Once the Cinderella of the residential property market, the upper end of the retirement sector is now one of its fastest growing areas, thanks to the emergence of a new breed of dynamic, well-heeled ’empty nesters’, whose aim is to live longer, stay healthier and do more in later life than previous generations. Oxfordshire based Beechcroft (01491 825522) is one of a select band of specialist developers that has weathered bouts of turbulence in the mainstream market by monitoring changing trends in ‘senior living’ and adapting its property range accordingly. Sales and marketing director Angela South explains: ‘One of the major changes we’ve seen is that the average age of purchasers is decreasing, and although the buyer profile remains more or less the same, many are now prepared to ‘down size’ at an earlier age. We have people in their forties and fifties, single or divorced as well as couples, who want to trade down or across from a large detached property to a secure private community of like minded people. ‘Most want fewer bedrooms rather than less living space, so they can bring their own furniture with them.

Many already own second homes abroad, or are down sizing to release equity for investment in a property overseas, so they appreciate the services of an estate manager, who collects mail, checks that everything is in order, and maintains the gardens, so that owners don’t come home to scruffy lawns and beds knee deep in weeds.’ Planning legislation on designated retirement developments usually requires that properties be occupied by people aged 55-plus. So, in order to accommodate the growing band of ‘junior’ empty nesters, the company has introduced a range of customised developments that are unrestricted in terms of the owner’s age, but carry a covenant preventing children under 16 living there full-time, ‘thus ensuring a peaceful community of like-minded people’.

Such a community is evolving at Beechcroft’s latest flagship scheme, Douces Manor at West Malling, Kent, where the original 18th-century manor house is being converted to six large luxury apartments, with a further 18 elegant three-and four-bedroom courtyard houses to be built using stonework taken from the original walled garden. Prices of properties currently available range from £765,000 for a manor-house apartment to £860,000 for the four-bedroom courtyard show house. No developer has done more to upgrade the depressing ‘granny-stacker’ image of the traditional retirement complex than English Courtyard (01483 227570), which was founded in the 1970s, and now has more than 35 established schemes in 20 counties around England. Marketing director Carol Geddes reveals that ‘typical English Courtyard purchasers are people in their seventies moving from a substantial family home with a large garden, where they have probably lived for 40 years or more. Most are professionals accountants, lawyers, architects, university professors, musicians, high-flying former civil servants or from a military background, and their children are likely to be high-fliers too.

‘The main reasons for moving are finding their present house too much to manage, declining health or, on the positive side, the wish to live nearer to their children or grandchildren. Soaring utility bills and increased awareness of ecological issues are also making people think twice about heating empty rooms or driving miles down country lanes whenever they need something from the shops.’ Down-sizing is seen as the sensible thing to do, but it needn’t mean a drop in living standards, Miss Geddes points out. Most English Courtyard developments are built in village locations or within the conservation areas of historic towns and cities. Typical sites are the former farmyards of large landed estates; the stables, walled gardens and grounds of large private houses; former institutions such as workhouses, care homes or schools; or interesting industrial buildings such as disused breweries, cornmills or sawmills. Developments currently for sale include Carysfort Close at Elton, Cambridgeshire, where 17 houses and apartments have been built in local stone on the site of a former sawmill belonging to the Elton estate. Prices of the eight remaining properties start at £324,500. At St Mary’s Court, Old Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 15 houses and apartments have been built on land from the Hall Barn estate; five remain for sale, priced from £490,000.

Stuart Court at Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, is a former Victorian rectory converted into four apartments, with 22 new properties in the grounds; five remain, at £415,000 upwards. The latest English Courtyard development, launched tomorrow, is the Old Stack Yard at Fulbourn, near Cambridge a small but beautifully conceived development of nine properties, including two four-bedroom houses, on the site of a former stack yard in the centre of this popular village.