.co.uk)
Super-smart newbuild two-bedroom apartment with views over the Royal Winchester Golf Course, £750,000 (01962 844299; jacksonstops.co.uk) Bramshott Place
A two bedroom in this development near Liphook, Hampshire, complete with pool and clubhouse, costs £305,000 (01483 796810; bramshottplace.co.uk) Binswood
Victorian Binswood Hall has been restored as the centrepiece of a new retirement village. Prices from £310,000 to £540,000 (audleyretirement.co.uk)
Moving on: Liz Hodgknison (below) says retirees are better off living in flats. Brunel Crescent, Box, Wiltshire, has apartments for the over-55s