Our ongoing series of exclusive interviews with senior figures from across the UK’s new homes industry continues as we take a look at the retirement sector and speak to Sarah Burgess, who is at the helm of specialist developer Retirement Villages.
Sarah, please tell us a little about yourself and Retirement Villages
My career has been spent in the residential property industry, in both estate agency and land and new homes, with a special focus on the retirement housing market. I joined Retirement Villages in 2006 as sales and marketing director. I am now managing director, RV Property Holdings Ltd, and responsible for overseeing the group’s marketing activity including all property sales, both new and pre-owned. This encompasses the in-house agency service, acting for residents and their families at the time their property is sold.
Retirement Villages was one of the pioneers of age-exclusive retirement living 35 years ago and now operates 14 villages across the UK. Villages offer independent living options in apartments, cottages and bungalows, with the benefit of care and support to meet the changing needs of our target audience as they age. This ranges from domiciliary care to residential nursing and dementia care in some villages.
Purpose-built retirement villages are climbing the housing agenda - how has the sector changed in your time in the industry?
The demand for age-exclusive retirement developments has grown immensely. As people are now living longer, there is an increasing need to offer continuing care to meet their needs. Increasing numbers are choosing to downsize in retirement and are seeking the peace of mind that comes from living with like-minded people where support is on hand should it be needed.
Our challenge is to ensure that we provide the highest level of quality accommodation, specially adapted to support them should they become more frail; extensive communal facilities and customer service to enable residents to enjoy a fulfilling retirement lifestyle without many of the daily chores associated with living in a large family home that needs constant maintenance. We are, however, noticing that improved healthcare means that people are choosing to make the retirement village move later in life.
What developments is Retirement Villages currently working on?
We currently operate 14 villages across Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire and Warwickshire. In some of those we are working on new build phases.
At Elmbridge Village for instance, which is our original village developed some 35 years ago, we are undertaking a multi-million pound project to deliver a brand new, magnificent communal clubhouse called Elmbridge Manor, with a wide range of facilities for residents; plus a selection of new apartments.
Additional new build properties are also under construction at Lime Tree Village near Rugby and Charters Village, East Grinstead. Other completely new villages are on the drawing board for early construction in East Sussex, Kent and Essex, with more in the pipeline.
How is the company's philosophy reflected in the homes it produces?
We want all our residents to live as fulfilling a retirement lifestyle as possible. Villages are vibrant places with lots of special interest groups; events and organized functions. Residents can dip in and out of the social calendar as they see fit. Essentially, we encourage residents to shape the retirement lifestyle they want. We simply provide a range of options.
We are committed to remaining contemporary but practical in our property development. Our target audience is very discerning. They expect high standards including the landscaping and grounds; build quality; external and internal finish; communal facilities; customer service and above all, warmth and care from all our staff. They are the standards we set ourselves as a business and work hard to ensure we reflect that across everything we do.
Is the homeowning public growing more aware of the benefits of moving to specially designed developments for retirees?
When Retirement Villages first launched, the idea of a village for retired people seemed radical – but over the years as more and more operators have seen the business potential and recognized the demographic need, the general public has become increasingly aware of this lifestyle.
We have been featured on a wide range of television programmes; newspaper articles and in lifestyle and property magazines over the years. The concept is no longer ‘new’ – and is now considered to be a realistic option in retirement for more and more couples and individuals.
How does the buying process differ in this sector than in others in the new homes market?
We don’t just sell a property, we also sell a range of services which we operate for the long term after the sale is completed. This could involve the employment of over 100 staff in some larger villages with full care facilities and requires knowledgeable staff to assist potential customers.
Traditionally our buyers will take much longer to make the decision to move into a retirement property. We have customers visiting our villages maybe as much a half a dozen times before committing to a purchase, this can be over a number of years. This allows us the opportunity to explain the lifestyle, services and associated costs to them and their families making sure they are happy with their decision.
At some of our villages we offer a complimentary ‘Try Before You Buy’ option which is a real eye opener for those not sure if the lifestyle is for them. They stay with us for a night or possibly two and experience first-hand the lifestyle, join in activities, also talking to existing residents about their experiences before committing to buy.
Is the disposal of an existing, much-loved property more of a concern for your buyers and is there any help you can provide?
This is perhaps the biggest challenge for older people – moving on from their existing family home. It means decluttering a lifetime of acquisitions but in our experience, once that exercise is completed, many residents then find the whole experience quite liberating. We support purchasers throughout the move offering assistance with planning, packing and the move itself. Introducing them to people who have already been through the process can also prove reassuring and we do invite future purchasers to meet existing residents at various events and functions in our villages.
Do you get any feedback from owners on your sites about how the move has really changed their lives?
We are just undertaking a huge residents survey – the findings of which will be published later this year – but it is clear that a majority of our residents feel that opting for this lifestyle has changed lives; provided more peace of mind; new friends; and opened up new opportunities. Our residents are our best ambassadors.
What's in the pipeline for Retirement Villages over the next year or so?
In addition to the regular routine of re-selling units when residents leave, and selling the village extensions we have in construction, Retirement Villages has some exciting opportunities partnering with other developers providing management, branding and specialist expertise. We have started work on site at Gradwell Park near Lewes in East Sussex, a new small village comprising 40 properties and a 40-bed care home with daycare facilities, overlooking the South Downs National Park. We also have new sites in Essex and Kent which will be progressed over the coming months with more to follow before the year end.