Compared to UK retirees, our American counterparts live in almost an alien world. For example, a retiree who owns a home in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, daily chores consist of deciding which of the 65 swimming pools to paddle in or which of the 46 nearby golf courses to tee off from. And instead of settling down in the evening in front of the box, our American may be line dancing in the village square until midnight, or growing old disgracefully, cruising the high street with his chums on a pimped-up Harley-Davidson.
Many age-restricted communities, as they are called in the States, are the size of small cities, covering several square miles and bursting with entertainment centres, sports complexes and shopping emporia. Some even have their own police forces, ambulance teams, churches and supermarkets. Indeed, census data show that The Villages is one of the fastest-growing cities in America.
In comparison then with retirement living in the UK, however, the US are streets ahead. According to Savills, about one in 200 people aged over 65 live in retirement homes in the UK, compared to about one in 18 in the US. This disparity is partly due to the fact that over the pond there is more advanced culture of retirement villages, with one of the earliest, campus-style villages built in Arizona back in 1960.
But things are changing and UK developers are now seeking inspiration, and assistance from their American counterparts.
British developer Elysian Residences is building two developments in London, and has partnered with US retirement operator One Eighty. American-born Gavin Stein, whose grandparents live in a retirement community in California, is chief executive of Elysian. His plan is to shake up the UK retirement model and introduce some US-style features. The art deco Landsby in Stanmore, for example, has a New York apartment-style entrance and double-height lobby.
Its other scheme, The Oren, will be in Hampstead, and since Elysian’s schemes won’t be on a vast campus, it will be looking for partnerships with golf clubs and leisure centres to try to create that big feel of US developments.
An American architect will work alongside a British one to ensure there is a good “UK translation” of the American features, which will include a hotel-style concierge desk, cooking masterclasses in a theatre kitchen just off the restaurant, and state-of-the-art golf simulators where you can play on 21 of the world’s top courses. There will also be a special fitness programme imported from the US called Prime Fit which includes a circular disc designed to improve balance and prevent falls.
Whilst the use of two Elysian developments are restricted to residents only, Audley Villages, an already established UK retirement developer, is taking a different view. It wants to see wider integration by opening its doors to its restaurants and spa facilities to the outlying community. Its portfolio of urban retirement developments is growing fast and they’re getting bigger too – its largest village is the newly opened Audley Redwood in Bristol, which has 155 apartments.
Its new Mayfield development will have 250 homes and a mini-mart. But this is miles away from Sun City: a Florida retirement home that extends 16 sq miles and has its own police force, a computer lab, 10 clay tennis courts, a theatre, volleyball courts, travel club and even a British Connection club. Not to mention pools and golf courses.
Audley, however, is wary of adopting lots of American-style features arguing that Brits are very different from the Americans. Rather than being stuck miles from anywhere in a huge, gated complex, UK buyers want to be closer to shops and amenities in urban locations.
Nevertheless, British housebuilders have started to cherry-pick the best features of American retirement developments including, Gifford Lea that has even launched a “Well-being Navigator”, an American concept that monitors owners’ care needs.
Unlike the UK, American retirement home providers haven’t had such a problem persuading older people to move into developments with shared facilities. This is partly due to the fact that they have had a “condo culture” for decades, and people have been used to living in managed environments, whether it is a historic, doorman apartment block, or a gated scheme with a pool and gym.
Owner-occupied retirement housing represents 17 per cent of the total housing stock over the pond, compared with just two per cent in the UK. And some 12 per cent of the US retired population lives in some form of purpose-built community – increasing to 30 per cent on the West Coast.
One big difference that remains is that British retirees want to downsize to fewer rooms in spacious low-maintenance apartments, whereas it is not uncommon for the American retirement property to be a sizeable detached home with a double garage.
But there has been a marked shift in the American model, too, with more operators focusing on building smaller communities in urban areas and providing care.
UK providers are also converging with the US by offering a variety of payment options on new homes including shared ownership, part-buy/part-rent and rental. At the top end, the American country-club lifestyle theme has been adopted by London-based Auriens. The retirement “village” in Chelsea offers owners who choose a £3 million-plus property an Aston Martin mobility scooter, Bugatti stairlift and restaurant menu offering caviar and lobster.