Retirement villages go cool

Last updated 05:00 17/08/2012
retirement village
HIGHER STANDARDS: People are expecting - and getting - more from today's retirement village accommodation.

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The individually designed units in New Zealand's first large retirement village were pretty comfortable.

The sunny units at Parkwood, about an hour from Wellington, ranged from 70 to 110 sq m, then about the average size for a new house, with a decent-sized master bedroom and guest room. It was the early 1970s so nobody expected ensuites or wifi for their iPads. That was then.

When the newest units were built about fifteen years ago the standard floor was 142 sq m with some units reaching 160 sq m. Older units were being puffed up with ensuites and open showers and walls were being knocked out for open plan living areas.

"There is the odd bath floating around because that is what people want but they'll be whipped out as soon as the next person comes," says manager Mark Rouse.

He mentions the new shared swimming pool, the gym, and the popular yoga classes. "At some point in the future I would expect wifi in our social centre."      

If Parkwood, a charity, feels the need to upgrade, the pressure is greater on stock-market-listed retirement villages such as Summerset, Ryman and Metlifecare. New developments have barely paused for breath during years of widespread slump for ordinary residential construction.

"Ryman is the fourth biggest residential builder in the country," says John Collyns of the Retirement Villages Association. "We are signing up new villages every two or three weeks."

Statistics NZ began tracking new retirement units in 2009 after it noticed an upwards surge. Since then developers have built almost 2,000 new units worth a combined $263 million.

Half of them were built in the last year, says Collyns. Forget students. In some months, every new apartment built in New Zealand was for retirees.              

"The whole social area of a village is undergoing quite a substantial re-think," says Collyns.

"Restaurants and cafes are now very common, and libraries and computer rooms and decent cinemas are quite standard in the new villages."

"The residents are physically younger and fitter, more astute, they have more cash the bank and higher expectations than previous generations," says architect Rob Campbell of Christchurch company Foley.

"There is a distinction between care homes and lifestyle developments [that] are almost following the American gated community models," he says. At the latter "You bring your bike and your car and you get out and about."

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There are bars and decent restaurants. "You almost want to speed up your own retirement to get into them," says Campbell.

Architect Peter Eising of Pacific Environments in Auckland reels off a list of amenities he has designed into villages: restaurants, blokes' sheds, a plant nursery, an aerobics room, and, in the units, two or three bedrooms, big living areas, dressing rooms and studies with computers.

Collyns say wifi will soon be ubiquitous. "They (residents) have got all the time in the world to do a lot more exploration on Facebook," says Eising.

At Waitakere Gardens in west Auckland, built in 2003, he saw one of the best-equipped workshops he had ever come across. "The trade's people - builders, plumbers, gas fitters or whatever - bring tools of the trade out there and potter away," he says. "Things have changed a lot."

In Japan, where families are shrinking and longevity outstrips even other highly developed countries, the Shiawase-No-Mura ('The Village of Happiness') in Kobe combines housing for older people with two college campuses: one for senior citizens within the village and from Kobe, and one for people of working age. The facility was used as temporary housing after an earthquake in 1994, and afterwards, the older people petitioned to stay there, apparently because they liked the company.

In New Zealand, for much the same reason, retirees have defied naysayers who said they would never live off the ground.

Eising says pundits were surprised at the speed with which people bought units in four and six level apartment blocks such as Waitakere Gardens.

While residential houses in the suburbs are designed to keep privacy and distance, many new villages were deliberately designed so that people would bump into each other.

After all, for all the bells and whistles on offer, the most common reason to move to a village is companionship. Collyns says most of New Zealand's 23,000 plus retirement village residents are over-70, widowed, and women.

The vibrant, hassle-free, lifestyles depicted in the brochures are highly appealing and designed to be so. So much so that in 2006, the Social Policy Journal of New Zealand felt moved to warn people that a village was not a panacea, despite what the advertising might hint at.

"Living in an age-segregated community is not for everyone, nor is it an antidote for ageing," it said.

Still, the sheer weight of numbers is on villages' side. There will be 1.2 million over-65s in 2036, a quarter of the population, according to latest Statistics NZ population projections.

Even if villages remain a niche option (only about five per cent of over-65s lived in them a decade ago) more people are going to be living there, says Judith Davey, a research associate at the Institute for Government and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

With home ownership falling, her worry is not that the villages will be substandard but that many people will not be able to afford them. Most people cannot buy in to one without selling a decently-priced home.

Charitably-run villages tend to be cheaper than commercial ones, but make up only about 20 per cent of units (about 60 per cent are chain-owned, the rest privately run).

"We don't have that kind of intermediate sheltered housing in anything like the numbers that we are going to need," says Davey. "We have either got rest homes, retirement villages or mainstream housing."

Collyns says it is not clear whether baby boomers will take to retirement villages in the same proportions as the generation before them. They are healthier, more independent and more likely to work longer than any over-65s before them, and they may well make different choices.

But for those who can afford it, the sales pitch is firmly on. Baby boomers with savings and good equity in their homes do not want to live in houses like the one pictured in one of Davey's reports: a 1950s home in Takapuna with a tiny sink and almost no kitchen bench space, pitifully extended by two built-in wooden chopping boards.

And why would they, when they can live at Silverstream, an upmarket village under development in Papanui boasting expansive granite bench tops, open plan living, dishwashers, heated floors and flat screen televisions. Oh, and a communal spa, a Zen garden, and a pool table.

Slice of Heaven
If holding the legal title to a little slice of the universe is very important to you, most retirement villages will probably not suit you. In a typical scenario, someone sells their house in suburbs for, say, $600,000, buys a two bedroom unit for $350,000, and banks the difference, says Collyns. "You never actually own the unit, what you get is an occupation agreement to live in the unit as long as you want to.

When you move out, you are repaid a guaranteed amount and you might lose 20 or 30 per cent of original purchase price as a deferred management fee." Residents pay a weekly fee, typically about $100-120, towards wages and maintenance and buy their own food and other consumables.

Some villages offer residents a share in capital gains, but most do not. The ownership structure caused problems after the Christchurch earthquakes, when entire villages were condemned and could not be re-built.

"Nobody ever contemplated the total destruction of a village. It was assumed villages would get insurance and rebuild," says Judith Davey, research associate at Victoria University Institute for Government and Policy Studies.

"If villages paid people out what they paid when they went in less 30 per cent, they certainly wouldn't have enough to re-house themselves."

The retirement village industry found new homes for about 90 displaced people, offering cheaper prices and preferential access to lending, says John Collyns, of the Retirement Villages Association. But it was a distressing experience for residents to be reliant on goodwill. "Since then we have been working with Government to get the code of practice amended so that if a village is destroyed and not rebuilt the residents gets the full capital sum," says Collyns.

Davey says the licence ownership structure is a barrier for people who want to keep their title or benefit from capital gains. "A lot of people don't understand it or don't like it because we have such a strong property-owning tradition."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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